Exodus of human capital

2018-11-16 15:54
Edward West.

Edward West.

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The car accident that led to the death of Nottingham Road farmer Johannis-Jan (JJ) van de Velde might have left many people questioning why he intended to leave the country in the first place.

The Witness had been trying to interview Van de Velde for months before he died, on this very subject, but every opportunity was stymied by various factors, such as first having to conclude the sale of his farms.

We wanted an interview because we first heard of his and his family’s planned emigration to Australia at the start of the year, when Australian Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, saying Australia should assist South African farmers to emigrate there.

Van de Velde, a former Kwanalu Young Farmer of the Year, was a prominent potato and maize farmer in the Midlands.

Born in Holland, he had replaced a farming future in Holland with one in the Midlands in 2000.

Sadly, we never managed to get that interview.

But we did speak to several people after his death, and they, to an extent, confirmed what we had suspected about his departure.

“It was definitely no chicken run! He saw a great opportunity in Australia and was ready to take it on,” said one of the people we interviewed.

But, according to another source, there were other factors that Van de Velde had considered, including security, the future of their children, the land issue and the fact he was a foreigner, and the lack of support for farmers.

The emigration of people, mainly but not limited to whites, and the consequent exodus of capital, have been discussed a great deal by public commentators this year.

Political uncertainty is usually cited as the main reason for the departure of people who are often among the country’s most skilled.

Current figures on emigration are hard to come by, but indications of the outflow of people and capital pop up occasionally at the newspaper.

For instance, global financial advisory firm deVere Acuma said this week: “... there’s been a striking trend. A rapidly growing number of our clients have been increasingly telling our advisers over the past 12 months they are becoming ever more concerned about the political and economic challenges facing South Africa and the incredible uncertainty this creates.”

And while weak local financial markets have spurred many people to place their investments in other regions for a better return, there is no denying that the reasons referred to by deVere Acuma are often the very same for people choosing to emigrate.

A friend in the shipping business has commented about the fast-rising number of containers of household furniture leaving the country.

Often, poignantly, at many dinner tables, the children are discussed by parents, and when they will next visit, or be visited overseas.

My own experience as a business journalist and as related to me by many businesspeople over the years, is that it is usually the wife who first moots moving overseas, and the husband tends to warm to the challenge over a period of time.

There will always be emigration, as much as there will always be immigration, and it is a fact that political and economic upheaval will always prompt people to consider leaving their home country. However, South Africa is a relatively small economy, and the shortage of skills in some professions and jobs has been well-documented. I interviewed people at a Pietermaritzburg company last week with enough work to employ a score more engineers on the spot, if the company could just find them. Clearly, the country and its employers cannot continue to afford to lose highly skilled people.

For me, as somebody who has left two countries in the past for various reasons, there is a crucial role here for savvy human resources practitioners of large companies. Identify staff who you believe would be most difficult to replace in the company. Then make sure you put in mechanisms, such as an interview during a regular wellness appraisal, where the HR person would be able to identify if an employee is getting ready to emigrate. This could put the company in a position to introduce measures that are aimed at luring the employee back into the fold.

However, emigration is a major life decision for everybody concerned, which once taken leaves little room for an employer to reverse.

The trick would be for the HR person to identify right in the beginning, the factors that may cause the employee to leave the country.

In my own case, for example, an additional two or three weeks’ leave to try to save a marriage may just have resulted in me not leaving Japan, and the company where I was working at the time.

At the time I had no leave owing to me, and didn’t even consider leave as an option, but in retrospect, had the company known of my circumstances, I have no doubt it would have been flexible enough to grant me that leave.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis

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