Africa's brain gain

For many migrants and refugees the old adage that “you can’t go home again” is painfully true. Having left their roots to forge a new life they may discover that while they are seen as interlopers in their new home, there is often a sense of disconnection from their old home.

S’tha Ngwenya is a lawyer who fled Zimbabwe for both political and economic reasons. Experiencing xenophobia here in South Africa he says “I feel stateless—I don’t know where to go.” Given our strong democratic constitution, Ngwenya thought people would be more accepting of foreigners in South Africa.
“I feel like I don’t belong anywhere,” says S’tha Ngwenya, a lawyer who fled Zimbabwe for both political and economic reasons. “I feel stateless—I don’t know where to go.”

S’tha left Zimbabwe in 2006 and settled in Botswana where he worked until 2009. “The system there is very xenophobic - it was very difficult to be admitted as attorney. The way people treated you in the street was as if you had no value. I thought people here would be more accepting as this is more of a part of the global village and you have one of the best constitutions in the world.”

He was disappointed in the reality. “There’s a lot of stereotyping of foreigners: as soon as you introduce yourself as a Zimbabwean they think you are a robber. They seem to blame foreigners for every evil that befall them in their lives.”

He puts it down to a lack of political leadership and a failure by the government to deliver on the promise of those heady, early years of the Rainbow Nation.

“The problem arises from the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in SA, and most of the poor happen to be black. In 1994 there was a lot of optimism. But now they have failed to deliver much for the poor black person in the street, and obviously a politician always has to find a scapegoat. I think there are political elements inciting poor black people to attack foreigners. It’s a diversionary tactic, to deflect attention from their failure to deliver - so they blame the foreigners.”

He seems bewildered that a country that talks so much about the brain drain, has so little interest in the “brain gain” that African migrants bring.

“They are oblivious that many foreigners bring exceptional skills that are in short supply in this country. On the other end of the spectrum, foreigners are willing to do the dirty jobs that South Africans don’t want to do - this is a market economy after all.” But even as a qualified attorney, S’tha is having trouble breaking into the South African legal fraternity - he is now thinking of using his skills to do advocacy work for an NGO.

S’tha believes that South Africa’s laws and its people are not on the same page: “You can have the world’s best constitution, but you also need to build a culture of democracy and tolerance in line with that constitution. The rule of law is very important - and government is failing to protect foreigners from citizens who think they are above the law.”

He also thinks it helps to step back and take a long view of the situation: “Migration has been happening since time immemorial. The United States was built as a nation of immigrants. Migration happens. Fact.”


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