/ 27 July 2008

‘More people returning to SA than leaving’

When South African native Nicky Prins lived in London, there was one television advertisement that always touched her heart.

When South African native Nicky Prins lived in London, there was one television advertisement that always touched her heart.

As part of an effort to encourage tourism, the South African government ran a commercial showing the country’s dramatic landscape, coupled with emotive music and excerpts from President Thabo Mbeki’s famous ”I am an African” speech.

”Sometimes I would cry when I watched it. It sort of brought on the emotions to a head, and you would think, ‘I really want to go home,”’ said the 34-year-old Prins, an economist who left South Africa eight years ago for better career opportunities.

A few months after she first saw the ad, she packed up her bags and came home.

Brain drain has plagued South Africa since the unravelling of apartheid in the early 1990s. Affluent, accomplished South Africans of all races, but whites in particular, still flood out of the country in search of adventure, better opportunities and an escape from crime.

But now some — like Prins — are returning.

Moving companies, real estate agents and nonprofit groups say more and more white South Africans in their late 20s and beyond are returning to South Africa. Hungry for their own culture, eager to raise children near their own families, and encouraged by their country’s economic potential, these adults are leaving their successful careers abroad for an uncertain future at home.

”We’ve been happy and enjoying ourselves ever since the day we’ve been back,” said Prins, who moved to Johannesburg last October. ”I felt like my quality of life improved dramatically.”

Prins and her boyfriend Mark Kirkness, a civil engineer, may not have made the decision to come home if weren’t for the Homecoming Revolution, one of several South African organisations dedicated to persuading expatriates to come back. Kirkness received a job offer after attending a career fair put on by the group, which also provides candid information about the South African economy, security conditions and crime, and hosts networking dinners and other events for those who have returned.

”We’ve certainly seen South Africans returning,” said Homecoming Revolution manager Martine Schaffer, who’s website draws 17 000 new visitors each month. ”At the beginning of this year, I think we have more people returning than leaving.”

The South African Department of Home Affairs says it does not track South Africans who move abroad and then return. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates more South Africans have been returning to the country since the late 1990s.

A spokesperson for Stuttafords Van Lines, the largest moving company in South Africa, said that for every person the company moves out of South Africa to the United Kingdom, it helps another 1,5 return. And the Come Back Home Campaign, a largely Afrikaner-run initiative similar to the Homecoming Revolution, says it’s seen a rise in the number of white South Africans looking for help with career advice, immigration papers and other tasks associated with moving home.

But in moments of national insecurity, like during South Africa’s power failures in December and the xenophobic attacks in May, the consistent flow of immigrants turns into a trickle.

”There was until about six months ago a very large influx of returnees,” said Brent Townes, CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty South Africa. ”It was the Soccer World Cup that got their attention. We had quite a few sales.”

White South Africans, who make up only 9% of South Africa’s population, leave the country for various reasons. Some seek professional opportunities, believing that their careers won’t advance as quickly in South Africa because of affirmative action policies meant to redress decades of discrimination against blacks. Others go looking for a short adventure and end up staying for years.

South Africans flock in the largest numbers to the United Kingdom, where many of British descent are eligible for ancestral visas. Others travel to Canada, the United States and Australia in smaller, but significant numbers. Many of those who leave want to return eventually.

Gregg Anderson (41) returned to South Africa from the United Kingdom a month ago. He originally wanted to stay away for only a few years, but found it hard to leave as his career in investment banking and the telecommunications industry picked up. Twelve years, a marriage and two kids later, he realised he had to make the move, even though it meant starting over with his career.

”I’ve had children and my perspective on life and my needs in life have changed,” Anderson said. ”I wanted a different way of life — the quality of life that the UK couldn’t afford me. ”The lifestyle here [in South Africa] is completely different. You’ve got vast open spaces, you’ve got scenery that you don’t get in the UK, and the weather is a major factor.”

The South African government recognises that white South Africans like Anderson have valuable skills, and is trying to persuade successful expatriates to invest in their country, even if they don’t come home.

The government has launched a programme called Global South Africans to encourage talented South Africans expatriates to share their skills and knowledge with their fellow citizens. And the office of the South African deputy president has launched similar initiatives to inspire South Africans to share their skills or return home.

But not everyone is receptive.

Louise Gardiner, a 31-year-old International Finance Corporation officer living in Washington, DC, says she often takes trips back to her native Cape Town, but that the ”general despondence” of friends and family has persuaded her not to return.

”Up until a year ago I thought I would eventually move back,” Gardiner said. ”But the violent crime, energy crisis, and just all around feeling of things getting worse made me think again. I love my country, but I don’t see a future there anymore.”

Schaffer says South Africans have created their own image problem, and she believes getting accurate information to people can help.

”Many of the issues in this country we have invented: that political instability doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world, that racism doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” she said. ”We need to look at these things and put them in context. We’re an emerging market and that should make us exciting. We have a wonderful country and we have to fight for it; we have to stand up for it.”

Many of the people the Homecoming Revolution helps return to South Africa are shocked to find it’s not the same place they left years ago.

Prices are higher, and some jobs in some industries are scarce. But for the most part, Schaffer says, most who return home are thrilled to be back.

”I’ve been back for a month now and I find it exhilarating,” said Anderson, who is now trying to start up his own business in Cape Town.

”It’s a beautiful country and there are immense opportunities here if you are patient and you just look around.” – Sapa-AP