South Africa's New White Flight

No one should be surprised to read that Zimbabwe has suffered massive emigration in recent years, especially among its white minority. But much less expected is the fact that next-door South Africa, the continent's wealthiest and most developed country, is suffering a brain drain of its own (if on a smaller scale).

The South African government doesn't keep reliable emigration statistics. But even as the global financial crisis has caused emigration from most other countries to slow, a number of recent independent studies show that mass departures from South Africa are ongoing and are sapping the nation of its skilled and best-educated young citizens. The most dramatic figures can be found among South African whites, who are leaving at a pace consistent with the advent of "widespread disease, mass natural disasters or large-scale civil conflict," according to a report by the South African Institute on Race Relations. Some 800,000 out of a total white population of 4 million have left since 1995, by one count. But they're hardly alone. Blacks, coloreds (as people of mixed race are known in South Africa) and Indians are also expressing the desire to leave. In the last 12 years, the number of blacks graduating in South Africa with advanced degrees has grown from 361,000 to 1.4 million a year. But in that time the number of those expressing high hopes to emigrate has doubled.

This wasn't supposed to happen. In many ways, the new South Africa has lived up to its promise of racial harmony and equitable development; its enlightened Constitution, progressive economic policies, and wealth of human and natural resources have all kept it relatively stable since apartheid was swept away in 1994. But that stability could be jeopardized if its human capital keeps leaving at the current rate. South Africa has undergone massive swings in emigration for decades, including since the end of white rule. The shifts can be linked to changes in political stability and economic opportunity, as well as less worrisome factors like simple wanderlust. And all these same factors are at work now, but they've been accentuated by a violent crime epidemic, serious political upheaval and economic globalization. A poll conducted last May among 600 people of different races, ages and genders found that 20 percent were planning to leave the country. "We are now seeing a new tipping point for an exodus," warned another report from Future Fact, a polling agency. "But this time [it's] across-the-board in terms of race."

The primary driver for emigration among all groups, but especially whites, who still retain the majority of South Africa's wealth, is fear of crime. With more than 50 killings a day, South Africa has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world. The same goes for rape—ranking the country alongside conflict zones such as Sierra Leone, Colombia and Afghanistan. Future Fact polling indicates that more than 95 percent of those eager to leave South Africa rate violent crime as the single most important factor affecting their thinking. Lynette Chen, the ethnic-Chinese CEO of Nepad Business Group, is the only member of her family left in South Africa. Her parents departed in 2002 after being carjacked—twice. Her brother, also a victim of crime, followed suit shortly thereafter. "They're always getting homesick," she says. "But they won't come back unless the crime is reduced."

Another largely unnoticed problem is the growing number of attacks on South Africa's white farmers. As in neighboring Zimbabwe, some of the attacks appear to be racially motivated. Others seem simply opportunistic, but the result is that white farmers' numbers continue to decrease, leading to fears that despite the government's good intentions, a Zimbabwe-style crisis—where the flight of skilled farmers led to an agricultural collapse—is possible here too.

Then there's the problem of affirmative action, which many whites feel limits their opportunities for advancement and which keeps many émigrés from returning. "You can attract people home, but there are still the same concerns when they get here," Chen says. "Crime and lack of job opportunities if you're not the right color."

Still another factor driving out citizens of all races is the country's political crisis. National elections are due in April, and the likely next president, Jacob Zuma, faces a battery of serious corruption charges and accusations of autocratic behavior. Zuma's ruling ANC party has been split by a rebellion of former loyalists, and increasing numbers of South Africans express concern with the health of their young democracy. The leadership vacuum has also distracted attention from pressing national concerns like energy. Last spring the country was engulfed in rolling "brownouts" as the electric grid ground to a halt because of mismanagement.

For all these reasons, even the global economic slowdown hasn't been enough to keep qualified South Africans at home. Of the country's 25,000 registered accountants, fully a quarter now live overseas. Engineers, doctors, nurses and accountants are all in increasingly short supply. In February, Health Minister Barbara Hogan said South Africa's doctors are "constantly being poached" by places like Canada, Australia and the United States—among the most popular destinations for wealthy white émigrés. Banks and investment companies are forced to look for talent overseas, and Eskom, the disgraced national electricity provider, has recently begun scrambling to attract electrical engineers back home, but with little success.

The long-term effects of this exodus are already being felt in other critical ways. The vast majority of South Africa's emigrants are also the country's best and brightest. Compounding the problem is the fact that while South Africa has lenient policies toward admitting refugees from elsewhere in Africa, the import of skilled labor is still quite onerous—meaning that as more and more trained workers leave, there are fewer and fewer replacements. Pretoria needs new policies to balance these flows, says Debbie Milner of Future Fact. "Africa has a huge amount of skilled people in it, and many other African countries have better education systems than our own."

To succeed, post-racial South Africa also needs to move nonwhite professionals quickly up the ranks in all sectors of its economy, and the government's black-empowerment plan centers on ensuring that more of its citizens get advanced degrees. But as growing numbers of these graduates express a desire to follow their white colleagues out the door, the prospects for continued economic empowerment are dimming. "We were dumbfounded by the incredibly high numbers of people who claim they're seriously considering leaving South Africa," Milner says. While unemployment for whites has increased more than 100 percent since the end of apartheid, it remains as low as an average European country, between 7 percent and 8 percent. Joblessness among blacks, on the other hand, is hovering at around 50 percent. "If the qualified nonwhites are leaving too, that is pretty dire for black economic empowerment," Milner says.

To be fair, not all the signs point in one direction. The global economic downturn has led to anecdotal reports of South Africans returning from the once hot economies of Europe and North America. Others who were recently on the verge of leaving have now decided to stay put, in some cases when their offers were rescinded at the last moment. "I don't dispute that people have left—I just dispute the high figures," says Martine Schaffer of the Homecoming Revolution, an NGO that helps returnees with logistical difficulties and to get reacquainted with a country that may have changed significantly in their absence. "Nothing indicates that they've all emigrated permanently."

That may be true. But if Pretoria hopes to drive development, it needs to act fast to keep the South African exodus from gaining momentum. For starters, the new president should make fighting crime a priority. South Africa's affirmative-action program should also be re-examined and tweaked, perhaps to emphasize economic status rather than race. Whites between the ages of 20 and 35—currently the group most susceptible to emigration—should be allowed to compete more forcefully for jobs. Such measures won't stop emigration entirely, certainly not while the country's leadership crisis continues. But South Africa faces no great new natural disaster or a war. Its vital statistics need to begin to reflect that.