The New Great Trek

The New Great Trek
by Johann van Rooyen

(dated at least March 2001)

The scope of South Africa's exodus

Thousands of predominantly-white, young, skilled South Africans of all
persuasions, regions and professions are leaving the country each year
to settle in mainly Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the USA and Canada.
Official statistics suggest that just more than 8 200 people had
emigrated from South Africa during 1998, but due to an under-reporting
of between one-half and two-thirds, the unofficial total will have been
between 16 000 and 25 000. These latest emigrants joined the 550 000
emigrants who have officially left since 1945, in addition to the 500
000 to one million emigrants who may have left the country unofficially
during this period.

The real significance of this exodus can be found primarily not so much
in the sheer size of the exodus, even though it is large by any
standard, but in the fact that these emigrants represent a huge loss of
human capital - they are mostly professionals and their skills and
ability to create wealth and jobs cannot be replaced overnight, if at
all. In addition, emigration on this scale raises the questions of how
many more people may join this new Trek, and whether it emigration will
continue at current levels or whether a sudden mass exodus is a

Official statistics vs. the actual numbers: the 2:1 and 3:1 ratios

As mentioned earlier, the number of people leaving South Africa each
year is at least double and could be triple the official numbers
provided by Statistics South Africa. The reason for this is because many
people who leave the country do so under the pretext of temporary visits
and do not state on their departure forms that they are emigrating, but
merely going on holiday - they will therefore not appear in the official
emigration statistics. The result is the huge discrepancy between
official or self-declared emigrants and unofficial emigrant numbers (the
undocumented migrants). Even the South African authorities are aware of
this phenomenon, but are powerless to do anything about it, according to
Mark Orkin, chief of Statistics South Africa.

The discrepancies between official and unofficial statistics (the latter
obtained from the embassies and immigration departments of several
countries) are glaringly obvious: -Official South African figures claim
that 29 000 South Africans had settled in the UK between 1984 and 1993,
compared to figure of 100 000 claimed by British sources. … Assuming
that the British numbers are the correct version, three times more
emigrants arrived in the UK than was counted by South African sources.
For the period of 1994-1997, 8 874 South Africans entered the UK as
immigrants although the South African official sources counted only 4
654 - almost double.

The logistics of emigration

...the presence of hundreds of thousands of South African emigrants all
over the world is evidence of the fact that, irrespective of obstacles
and sacrifices, emigration has become a realistic and logical choice for
many predominantly white South Africans and is viewed as a readily
available alternative to life in South Africa. However, there are at
least four distinct obstacles facing a typical emigrant: the first being
emotional and psychological barriers; the steep costs of emigration; the
financial and administrative barriers erected by the South African
authorities; the entry restrictions placed on emigration by various
countries through a multitude of entry requirements.

The key to successful emigration lies in overcoming these barriers one
by one, but even the most meticulous planning and the highest number of
emigration points cannot always overcome what could be the biggest
hurdle, namely the emotional costs of emigration - saying goodbye to
family, friends, often the family pet, to a particular lifestyle,
traditions and familiar things, and to one's country of birth and all it
represents - these all are the things that often prove to be the biggest

Psychological and emotional aspects

Among the typical comments from emigrants describing the pain and
emotional turmoil are the following: when she finally got on the plane,
(she) cried so much that the air hostess asked her if there had been a
death in the family - emigrant, Sydney.

...this may also explain why so many people do not to use the term
emigration, i.e. because of its finality - they refer instead
euphemistically to `relocation` and to `going overseas for a while` - in
fact, as mentioned elsewhere, up to two-thirds of people leaving South
Africa each year do not formally `emigrate`, although this is probably
largely because of practical rather than emotional reasons.

Many emigrants have to cope with feelings of guilt for leaving the
country in which they grew up and which educated them - they are often
accused of having lived off the fat of the land and wanting to jump ship
when the going gets tough. However, up to two thirds of emigrants,
according to an Idasa survey, have a desire to stay and help build South
Africa, but feel compelled to leave because of crime.

Why do people leave South Africa?

...South African emigrants are motivated by a number of typical `push`
factors and these are countered by many `pull` factors. The typical
emigrant will list various `push` factors in order of importance, among
which will be uncertainty about the future, falling standards, the
economy, affirmative action and bleak job prospects, and loss of faith
in the ANC-led government, but most importantly, he or she will list
violent crime as the real reason for wanting to emigrate. Surveys
indicate that 60% of emigrants regard crime as the major reason for
leaving South Africa, while 19% cite concern for their children's
education. A total of 15% of emigrants said that they were looking for a
better quality of life, 14% wanted better prospects in general, 20% were
concerned about healthcare, and 10% cited the government, the economy
and affirmative action as reasons for emigrating.

In this chapter each of these issues will be examined in the context in
which they contribute to emigration from South Africa.

The emigration debate

Emigration has always been an emotional issue in South Africa largely
because it has always been viewed from a political perspective, rather
than as a social or economic phenomenon. As the numbers of emigrants
increased and surpassed the numbers of immigrants during the second half
of the 1990s, emotions rose to new levels and the opposition to
emigration fiercer - arguments for and against emigration became more
politicised, personal and took on a racial flavour. This is not
surprising as the vast majority of emigrants are white and the vast
majority of whites voted against the ANC in both post-apartheid
elections. In South Africa's current political climate, the
anti-government sentiment of many whites is easily construed as
disloyalty against the ANC and against the country - the perception is
that emigrants are disloyal South Africans.

The debate is structured as follows: while the one side is questioning
the loyalty and patriotism of those who were leaving, the other side
points to the socio-political conditions that cause people to leave the
country and insists that emigration is a constitutional and human right.
The emigration debate was fuelled by former president Nelson Mandela's
comments in 1998, that `real South Africans are ...not going to run
away`. While Mandela received much support for calling a `spade a
spade`, his comments also drew sharp criticism from some South Africans
for what they perceived as interference in their democratic right to
emigrate, while others demanded that the President address the
underlying causes for emigration rather than attacking emigrants.
Despite the arguments between those who criticise emigration and those
who defend the freedom to emigrate, which are based mostly on abstract
emotional terms such as patriotism, racism and anger towards the
government, the real issue revolves around the impact that emigration
has on the South African economy. In other words, what is the cost of
emigration to the country in terms of the outflow of skills and capital,
especially in the absence of a compensating inflow of skilled immigrants?

...the magnitude of the current brain drain and the potential flight of
skills from South Africa are truly shocking. Surveys commissioned by the
Sunday Times in 1998 concluded that between 71% and 74% of professional
people in South Africa was considering emigrating. The survey found that
almost a similar percentage of skilled blacks also considered leaving
the country, although three quarters of these would do so for study
purposes, that is, not permanently. The survey was extensive and
received 11 000 individual responses from those with professional
qualifications, and despite some criticism against its methodology, the
survey provided a fairly representative sampling of the opinion of

However, the converse is also true. South Africa gains skills from
immigrants and it is an irrefutable fact that for a long time officially
South Africa had a net gain of skilled people because of migrants. These
people came to South Africa with their degrees, skills and capital to
the great benefit of the country - referred to as the `brain-gain`. For
this very reason it is so difficult to understand or justify the
bureaucratic bungling of the Department of Home Affairs when issuing
work and residency permits to foreign skilled workers.

While the decline in immigration during the 1990s was partially a result
of the unstable political situation and because of violence and crime,
it was also a result of the Department of Home Affairs` absurdly
stringent immigration policies and restrictions on work and residency
visas. While South Africa has an urgent need for professionals in most
categories, official policies have led to a decline in the numbers of
professionals such as doctors, managers and engineers entering the
country over the past five years: between 1993 and 1998 the number of
professional immigrants has declined by 74%, from 1,171 in 1993 to 307
in 1998.


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