Ongolo Proud African

Totsiens! Why are so many South Africans emigrating?

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
8 October 2021

Nearly 900k South Africans emigrated from the rainbow nation between 2000-2020, with more than half choosing to settle in the United Kingdom and Australia. Other popular destinations included the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany, though some South Africans chose to stay close to home by moving to neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Recent data indicates that international migration from the most developed African nation, has steadily increased since the historic elections in 1994, when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first black president. One cannot help but wonder what is driving so many South Africans away? The most common reasons cited include political uncertainty, rampant corruption, high crime rates, deteriorating standards of living as load shedding becomes more prevalent, and limited employment opportunities. Prolonged lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have made matters worse, forcing South Africans with dual nationality, especially those who obtained EU passports using familial ties, to pack their bags for good.

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South African emigration statistics, 2000-2020. Data from Statista

There is a common misconception that the biggest group of migrants are white South Africans. Between 2002 and 2017, there was a “net loss” of 62k white people – about 1.5% of the total racial group population. That is an average of 4k white South Africans leaving annually and represents 17% of an estimated 23k South African emigrants this year. White South Africans are not only economic migrants but are also the majority of high-net-worth individuals who left after the introduction of the 2017 South African Income Tax Act. According to the Knight Frank 2021 Wealth Report, the number of high-net-worth individuals in South Africa (with assets over $1 million) declined by 12%, from 50,823 in 2015 to 44,605 in 2020. Similarly, 18% of ultra-high-net-worth individuals moved as well, declining from 910 to 742 over the same period.

What does not get reported as much are the other racial groups that are leaving South Africa. About 11k South African Jews have migrated to Israel, motivated by both economic and political reasons, as South African politicians have become increasingly anti-Israel. Middle-class black South Africans are also leaving after becoming delusioned by the failure of the ruling Africa National Congress (ANC) to bring meaningful economic changes to the majority. Black professionals trying to escape racism in the corporate world at home now outnumber white South Africans working abroad. The United Kingdom was the first preference however tightening immigration laws post-Brexit has made Canada the next best thing for qualified professionals. Data is limited on other racial groups in South Africa.

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Emigrants tend to the most economically-productive members of society

It has been estimated that for every professional coming into South Africa, at least eight are leaving. This has resulted in a severe economic “brain drain” as copious amounts of money, skills and other resources depart the economy. So what is the government doing to resolve the matter? Not much, it seems. Back in 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a pre-election campaign drive, issued a plea for the youth to stay, calling South Africa a country with a place for everyone. “I want you here in this country,” he said at the time.  But little has been done since to incentivize people to stay and the economic environment is becoming even more challenging. At what point will the government realise that a crisis is looming?

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