Presented by Brand South Africa

From brain drain to brain gain – Why South African expats are returning home

 ·28 Mar 2024

Globally, the number of people living in countries other than their country of birth continues to rise.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is part of the United Nations, the number of international migrants has increased significantly over time.

In 2020, the total estimated 281 million people living in a country other than their countries of birth was 128 million more than in 1990, and over three times the estimated number in 1970.

Why people emigrate

There are many reasons why people choose to migrate.

In the context of globalisation, the emergence of global cities, the global transfer of goods and services, and the demand for different skills around the world have caused many people to migrate in search of opportunities.

This is also true of South African expats.

While there may be pockets of professionals and entrepreneurs who migrated from the country post-1994, the growing trend over the years has been migration fueled by headhunting of South African talent and expertise by international agencies.

Locals have also thirsted for these international opportunities – including access to international educational institutions, and the chance to gain experience in different markets.

This propels them to grow their careers and expand their business networks to gain diverse expertise that they wouldn’t ordinarily gain in a single market.

Demand for South African talent

The demand for South African expats in different disciplines continues to increase significantly – from teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists to artists, hospitality industry practitioners, chefs, and entrepreneurs.

South Africans are found in many parts of the world, especially the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, the UAE, Canada and China.

Research shows that nearly a million South Africans live, work and do business abroad, with nearly 250,000 living in the UK.

They are doing exceedingly well, too.

The great return to their roots

Despite this success, a significant number of South African expats have recently decided to return home, in a move often dubbed reverse emigration.

According to Tax Consulting South Africa, the euphoria of living abroad for many South Africans is wearing thin.

“A growing number of expatriates are drawn back by the allure of a vibrant cultural scene, inviting temperate climate, and favourable exchange rates,” said Tax Consulting South Africa.

The need to reconnect with the vibrant and diverse cultures, flavourful Mzansi cuisine, music and vibe, coupled with great weather and family connections continues to lure expats back.

Case study: Brad Habana

Brad Habana, an expat based in Qatar, is a Senior Sponsorship Manager at the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy.

“Whilst working at SAFA doing the CAF tournament in 2013, I was approached by the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy to be part of the planning team for Qatar’s inaugural 2022 FIFA World Cup,” said Habana.

“Despite the excitement of this new opportunity, the transition wasn’t without its challenges, particularly as my wife and daughter remained in South Africa initially. However, once they joined me in Qatar, life as an expatriate became much more manageable.”

Habana added that while certain traditions such as weekend braais are a common past-time that he often misses, he has been able to maintain a strong connection with South Africa by frequently visiting the country and welcoming his family members to join him on visits in Qatar.

“It has and remains a wonderful experience hosting our family and friends when they come over,” said Habana.

Asked about his plans for the next five years, Habana said that life as an expatriate is unpredictable – particularly within the GCC, where job stability can be uncertain and a job may come to an abrupt end at any time.

“This reality keeps us constantly mindful of our roots back home,” said Habana.

“While we diligently plan for our eventual return to South Africa, our young family is relishing the opportunities afforded by our current lifestyle, including the accessibility of travel to various countries.”

Habana said that through these experiences, he and his family are immersing themselves in different cultures and nationalities and enriching their understanding of the world in profound ways.

“I am loving the opportunity to help Qatar bring their major sporting events to fruition such as the recent Asian Cup,” said Habana.

“At the same time, there has been an opportunity to help shape the newly rejuvenated horse racing industry via Cape Racing, which I am truly enjoying.”

Habana said the main things he misses include family reunions, the quality food that South Africa has to offer, the South African sporting events, and the summer and festive feeling around December.

“We have seen a strong influx of South African products into Qatar, which brings us a little closer to home. Our daughters know that South Africa is home and when they consistently place their hands on their chest when they sing our Nkosi Sikelela national anthem, it fills me with immense pride,” said Habana.

“They are South African. They are the rainbow nation.”

Case study: Xolisile Sithole

On the other side of the world, Xolisile Sithole, a Cultural Heritage Ambassador, is based in Chengdu, China.

She said while she lives in a country that has a very mature technology ecosystem, she would like to see this infrastructure replicated in some way in South Africa.

“Of course, having access to infrastructure and technology that makes everyday living possible is also important, and South Africa is on the right path in terms of its investment in creating a functional environment for business and investment to thrive,” said Sithole.

Sithole said she still has plans to advance her career in China, but insists that returning to Mzansi remains in her plans.

“Getting my Master’s degree in education and growing my business is crucial at this stage, but coming home is not off the cards,” said Sithole.

The South African advantage

Head of Global Markets at Brand South Africa, Jimmy Ranamane, says that the level of talent that South Africa exports across different disciplines demonstrates the quality of expertise that the country has produced and continues to deploy every year.

“Our entrepreneurs and professionals compete with the best across the globe,” said Ranamane.

“The fact that our products are celebrated within the best-of-breed platforms, including the Oscars, bears testament to the quality of talent that South Africa exports to different markets.”

“To those who have returned home, we express our gratitude, understanding that they will be imparting their experiences in our ever-promising economy,” said Ranamane.

“This is our home, and this is your home.”

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