While it is difficult to equate South Africa’s declining GDP to a brain drain, there is an extremely strong inverse correlation.
This is according to the Enterprise Observatory of South Africa’s (EOSA’s) Johannes Wessels, who said that the country’s decline towards the ranks of the lower middle-income countries will likely continue alongside increasing high-skilled emigration.
“In 1995 South Africa’s per capita GDP was 61.1% higher than the average per capita GDP of the upper-middle-income countries,” Wessels said.
“In 2017 South Africa was no longer a leader in the upper-middle-income countries, but a laggard – the South African per capita GDP had shrunk to 75.7% of the average per capita GDP of the upper-middle-income countries.
“During the same time, the number of South African born residents in high-income countries (HICs) has increased from 307,000 to 745,000.”
However, Wessels warned that correlations don’t prove causality.
“One cannot, therefore, say (without further analyses) that emigration to HICs is causing SA to be radically economically transformed from a leader to a laggard,” he said.
“Likewise, one cannot deduce that SA’s slide against other upper middle-income countries is the cause and the driver of emigration to high-income countries.
“However, the correlation is extremely significant – significant enough to confidently deduce that if one goes up the other will go down,” he said.
Brain drain recognised by Ramaphosa
Wessels said that president Cyril Ramaphosa seems to be aware of this correlation – indicating during the election campaign that he wanted to ‘tie white South Africans to trees to prevent them from emigrating’.
HICs typically have high standards for granting residence permits, said Wessels, meaning that the majority of South Africans finding permanent residence in the HICs are likely either professionally qualified or possessing artisan skills (hairdressers/plumbers).
The below figure, based on UN data, shows how the exodus of skilled emigrants to HICs increased linearly from 1990 to 2017.
“Of significance is that during this period the number of South Africans born in low-income countries remained flat. There was a decrease from 42,341 to 39,259,” said Wessels.
“The number of South Africans in middle-income countries decreased from 53,000 in 1990 to a low 40,000 until 2000. However, by 2005, this number again reached 53,000 and has since rocketed to 115,000, including a 30,000 increase in Botswana.
“The rapid increase since 2005 of South Africans moving to other middle-income countries is indicative that these South Africans assess the immediate and long-term prospects in these countries as better than South Africa’s.”
Engineers and IT professionals
Wessels said that there are clear indications that the brain drain is continuing and even accelerating.
“For instance, Emmanuelle Wintergerst, head of the skills assessment business unit of Engineers Australia, confirmed to EOSA that there has been a doubling in the number of South African engineers requesting a skills assessment in order to be allowed to practise in Australia,” he said.
Wessels also noted that MyBroadband’s 2019 IT Survey found that 46% of IT professionals are planning to emigrate or to seek work abroad.
“The reasons why these professionals were considering alternative countries rather than to participate in the prospects of the 4IR, included political & economic concerns, high crime levels and lower living standards than in other countries,” he said.
“Envisaging a better future for their children as well as the constraints of BEE and affirmative action on job and business opportunities in South Africa also ranked high.”