Brain drain is another threat to economic reforms and recovery


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By Bheki Mfeka

JOHANNESBURG – I was heart-broken to see a picture of a multi-million-rand car with a number plate personalized “no matric GP” on twitter. This may be a social media fake post but given the pervasive materialism and self-aggrandizement culture that rewards those who are politically connected and corrupt, the post may not be far-fetched.

It is my view that endemic corruption in South Africa has created strong push factors for skilled professionals and managers to seek opportunities else-where in the world. We noted a high turnover of CEOs and heads of departments, and generally professionals, in particular Africans, is persistent in the public and private sectors in the past few years. This is compounded by a general lack of attention to retention of professionals and skills. There is overwhelming misplacement of professionals, what in many instances has become structural in nature and reflects an emerging trend.

The current and the projected changing structure of the South African economy, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitalization expected to penetrate industries, the demand for modern advanced skills will continue to rise. South Africa will be competing with silver economies (those developed countries with older populations) that have been devastated by COVID-19 deaths such as the United State and United Kingdom. The competition is over young and qualified people, especially from Africa.

“Brain drain” – the long-term departure of skilled people from a country is becoming a concern. At the advent of democracy in 1994, it was estimated that more skilled and professional people who were leaving South Africa were white and tended to go to Australia, New Zealand, and United Kingdom. At the time we were ambivalent, as we mostly perceived that these were people who were fearing retribution by black people and others feared the prospects of black leadership in the post-1994 democratic dispensation. To this extent South Africa did not pay sufficient attention on collecting emigration (people leaving South Africa) data.

Already estimates in 2017 were saying for every one professional immigrating to South Africa, eight professionals are leaving the country. It seems South Africans are as adamant as ever to leave the country as statistics show a 70% increase in enquiries in the past 2 years on the process according to immigration experts Sable International, who have seen a 45% increase in completed emigrations over the past year.

The threat of even more black professionals and skills leaving South Africa, is showing a shifting pattern on the reasons why professionals are leaving South Africa. Political and economic circumstances may be pushing, especially black professionals to seek opportunities for better income and environment. The increasing numbers of black health professionals since advent of democracy to Europe especially UK and the middle east, has indicated the propensity by black professionals to look for greener pastures where opportunities avail. There are now increasing pull factors for young Black Africans internationally as more countries are embracing the notion of diversity and inclusion.

With lack of attention to retention of professionals, it would seem we would have increasing capacity and skills gaps required in government as well as key projects implementation needed to resuscitate the economy. Transformation targets will continue to be missed if the trend continues.

The multi-billion-dollar losses incurred through the delays caused, not only by corruption, but also by shortage of appropriate local skills and capacity in the construction of Medupi and Kusile power stations, is a good example how devastating can absence and loss of skills and capacity can be.

It would be important, as a matter of urgency for South Africa to clearly define its migration policy under the current economic conditions. Whilst the focus has been on people coming into the country due to incidences of xenophobic violence, there has not been coherent systematic studies and policy making on the inflow and outflow of skills in South Africa. This is key to investment and inclusive economic growth.

The proposed township economy bills should not be seen in isolation, as a way of dealing with illegal immigrants that participate in the informal economy only. It must address skills supply and demand in the townships as well. In the same vain, it is important to create conducive environment for entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs thrive better in an environment that reward competence, skills, and virtue, rather than an environment that enable corruption and reward politically connected business people.

What is to be done? Firstly, whilst the economic recovery plan is being implemented, attention should be paid on finalizing the National Labour Migration Policy (NLMP) and other relevant policy instruments.

In doing so, government should, secondly, formalize collection of professionals/skills immigration and emigration data on a quarterly basis.

Thirdly, through the Human Resource Development Council chaired by the Deputy President, strengthen the planning of skills supply and demand for the current and projected structure of the economy.

Fourthly, improve the culture of valuing professionals in the public and private sectors by doing constant market studies and interventions to improve and incentivize skilled professionals working with professional bodies and industry associations including labour unions.

Finally, international programme to identify South African talent in the diaspora and encourage them to return by creating conditions and opportunities for them to access infrastructure and finance (e.g. science parks; venture funds, and academic incentives etc.).

These efforts and others will enable a culture that make education and skills a priority. This would also create conditions for “brain gain” – an interest for our talent to return home and contribute to growing the economy.

Dr Bheki Mfeka, is the Director, Economic Advisor & Strategist at SE Advisory | Twitter: @bhekimfeka | Website: | Email: [email protected]


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