Why emigration isn’t just a rich man’s problem

One key symptom of a country suffering from internal decay is mass emigration. When this happens, the economy becomes less productive and stagnates.

One key symptom of a country suffering from internal decay is mass emigration. Sadly, South Africa is exhibiting this worrying symptom. Emigration (the voluntary departure from one’s native country to another to live in) is a topic that remains secondary in the ANC’s political agenda despite the medium to long-term consequences being detrimental to our economy and institutions.

According to the UN, in 2020 South Africa had around 915 000 emigres, up from 385 000 in 1995. These individuals are disproportionately high-earning professionals. This seemingly “rich man’s problem” is concerning for South Africa's future more generally for two main reasons:  

Firstly, their departure significantly reduces the country’s tax base as they depart with their capital and future income. This makes it even more difficult to actually fund our already frail public services and infrastructure. Such a drop will also limit South Africa’s ability to pay back government debt. 

Secondly, when said professionals leave the country, companies and institutions struggle to replace their lost expertise. As such, South Africa suffers from a “brain drain” where our private and public sectors lack qualified personnel to fulfill their actual functions as they seek greener pastures.  

When this happens, the economy becomes less productive and stagnates. Potential entrepreneurs and professionals crucial to any sector pack up their bags. Our schools, especially in rural areas, lost quality teachers and therefore struggle in providing quality basic education. The government becomes more inept as many qualified civil servants don’t reap the rewards of their hard work and leave. Instead, a corrupt patronage network takes its place and perpetuates the vicious cycle of decay. 

This flight of capital and skills then encourages others to do the same. The result? Economic regression, institutional decay, more unemployment, and public services under strain. Without profound political and economic change, the vicious cycle of decay continues at an ever faster rate as this becomes a negative feedback loop.  

The answer is not a simple ban on emigration or tightening capital controls. In reality, this has the opposite effect, encouraging more to leave before it is too late and further sapping any hopes of a better future in South Africa. Look no further than the cases of Lebanon or Venezuela, which have experienced significant emigration.  

Instead, if we want to reduce mass emigration, the state of the economy and public sector must improve and incentivise them to stay and build a life in South Africa. The only way one can do this is to vote out parties with a poor track record and by demanding meritocracy in the selection of the civil service and ensuring that basic rights, such as safety, are upheld.  

South Africa must turn the tide on this worrying trend. If not, the country will continue down this road and end up in a similar state to that of  Zimbabwe or Algeria where omnipresent corruption, massive unemployment, with no real opportunities unless you belong to an extractive elite are the norm.

A final word if you are South African considering emigration; as much as it is perfectly understandable to leave a country in political and economic decline where opportunities and security seems to be fading, do also consider that this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people emigrate, the more the state of South Africa will worsen. South Africa cannot stop the decline let alone rebuild itself if no one is willing to stay or return, vote and invest in the future of this nation. With the 2024 elections coming up it needs this more than ever.