The brain drain can be South Africa’s gain

The departure of highly skilled professionals in South Africa creates big gaps in the workforce, but it also means that the international community values the country’s skills, and it makes space for young and diverse talent. 

Clicks’ Vikesh Ramsunder has announced he’s stepping down as chief executive for presumably greener pastures abroad, which has enabled the appointment of the group’s first black woman at the helm. 

Ramsunder was chief executive for three years and will step down at the end of December to take up a similar post at an Australian listed company; the pharmaceutical retailer said. 

He follows in the footsteps of other chief executives who have left South Africa and are now serving in senior roles in the UK and Australia.

Last year, IT and telecoms business leaders, former MTN chief executive Rob Shuter and Reunert executive Mark Taylor, left for the UK. Shuter is now the chief executive at BT Enterprise and Taylor now heads Ricoh International.  

Former Vodacom chief financial officer Till Streichert left South Africa to move to Spain, where he is now the chief financial officer of travel technology company Amadeus.

Stories of top executives leaving South Africa and the dreaded brain drain are common parlance, and surely the spectre of “human capital flight” crept in when Ramsunder announced his resignation. But all cannot be doom and gloom such departures are used as an opportunity for transformation.  

In the case of Clicks, Bertina Engelbrecht has been elected to succeed Ramsunder as the pharmaceutical group’s first black woman chief executive. Streichert left room for the appointment of new chief financial officer, Raisibe Morathi, who is a black woman, at Vodacom. 

Marisa Jacobs, a director at recruiter Xpatweb, said there are good examples of how the brain drain made way for needed transformation. 

“Every skill that leaves or enters South Africa creates opportunity. It is whether we choose to see this opportunity or focus on the negative and in so doing, create a negative narrative around skills migration,” said Jacobs. 

MTN’s Shuter’s exit made way for Ralph Mupita,, who was “his planned successor and a reflection of how a world-class board operates with foresight. The MTN non-executives’ strategy gives an excellent blueprint of foresight and succession planning. Where the correct talent is attracted and remains engaged, the rest often takes care of itself,” Jacobs said. 

The other side of the argument is that labour or skills shortages abroad have made South Africans attractive as they have sought-after skills. Jacobs agrees international recruiters go after skills and expertise. 

“National considerations like transformation are not part of their requirements. They want to recruit the best possible skills and South Africa has much to offer,” she said. 

Dawie Roodt, the chief economist at Efficient Group, said broad-based black economic empowerment (BB-BEE) policies contribute to professionals leaving South Africa. 

“There are certain groups in South Africa who do feel marginalised because of things like BEE policies and this is a contributor,” said Roodt. 

Roodt said South Africa’s skills and education levels are generally inferior to the rest of the world. However, ironically, South Africa has a high level of skills because South African universities compare well with the rest of the world. 

“Specifically, we have very qualified people in South Africa, specialists and CEOs, and that is where there is a shortage of skills internationally. So that is where the rest of the world is poaching our skills,” said Roodt. 

Jacobs says skills shortages abroad differ from country to country, but internationally experienced executives, engineers, IT professionals, chartered accountants, medical professionals, teachers and tradespeople are sought after. 

“Even now, there are shortages in the US and the UK for drivers, so we expect there to be more international mobility. We have so many South African top executives who have left South Africa through the years, achieving great success abroad. The world takes note and where executives are only compensated in rands, the move internationally and ability to earn hard currency and free from exchange control appeals to many.”

South Africa has also had its fair share of senior executive imports, who have been paid exorbitantly. Ian Moir, Woolworths former boss, was Scottish and he left the retailer’s balance sheet in a crippling state due to his David Jones misadventure. 

The Canadian-born former Sasol chief executive David Constable, who was the highest-paid CEO on the JSE, took home a whopping R50‑million a year. He took Sasol on a journey to the US with his Lake Charles Chemical Project.

Pick n Pay’s long-term chief executive Richard Brasher was imported from the UK.  

“More can certainly be done to make it easier to attract top talent to South Africa, especially when one considers the efforts of other countries. But we have done many work visas for what one can only describe as wins for the country,” said Jacobs. 

Anathi Madubela is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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Anathi Madubela
Anathi Madubela is a business journalist with a keen interest in the retail sector.

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