A London-based expat, Simon Berry, has launched a website, sabraindrain.com. He hopes that émigrés like himself, or South Africans planning to join them, will complete an online form describing their qualifications and reasons for leaving.
He proposes to use the data in a letter to President Mbeki, setting out the damage the brain drain is doing and how it could be reversed if government would address the causes. The site includes a draft of the proposed letter, with notional survey results on talent flight, actual and intended, and the reasons it fled. The latter, Berry assumes, will primarily include crime, poor public services and affirmative action.
The draft concludes: “The skills crisis in South Africa is well publicised, ever-growing and represents one of the major challenges for the future of our country. As these statistics show, it is also solvable. It is time for you to act to address the problems identified.”
A scientifically conducted survey which asked South Africans abroad what it would take for them to come home might well be useful. What sabraindrain.com is about, however, is getting up a petition. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, the underlying message is problematic: we will bring our superior brains home and rescue the country only if you, Mr Mbeki, do as you’re told.
Contrary to Berry’s premise, government is acting on crime and is trying to improve public services, and has budget figures to prove it. There may be questions as to how effectively the money is being spent – Trevor Manuel himself has publicly raised them – but it is simply wrong to suggest that there has been no action.
The scope, application and impact of affirmative action are hotly debated, but it would be hard to deny that most white people are materially better off today than they were 14 years ago, notwithstanding the loss of de jure racial privilege. It is a bit much for people who have abandoned the debate by leaving to assert they are still owed a hearing; at least it will stick in a lot of craws.
The mindset, conscious or unconscious, evidenced by sabraindrain.com is unfortunate. Here’s why.
As countries everywhere are discovering, diasporas can be an invaluable resource. Returning émigrés bring with them skills, knowledge and rolodexes. In this hyperconnected age, those same assets can be just as useful abroad if émigrés choose to stay there.
That is the thinking behind initiatives like the International Marketing Council’s fledgling Global South Africans project, which seeks to harness the talent and goodwill of accomplished South Africans who are not coming home just yet, as well as the excellent FNB-backed Homecoming Revolution.
For these initiatives to reach their full potential, South Africans at home need to be able to internalize the dictum, coined by Wendy Luhabe, who chairs the IMC, that “there is no such thing as an ex-South African.”
Some, understandably, will find that hard. South Africa’s diaspora does contain quite a number of people who have not come to terms with 1994 and who seek constant vindication for their decision to leave. When I first broached the idea for Global South Africans on Internet bulletin boards frequented by expats in Canada and the US, the response was so hateful I wanted to abandon the whole idea. But it also made me realize how important it was to find and somehow mobilize South Africans abroad prepared to champion the country that made them.
Happily, there are a lot of them. They tend to be the ones who are doing well where they are now. Many left because they did not want to fight apartheid’s wars and have built careers and businesses that are hard to abandon. Others have gone in search of what the wider world has to offer, fully intending the bring it back some day.
Still lacking, though, is a consistent signal from the highest levels back home that they should be embraced as valued members of team South Africa. And not only embraced, but engaged in helping find solutions to the very problems that are making it hard for South Africa to compete in the stiffening global competition for skills.
The condescension implicit in sabraindrain.com hardly encourages such an embrace.