The call of Canberra

2008-03-06 00:00

EDENDALE resident Fikile* doesn’t mince her words when it comes to crime and other problems facing South Africa.

“We survive only by the mercy of God,” she says. “People have no faith in the police.” In her view — substantiated by years of work in the NGO sector — police members often harass and intimidate victims of crime and take poor-quality statements which militate against successful prosecutions.

Like most South Africans, Fikile has also been touched by crime: her son was murdered. In August last year, her son-in-law and his children who were visiting South Africa from the United States were hijacked on arrival in the country. Five armed men drove the car off the road, held the family at gunpoint and robbed them of everything they had. Fikile’s grandchild was sent for trauma counselling.

“A case was opened, but we heard nothing,” she says.

Fikile doubts her daughter and highly qualified son-in-law will return to South Africa, largely because of the incident.

But there are other problems besides crime. Since 1994, Fikile believes there’s been a shift in attitudes. “People have lost the commitment to work. Rights have been misinterpreted ... There’s confusion among people who believe everything is free.

“Today, it’s all about making yourself rich and famous while the poor get poorer. And there’s corruption,” she says. “Once people at the top become corrupt, they set a precedent for others beneath them.”

Would she ever leave South Africa because of its problems? Not likely. Each of her overseas trips has confirmed for her the “amazing beauty” of her motherland and its richness, including economic wealth.

Then, there are her roots. “I was born here. Not everyone can emigrate. I’ve got roots here.”

Roots. Most black South Africans I speak to use the word to describe their sense of connection. But, among all of them — young and not-so-young — there is still keen interest in an overseas sojourn involving a well-paying job.

Unlike their white counterparts, black South Africans thinking about leaving are less concerned about the state of the country (“push” factors) than about experiencing something new and taking advantage of global employment opportunities (pull factors). One interviewee tells me that crime is unlikely to be a push factor for blacks because it’s always been part of their lives, but he wouldn’t turn down a well-paid job overseas.

Today, anecdotal evidence confirms that black South Africans are taking advantage of the fact that the world has opened up to those with skills. But whether they leave for good is impossible to establish.

By far the majority of people at the over-subscribed emigration seminar I attended this week in Pietermaritzburg were white, with Indians and coloureds making up about 15% of the audience.

Emigration consultant Michael Menezes was forced to delay the start of his presentation while more chairs were brought into the venue at a city hotel. “I’ve never had as big a crowd as this in Pietermaritzburg,” he said.

I estimated there were about 200 people across all age groups, most wanting to move to Australia. Last month alone, Menezes said he had signed up 160 families who qualify to emigrate.

Johannesburg-based migration consultant John Gambarana, who says his business has increased five-fold since December 2007, told me over the phone that when he comes to KwaZulu-Natal, half of his clientele is black, with a large portion of these being Indian. In Cape Town, half of his clients are coloured.

Gambarana says he’s seen a notable increase in the number of older entrepreneurs — 45 to 55-year-olds — taking the gap. “Everyone, from the technician to the professional, has equal drive to get out of here,” says Gambarana. “They all have their reasons”.

Although Gambarana’s business is booming — the company is now seeing roughly 180 families a month as opposed to 30 to 35 — he cautions on the need to be circumspect. “A lot of this is knee-jerk reaction. Such a sudden increase in inquiries must reflect a certain amount of panic. It is likely that figures will steady and drop off as Eskom comes right and the political situation becomes less uncertain.”

Henry Harper of Gauteng-based Hassle-free Immigration says inquires — mostly from whites — have increased from five to 10 a week last year to five to 10 a day this year.

Harper says many of his clients are not choosy about where they go. “The major aspect we have come across when people phone is that they want to go, no matter where.”

This desire to leave seems to be strongly mirrored in South Africa’s health sector. Recently published research by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) suggests that health professionals — doctors, nurses, dieticians, psychologists and pharmacists — are among those packing their bags.

In a survey titled The Haemorrhage of Health Professionals from South Africa: Medical Opinions, over half of the 1 702 respondents (70% white, 10% black African, six percent Indian and three percent coloured) said there was a “high likelihood” they would leave within the next five years. About 14% had applied for work permits in other countries, six percent had applied for permanent residence, five for citizenship and 30% for professional registration overseas.

Most likely destinations included Australia and New Zealand (33%), the United Kingdom (25%), Europe (10%), the U.S. (10%) and Canada (nine percent). Only black professionals rated a move to a SADC country (14%) about as likely as a move to a developed country such as Canada and the United States.

* Not her real name.

Waves of emigration

Emigration from South Africa is not new. The Institute of Race Relations reports that in the sixties an average of 10 379 people emigrated annually. This compares with 9 049 between 1994 and 1999. However, whereas in the sixties, the loss was compensated for by an average of 33 378 immigrants every year, the equivalent figure for the period between 1994 and 1999 was only 4 835, which translates into a loss of skills.

In July 2002, BBC News reported that up to 100 000 people were believed to have left the country over the preceding three years and 70% of skilled South Africans still in the country were thinking of emigration, despite government calls for them to stay.

News reports in 2005 then recorded a distinct drop in attendance at emigration seminars over the preceding years and there were increased reports of South Africans returning home.

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