Double emigration blow for South Africa – leaving local businesses desperate for critical skills

 ·8 Jun 2023

South Africa faces a growing emigration problem, with large numbers of highly skilled young people potentially set to leave the country. Meanwhile, those who choose to remain are also increasingly looking to virtual emigration – adding to the stresses local businesses already face when seeking critical skills.

Speaking at a roundtable on South Africa’s brain drain, Simonetta Guiricich from payroll services group Payroll said South Africa faces a mass exodus of talent over the coming years.

This comes as the country has already lost close to a million people to countries like the UK, Australia, the USA, New Zealand and Canada.

South Africa does not track emigrants. However, a recent report from the UN showed that 914,901 South Africans were living abroad in 2020, a significant jump from the 786,554 recorded in 2015.

The number of people who left South Africa between 2015 and 2020 – over 128,000 people – was roughly three times higher than the 43,000 people who emigrated between 2010 and 2015.

The United Kingdom has the largest South African diaspora, with nearly 250,000 people listing South Africa as their country of birth, followed by Australia, the USA and New Zealand.

However, the biggest concern among business leaders right now is that young, skilled people are the ones packing their bags to go.

“Of particular concern for SA is the steady and increasing number of departures by young, highly skilled individuals,” Guiricich said. “Projections indicate that the country could lose up to half of its university graduates (to emigration) in the coming years.”

In addition, virtual emigration is posing a new challenge in South Africa, especially for the tech sector.

An increasing number of local developers and data scientists – a scarce skill for the country – are working remotely for global companies.


Despite the brain drain having a dire effect on South African businesses, the panellists provided several ways that companies can deal with emigration.

For instance, skills developmental employee training is crucial for an effective retention strategy, as it constantly upskills employees at all levels.

Companies will thus have a deeper talent pool with the necessary skills, minimising the disruptions caused by employees emigrating.

Moreover, Leonie Pentz from AIMS South Africa said that workplace flexibility would likely help attract and retain key skills at companies.

“In an era where workplace flexibility and fluid employment arrangements are top priorities for workers, companies that offer such flexibility stand a better chance of attracting and retaining rare talent on a global scale,” Pentz said.

“As responsible leaders, we need to ensure we’re looking after our staff from a mental health point of view, as well as a personal one. Today, people want to work for companies they feel they are aligned with personally.”

Vanessa Raath, a global talent sourcing trainer, added that enhanced support for key talent is crucial, with a particular focus on leadership engagement, support and appreciation.

“What companies need to realise is that it’s not always a monetary kind of reward. A smaller company can offer more, a 4-day working week, and more flexibility about working from home [or abroad],” Raath said.

“The companies that I’m working with that are thriving from a global perspective are the SMEs because they are meeting the needs of each individual and what they want.”

Read: South Africa’s new retirement system – big questions hang in the air

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