Fears that SA’s brain drain trickle will turn into a torrent

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Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) chief executive James Formby says that thousands of skilled people are leaving South Africa every year, leaving major gaps in sectors highlighted by president Cyril Ramaphosa as key to the country’s economic recovery.

Speaking to Capetalk, Formby said it was difficult to assess exactly how many people have left the country – as the government does not track emigration data – meaning analysts have to use other countries’ information to piece together statistics.

“The only way you can actually do it is to look at South Africans that are living in other countries and try and piece it together over long-term numbers.”

A government White Paper on International Migration, which looks to keep tabs on SA citizens outside of the country and to try and limit the number of people looking to leave, was released in 2016.

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The Paper pointed out that emigration has been increasing by about 9% year-on-year, with more and more black professionals looking to leave.

Stats SA Stats in Brief report, published the same year, showed that countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, and the USA have absorbed a great number of South Africans over the past few years.

Anecdotal evidence

“The best estimate is around 23,000 people leaving per year, but anecdotal evidence is showing it is higher,” said Formby.

Formby said that these South Africans are not necessarily looking for opportunities and ‘greener pastures’ in other countries, with many simply ‘terrified of what’s happening in their own backyard.’

In a separate interview with BusinessDay, Formby said that the country is losing qualified and experienced people in their 30s and 40s to positions overseas.

This is especially the case for skills in the infrastructure and development sectors, which have been highlighted by president Cyril Ramaphosa as key to the country’s recovery.

Erosion of SA skills base

Formby added that it was extremely difficult to bring skilled people into the country which has led to an erosion in the country’s skill base – a serious issue flagged by RMB.

“For example, the South African Medical Association did research on medical specialists… and 38% of them said they would leave if NHI was fully implemented.”

“That uncertainty isn’t the kind of uncertainty you want for those specialist skills because it takes years to develop and they need to train, in turn, the people that come after them,” the RMB chief pointed out.

Formby said that around 1.7% of civil engineers have left the country in the last few years. 

“If we want an infrastructure-led recovery in this economy it’s critical to make sure that we stem that tide.”

The lack of opportunities locally are also forcing people to look outside of the country.

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