The curious case of the ex-South Africans

”You become an ex-South African the minute you step on the plane. South Africans view emigration as abandoning their country.”

These are the words of Martine Schaffer, managing director of Homecoming Revolution, a non-profit organisation that encourages and aids the return of skilled expatriates.

Schaffer estimates that two million South Africans live abroad – mostly in Australia, Canada and the United States. Each month, she says, about 200 of them contact her organisation for advice on how to come home. Emigration is not a uniquely South African phenomenon, she says, but nowhere else is the act of leaving so steeped in guilt.

Not everyone agrees. Some, like Hilary Alexander, simply go in search of adventure. The 37-year-old copywriter ”packed a backpack and left for London” in 1999 after realising that she was the only person at a workplace meeting who ”didn’t know what Leicester Square looked like”. Alexander didn’t imagine she would be going forever; she just wanted to see the world.

Alexander’s experience explains why it is so hard to find official statistics on emigration from South Africa. Many people do not plan to leave permanently, but they go and somehow end up staying.

The last official study by Statistics South Africa claimed 16165 people had left the country in 2003: a 48% increase from 10890 in 2002. The study did not analyse the causes of this increase.

According to the department of home affairs’ spokesperson, Siobhan McCarthy: ”Our movement control system is designed to track people leaving and entering [the country]. It doesn’t record why.”

Schaffer believes that fear is the biggest motivation for those who have made a conscious decision to emigrate: fear of crime, unemployment and political mayhem.

Brad Cossey, a 33-year-old programmer, left Johannesburg for Amsterdam last December, and lists his reasons as: ”The high crime rate and not much hope for political change.”

And 31-year-old Basharat Amien left for Canada in 2006, because, as a state-employed doctor, he was ”nearly broke”. He says ”50% of the doctors in Alberta and 62% in Saskatchewan are South Africans”.

Schaffer described to the Mail & Guardian the emigration trends that she has seen over the past decade. Although more black people are heading off these days, most emigrants are white, she says.

Schaffer attributes earlier waves of emigration to hysteria, generated by the political situation: ”The people who left in 2000 didn’t want this country to succeed. When the lights went out [in the Eskom crisis] they were celebrating.”

Schaffer says 2008 was the year of ”our biggest outflow”. The people who left at that point felt they had ”stuck it out and had given the country a chance. Then Polokwane happened, Zuma came into power, there was the Eskom crisis and they felt their fears became rational.”

The fact that so many expats now want to return can be attributed to the financial crisis and because South Africa has more entrepreneurial opportunities than elsewhere, says Schaffer.

Maria Marchetti-Mercer, head of psychology at the University of Pretoria, believes that stricter border and visa controls are another reason for the decline in emigration: ”In the big scheme of things there are lots of people moving all over the world. Countries, especially in Europe, don’t want [more] foreigners.”

Emigrants, it seems, realise that foreign pastures may not be as green as they once thought, but sometimes only one half of a couple wants to come home: expats have a high divorce rate.

Meanwhile, Alexander has returned to Cape Town after 10 years in London: ”You go to work in the morning and it’s pitch black and freezing cold. Every year I felt a stronger pull to come back to South Africa,” she says.

Being away from home was ”like walking for a long time with a stone in your shoe and you can’t shift it”. Now it’s as if ”someone has taken the stone out of my shoe”.

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