Don’t waste this talent just because it’s offshore

Between 1960 and last year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, 78 239 South Africans received green cards (actually the things are white), signifying their right to reside permanently in the US.  Of those, 26 408 obtained permanent residence status between 2000 and 2007. This compares with 21 964 between 1990 and 1999, 15 505 in the 80’s and 10 002 in the 70’s. The exodus, it will surprise no one to learn, has been gathering steam.

Of the places SA emigrants generally head to – others being the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – the US is the most discriminating.  While a few green cards are handed out by lottery, most South Africans receive theirs because they or members of their immediate family are accomplished people.

How accomplished can be seen from the last census, taken in 2000, which put the SA-born population in the US that year at 63 560.  34 per cent of the SA-born had annual household incomes of $100 000 or more at the dawn of the new millennium, 56 per cent had earned bachelors’ degrees or higher and 65 per cent were in professions or management.  The respective figures for the overall US population were 12 per cent, 24 per cent and 34 per cent.

In short, South Africans living in the US are a decidedly above average lot.  It wasn’t easy for most of them to get in and they tend to be doing very well now that they are here.  This makes them a hard nut to crack for the Homecoming Revolution, as its MD, Martine Shaffer,  found on a recent reconnoitre to Chicago, New York and Washington.

But that does not mean they are lost to SA. To the contrary, they can be extremely valuable where they are.  Global South Africans, a project launched by the International Marketing Council, is working to realize that value by building a network of offshore South African talent and connecting it to where it can make a difference back home.

Right now, the network has 175 members in the US. The goal is to have over 1000 worldwide. Current members hail from a multiplicity of sectors including finance, retail, IT, law, economics, medicine, architecture, hospitality, design and media. It’s a pretty exclusive group.  What members have in common is that they are successful, have a lot of knowledge, are well-connected, want to help South Africa succeed and are ready to speak up for the country.  Several might make good non-executive directors for small-to-medium sized firms seeking to break into international markets.  Among expats there is a correlation, not always perfect, between success and goodwill towards their native land.

Each GSA member is free to contribute in his or her own way.  The CEO of high-end US retail chain wants to advise rising young SA designers on marketing and pricing their products in the US.  A leading architect based in San Francisco has taken on a South African intern.  A prominent intellectual property lawyer in interested in providing pro bono advice on protecting traditional Ndebele designs from cheap knock-offs. The founder of a successful in vitro fertilization clinic (a segment of US medicine dominated by South African émigrés) would like to do some teaching in SA.

Sustainability is a serious issue.  GSA is not SA’s first attempt at diaspora mobilization.  Other initiatives have included the Internet-based SA Network of Skills Abroad and the World Bank-supported SA  Diaspora Network. Their most valuable output has been learnings.   Much more successful has been Homecoming Revolution, backed by FNB. Its objectives are clear, its leadership is dynamic, the brand has traction and President Mbeki personally blessed it in a state of the nation address.

Resentment against émigrés is easy to understand. Most, though not all, are white. Their departures are readily construed as racially-tinged votes of no-confidence. Some actively slander the country.  However, it would be a huge mistake not to embrace the diaspora on account of the bitter and the haters.  A lot of the scatterlings are not coming home, but they have much to contribute from where they are. If asked. If embraced. If engaged and given something to do.

This needs to become a national project, with public blessing, private funding and champions to drive it.

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