Nigeria’s diaspora sent home $10.7 billion in remittances last year, equivalent to 4.5% of the oil exporter’s GDP, the World Bank estimates. Kenyan expats remitted $2.5 billion, around 5% of GDP. From South Africa’s migrants came a comparative, though not be sniffed at, trickle of $1.2 billion, or 0.2% of GDP. No surprise there. Remittances correlate with the affinity senders have with those they have left behind and with recipients’ level of need. South African émigrés tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds; what kin stay on when they leave are less likely to need their generosity.
That said, cash is not the only thing of value migrants can send to what, in their hearts, is still home. Remittances may take forms not directly reflected in World Bank statistics — knowledge, for example, access to the right people, persuasive advocacy – and these can have significant economic impact. The South African diaspora has much to offer along these lines if effectively engaged.
“Exceptional People” is the title South Africa’s Ian Goldin gave his 2011 book on global migration. A former adviser to Nelson Mandela, now a fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, Goldin is himself exceptional. So, he contends, is most anyone with the get-up-and-go to get up and go in search of greener pastures or broader horizons. That is why, in his view, traditional anxieties about brain drain are misplaced. Under the right conditions, all stand to benefit when people are free to move where they can best deploy their talents.
The SA-born population of the US now numbers above 80,000, the US census bureau reports (the latest comparable UK and Australian numbers are 211 000 and 104 000 respectively). Each year another 3000 South Africans, plus or minus, obtain green cards, the stepping stone to American citizenship. They fit Goldin’s title. Their median household income is $105,000. The national median is $61,000. They own houses with a median value of over $360,000.The national median is half that. More than one in four has a master’ s degree or better, compared to one in 10 native born Americans.
The proportion of Americans with jobs in management, business, science or the arts, is 36%. For the South African born, it is 61%. A quarter of South Africans working here are in medicine or academe; 17% classified as professionals, managers, scientists or administrators; 9% are in finance. A back of the envelope calculation based on incomes and home ownership would suggest that South Africans in the US have a combined net worth of around $13 billion, or well over R100 billion.
Between 1985 and 2000, according to research quoted by Goldin, diaspora Chinese supplied about 70 per cent of China’s foreign direct investment. Diaspora networks have played a huge part in the growth of India’s IT sector linking Silicon Valley capital, financial and intellectual, with labour in Mumbai and Bangalore. The unanswered question is how should South Africa enlist its “exceptional people”. So far, efforts have been piecemeal. Perhaps a mosaic of discrete initiatives — universities reaching out to alumni, NGO’s developing their own fundraising networks, embassies assembling their own mailing lists, Brand South Africa’s Global South Africans project – is the best that can be achieved.
Models for a more strategic approach are not hard to find. Scotland’s government underwrites and staffs GlobalScot, an elite network of successful, well-connected executives and entrepreneurs who have volunteered to mentor Scottish startups. New Zealand has the Kea network , a public-private partnership with full-time managers in the US, UK, Shanghai and Australia, promoting New Zealand industry, culture and sport. Advance, also a public-private partnership, networks the Australian diaspora, its website says, to “empower other Australians to succeed, build entrepreneurial Australian companies and create global career opportunities for Australians.” More narrowly focused is the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), “a group of Irish and Irish American senior executives based in Silicon Valley…committed to ensuring that Ireland remains a strategic area of investment and opportunity for US technology companies.”
These models have inspired perhaps the most promising initiative to date to link South Africa’s “exceptional people” in the US to innovators back home. The SABLE (SA Business Link to Experts) Accelerator, based like ITLG in Silicon Valley where there is a critical mass of South African entrepreneurs, software engineers and venture capitalists. This space – www.sablenetworks.com – is worth watching.
Last word goes to Goldin. “For countries to successfully tap into their overseas expertise, there need to be conditions at home that are attractive for expatriates to return to or invest in. Migrants in a diaspora are unlikely to spontaneously fire up a flailing national economy; they are a resource that can reinforce or accelerate existing positive trends.”