Eminent emigrants

South Africa, says Brand SA, is the country of “inspiring new ways”. It has certainly produced people who fit that label. Nelson Mandela, obviously. Any takers for Jan Smuts? Among the living, Elon Musk and Patrick Soon-Shiong spring to mind.

Mandela inspired, for sure, but homage to his example, like Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s, is nowadays paid more in word than deed. Mandela’s chief of staff, Barbara Masekela, was willing to give Smuts his due when I had the privilege of serving her, but she is of the old, that is to say Mandela, school.

If, in this century, mankind kicks its carbon habit and starts to colonise Mars, Musk, product of Pretoria Boy’s High (where he was bullied mercilessly), will be remembered as we remember Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, Henry Ford and Werner von Braun.

And if, within the same timeframe, cancer is no more a death sentence than the common cold, Soon-Shiong, son of Port Elizabeth, graduate of Wits and now, according to Forbes, the richest physician in the world, may well join the pantheon of Hippocrates, Louis Pasteur and Francis Crick and make Chris Barnard look like a mere mechanic.

Neither Musk nor Soon-Shiong seem to feel great affinity with the country of their birth, at least as far as I can tell. When I sought his support for Brand SA’s semi-comatose Global South Africans initiative, Musk told me to my face and through intermediaries his dance card was full, which was perfectly understandable.

South Africa’s then ambassador to the US, Ebrahim Rasool, and I had an appointment to meet Soon-Shiong at his Los Angeles HQ in 2013 but got bumped from his calendar at the last moment. We were hoping he might contribute to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. We later heard he had doubts about whether money donated to South African beneficiaries would reach its target unmolested.

It is, of course, a pity that Musk, Soon-Shong and their like are not using their native land as a base from which to reinvent the world.
Arniston could have been a great home for Musk’s SpaceX, had not Pretoria agreed to spike the facility’s launch pads and test beds. Look at the extraordinary medical talent Wits has sent into the world — including Soon-Shiong himself. What might that talent be achieving, what lives saving, what new opportunities creating, had it stayed home?

Actually, those are not useful questions. Pace the Homecoming Revolution, you don’t have to be home to be home any more. More than ever home is where the heart is. Less than ever in this hyperconnected age does the heart have to be in the same place as the body to make a difference on the ground.

South Africa must do a better job of engaging the hearts — and minds — of its emigres. They may not all be Musks or Soon-Shiongs, but they are out of the ordinary, nonetheless, and in my experience their hearts are still very much in the right place, or at least biddably so.

It takes get up and go to get up and go, as they say. Emigres have a propensity to be enterprising, work hard and network. That can make them objects of hate in host countries and, in some instances, of resentment in the countries they left behind. South Africa needs to adjust its attitudes to both inbound and outbound migrants. Both have much to offer.

The latest iteration of the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey puts the the SA-born population at 95 000 plus or minus 5 000 as of 2013. For comparison’s sake, the UK Office of National Statistics estimated that 221 000 SA-borns were living in Britain in 2013 while Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection tallied 165 000 SA-born residents that year.

Measured against the overall US population, SA-borns are twice as likely to have advanced degrees. 60 per cent are employed in management, science or the arts against a national average of 36 per cent. Their average household earnings top $135 000 a year: the national mean is $75 000. Their homes are worth $334 000 on average, nearly double the national mean of $174 000. By one estimate their net worth is north of $13 billion.

Ambassador Rasool made it a priority to reach out to the SA community in the US and it is to be hoped his successor will follow suit. Not all heads of SA’s missions here took Rasool’s lead. One senior diplomat, in a panel discussion organised by the University of Southern California’s Centre on Public Diplomacy, said he was not aware that such a community existed, the heavy concentration of South Africans in southern California notwithstanding.

Clearly, the feelings many in government have towards expatriates are complicated. By the same token, few expatriates could be called unalloyed fans of South Africa’s present leadership. Their love of the country and its people persists, though, and many are expressing it with their cheque books and in other concrete ways. It’s time to take the engagement to a new level.

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