Jonathan Crush, David McDonald, Vincent Williams, Robert Mattes,
Wayne Richmond, C.M. Rogerson and J.M. Rogerson

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 18

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.

Many countries, South Africa included, are in a panic about skills emigration -  the so-called “brain drain.”[i] One business-oriented institute even thinks that South Africa’s skills shortage is so “desperate” that the country should immediately throw open its borders to anyone who wishes to enter.[ii] Yet most South Africans are ambiguous about the wisdom of using immigration policy to offset skills loss.[iii]  Immigration, no matter how selective and tightly controlled, arouses nationalist passions and causes moral panics.

Anti-immigrationists argue that governments are supposed to protect citizens from “outsiders”; not let them in to compete with locals for jobs and resources.[iv]   Even the most liberal immigration countries have strong and vigorous anti-immigration lobbies.   In fact, if immigration policy were driven purely by the wishes of citizens, there would be very little legal immigration in the modern world.  Why then do some governments go against the popular will and their own constituencies in encouraging immigration?  Presuming that they are not acting totally irrationally, they appear to believe that immigration and the interests of citizens are not always incompatible.

South Africa is hampered by a very clouded and unsavoury immigration history.[v]  Before 1994, immigration policy was a naked instrument of racial domination.   There was also considerable emigration during the apartheid years,  but emigration rarely exceeded immigration (Figure 1.1).   What has happened to immigration and emigration since 1994?  Government data certainly underestimates the extent of emigration.  A recent study by the SANSA project at UCT shows that over 233,000 South Africans emigrated permanently to five countries - the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - between 1989 and 1997.[vi]

Is it possible that skills emigration is being offset by a proactive immigration policy and recruiting of skilled foreigners to make up for the “brain drain”?  On the contrary, immigration has fallen significantly since the early 1990s.  In 1993, South Africa let in 9,800 immigrants.  By 1997, the number had more than halved, to only 4,100.  These figures raise some pointed questions.

The SAMP survey of South African emigration intentions reported in Chapter 1 of this publication suggests that the brain drain is unlikely to slow over the next decade, and that black South Africans are as likely to leave as white South Africans.  This represents a potentially significant drain of human capital.  While politicians, the media and business bemoan these patterns of emigration, there is not much they can do about it.  The constitution guarantees that no restrictions will be placed on the free movement of South Africans to greener pastures.

As South Africa engages in an active nation-building process, there is a danger of a misleading idea taking hold; i.e. that nation building means no immigration should be permitted.  This, of course, may be one reason for the dramatic decline in immigration since 1994.   The thinking of the Minister of Home Affairs on these matters was recently revealed in the Draft White Paper on International Migration.   What is striking about the White Paper is its emphasis on control, on keeping people out, on removing those who South Africans don’t want.  There is little systematic consideration of the potential role of immigration as a tool of economic and social policy.[vii]

The White Paper misses the opportunity to initiate a public debate on the possible benefits for South Africa of legal immigration, but also encourages South African citizens to take up an anti-immigrationist stance. The White Paper does, however, recognise the virtues of greater freedom of temporary residence and work in South Africa; and for that the drafters are commended.

The lack of encouragement of public debate is not merely a sin of omission.  The Draft White Paper actually advances a misleading argument about why immigration is supposedly undesirable for South Africa.  Canada and New Zealand, we are told, encourage immigrants because they have lots of space and not many people.  South Africa, in contrast, has too many people and not enough space; South Africa should thus stop all immigration.  In fact, neither Canada nor New Zealand sees immigration primarily as a tool to boost population numbers.

These two countries don’t recruit South Africans at random -- they target the most skilled, trained, experienced and entrepreneurial.  Innovative and hard-working immigrants add massive value to the new economy and society.  Their net impact is hugely positive for national economic development and the citizenry.

South Africa is shedding skills at a worrying rate to its global competitors.  These countries have no compunction about creaming off skilled people from other countries.  Why should South Africa be that different?  Why should it not also gain massive value from a selective immigration policy that targets the brightest and best of other countries?

There are two legitimate fears that need to be addressed.  First, it has been argued that this policy would simply be a recipe for renewed European immigration.  However, the facts show that the majority of immigrants to the western “immigrant recruiting nations” are no longer from Europe.  These countries are drawing skills globally, including from Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Perhaps South Africans would feel morally queasy about “robbing” other developing countries.  The point is that these are people in those countries who are looking to leave anyway.  If South Africa is not one of the options, they will just go elsewhere.

Second, there is the argument that immigrants deprive locals of jobs.  However, when it comes to skilled immigrants, most of the evidence suggests the opposite.  They create enterprises and jobs for locals, they enhance the productivity of existing enterprises and they pass on valuable skills and experience.

We raise these issues not to prescribe an immigration policy but to initiate debate.  What we suggest is much greater public and official discussion about the pros and cons of skills immigration and its advantages and disadvantages for South Africa.  Nation-building and immigration are not mutually incompatible.  In some circumstances, they may actually be mutually reinforcing.

The existence of the Draft White Paper on International Migration provides a good opportunity for these issues to be raised and publicly debated.  Uncontrolled immigration is in no-one’s best interests.  But a selective immigration policy could be critical in offsetting the brain drain and injecting new ideas, innovations and energies into the country.  Without such a debate, insularity and exclusive nationalism will win the day.   This will not be in the best interests of South Africans.

In order to put this debate on a sound footing, rigorous research is required into the so-called “skills crisis” in South Africa.  To this end, the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) in 1998-9 embarked on a major research project on skills migration to and within the SADC region. Amongst the products of this activity are a major report on the development of an immigrant selection system for South Africa;[viii] a forthcoming special issue of the journal Africa Insight on skills migration in SADC and several survey reports.  The two papers in this publication are the first products of the survey component of the project.

As this research was getting under way, the South African public was presented with two very contradictory messages about the brain drain.  First, in a much-publicized speech in September 1998, President Nelson Mandela was reported as saying that those who were emigrating from South Africa were cowardly and unpatriotic and that the country was pleased to see the back of them.[ix]   At around the same time, the Sunday Times published the results of a misleading readership survey which seemed to show that nearly 75% of skilled South Africans would quit the country in the near future.[x]These claims do not stand up to the research results reported here.[xi]

The objective of the first report was to gauge the dimensions of the “brain drain” from South Africa and to ascertain whether the drain would escalate into a chronic and damaging skills shortage.  The second, complementary, report analyses the results of a survey of South African employers on their attitudes towards the actual and potential loss of skilled personnel.  The investigation was designed to assess the hiring practices, attitudes and responses of enterprises towards the skills shortage in key areas of the economy.

Chapter 1 reports the results of the first survey, a representative national sample of skilled South Africans.  This is the first survey of its kind and provides invaluable insights into the attitudes and stay-go intentions of skilled South Africans.  The authors point out that there is a great deal of hearsay surrounding the reasons why people leave.  They suggest that even if it is true that crime, violence and declining public services are responsible, we still need to ask what distinguishes those who go from those who stay.

Predicting exactly how many skilled people will emigrate from South Africa in the future is not a precise science.  Even if a person says they want to leave, there is no certainty that they actually will. The authors therefore develop the concept of potential for emigration, which is not the same thing as a firm prediction of future emigration patterns and trends.

 Emigration potential consists of several different elements.  To what extent has a skilled person even considered the idea? To what extent do they actually want to emigrate?  To what extent do factors outside their control affect the likelihood of leaving?  Exactly when do they plan to leave? What preparatory measures have they taken?


A distinction is necessary between temporary and permanent movement (or emigration).  There is no sense decrying a “brain drain” if skilled people intend to return to South Africa.  Permanent movement on the other hand is clearly indicative of a brain drain.

 The main findings of the study are as follows:

The second survey reported here shifted the focus from interviewing individual South Africans to interviewing employers.  The main findings of this survey of 200 public and private sector enterprises were as follows:

Taken together, these two SAMP surveys provide unprecedented insights into South Africa’s brain drain and, in so doing, challenge many popular misconceptions.  Their publication will, we hope, provide a sound basis for a rational debate on immigration policy and the development of a sound and workable alternative to current policy and continued anti-immigrant restrictionism.

[i]          Bill Gould, “Skilled International Labour Migration: An Introduction” Geoforum 19(4) (1988): 381-85.      

[ii]          Centre for Development and Enterprise, Response to the White Paper on International Migration in Respect of Skilled Migration (Johannesburg, 2000).

[iii]         Robert Mattes, Donald Taylor, David McDonald, Abigail Poore and Wayne Richmond, “South African Attitudes to Immigrants and Immigration” In David McDonald, ed., On Borders: Perspectives on International Migration in Southern Africa (Cape Town and New York: SAMP and St Martin’s Press, 2000).

[iv]         Wayne Cornelius et al (eds.), Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994); Douglas Massey et al (eds.), World in Motion: Understanding International Migration at the End of the Millennium (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998); Jeanette Money, Fences and Neighbours: The Political Geography of Immigration Control (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).  The South African public is currently highly antagonistic to immigration; see Robert Mattes et al,  “South African Attitudes to Immigrants and Immigration.”

[v]          Sally Peberdy and Jonathan Crush, “Rooted in Racism: The Origins of the Aliens Control Act” In Jonathan Crush (ed.) Beyond Control: Immigration and Human Rights in a Democratic South Africa (Cape Town: Idasa Publishing, 1998); and Sally Peberdy, Selecting Immigrants: Nationalism and National Identity in South Africa’s Immigration Policies, 1910 to 1998 (PhD thesis, Queen’s University, 1999).

[vi]         Dave Kaplan, Jean-Baptiste Meyer and Mercy Brown, “Brain Drain: New Data, New Options,” Trade and Industry Monitor September 1999.

See the numerous analyses critical of the Draft White Paper posted at www.queensu.ca/samp

 [viii]        Vincent Williams, “Towards a Selection System for Skilled Immigration to South Africa” SAMP Migration Policy Brief, 2000.

[ix]         “Good Riddance, Mandela Tells Them Where to Go” Business Day 25 September 1998.

[x]          Andrew Gill, “74% with Skills Want to Quit South Africa” Sunday Times 13 September 1998.

[xi]        Robert  Mattes, Wayne Richmond and David McDonald, “Before You Wave Them Goodbye” Daily News 1 October 1998.