White South Africans head for home

After 10 years in London, the Short family packed their bags and moved back to South Africa, part of what experts say is a growing trend of white expatriates returning home.

“London was very good to us but it was never home,” said Julie Short, who met her husband Wallis in the British capital, where their two young daughters were born.

The couple were among the estimated 800 000 white South Africans who moved overseas, mainly to Britain, Australia and New Zealand, between 1991 and 2001, according to census data.

The exodus amounted to about 15% of South Africa’s white population. Some fled fearing the often gratuitously violent crime that erupted across the nation during the mid-1990s. Nearly 27 000 people were killed in 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela became president.

Others feared that in the new post-apartheid South Africa, they could be passed over for jobs or business opportunities as the government embarked on a programme of black economic empowerment.

But now the exodus appears to be slowing—and even reversing.

Census figures show the white population is at 4.5-million, the highest level since 1991.

The exact numbers of South Africans abroad are hard to determine, partly because many whites living overseas hold dual citizenship and are not counted as immigrants in their new countries.

But experts say many are now returning, especially as the economies of the rich world have stumbled.

“We know Europe is in trouble, the United States economy is weak as well,” said John Loos, an economist at First National Bank.

“So a large part of the global economy to where people often emigrate from South Africa is not performing well, jobs prospects are not good, and I think that that too is slowing the emigration rate.”

In contrast, South Africa’s economy has grown steadily since the first all-race elections in 1994.

Coming home
The country suffered a recession in 2009 that lasted only nine months and proved much softer than in the rest of the world.

While unemployment stands at about 25%, skilled professionals such as doctors, nurses and engineers are in high demand.

The Labour Department estimated in 2008 that South Africa needed 913 000 such professionals with “scarce skills” to fill current job openings.

That’s the target market for Homecoming Revolution, a website that aims to help South Africans abroad make the transition back home.

“Our aim is to focus on the scarce skills in South Africa—doctors and nurses, accountants, IT professionals—all the industries where we really need the expertise, we need leadership and we need strong international skills to come home and create jobs and help grow the economy,” said Brigitte Britten-Kelly, who runs the project.

That was the case for Wallis Short, a computer engineer who quickly found a job at a local company.

He said that for skilled professionals, opportunities abound, despite fears among some whites that South Africa’s affirmative action programme, known as black economic empowerment, will hurt their job prospects.

“I was really pretty confident that I would get a job even though there was BEE,” he said. “The thing is with a technical side, you cannot fill those positions with BEE candidates if they do not have the experience.”

South Africa still has a staggering crime rate, especially around Johannesburg. But violent crime has steadily declined—about 16 000 people were killed last year, though the violence is now concentrated in impoverished townships that are difficult to police.

In wealthier neighbourhoods, real estate agents say fewer and fewer people are selling their homes to emigrate.

The Short family is renovating a house in Johannesburg with a sprawling garden and pool, a far cry from the 75 square metres they shared in London—not to mention the nearly year-round sunshine.

“It was never the same quality of life that you will be able to have here,” said Julie Short. “We love being home, it’s great.” - AFP

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