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The emigration of South African youth is becoming an unspoken crisis

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By Tim Cohen
15 Aug 2021 8

Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

A long time ago, I attended a talk given by the American diplomat Chester Crocker, who was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the 1980s. Crocker was a remarkable figure, and is credited with being instrumental in securing Namibian independence.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The extent of Crocker’s role in Namibian independence is somewhat controversial; some claim his role has been overstated. My personal view is that his role has been massively understated by historians and politicians, who have all kinds of reasons, political and otherwise, to minimise the remarkable and delicate diplomacy involved.

I’m somewhat bolstered in my view by the fact that Crocker himself tends to minimise the role he played, which is what exceptional negotiators always do. Negotiators’ ability to sublimate their egos is a sine qua non of successful negotiations. And the awareness of the need of politicians to claim success when things turn out well is a crucial tool in the negotiations process, and one Crocker himself utilised with great dexterity.

If you think for a moment what Crocker had to do, the extent of the challenge becomes clear. He had to bring together apartheid apparatchiks, Angolan Marxist revolutionaries, Cuban military commanders and Soviet power brokers. The Russian part was especially tricky given that the official position of the Soviet authorities at the time was that they were not in fact involved in the Namibian border war at all.

In the end, Crocker managed a piece of remarkable diplomacy. Namibia became independent, the Cuban forces left Angola and the apartheid government relinquished its Namibian mandate. None of those things was inevitable in 1985.

How did he do it? Crocker was interesting in so many ways, but one of the points he made has always stuck with me: he distinguished between overt and subterranean currents in the miasma of positions adopted, and views held, and particularly in information flows. And, he said, the subterranean currents are by far the most important.

What we read on the official level is so often only a partial reflection of the truth. Call it, if you will, the Schrödinger’s cat syndrome – the very fact of looking at something changes its complexion. Public views are designed and geared towards public consumption, and are changed by that fact. Virtue signalling, personal interests and individual experiences all play a role in how we present ourselves publicly.

So where do you find these iconoclastic subterranean currents? The short answer is, with difficulty. By definition, they present themselves poorly, if at all. It takes instinct and intuition.

With all that in mind, I was recently reading the South African subreddit on the website Reddit, which is an open forum for views of many kinds, and on which people pose questions for anyone to answer. Someone asked an odd question: Was there anyone who had emigrated from South Africa to Botswana, and what was their experience? A discussion followed, with lots of people chipping in. Canada came up, and was summarily dismissed as too cold. Canadians then joined in, defending Canada and inviting South Africans to emigrate there.

It was an absorbing exchange, and it had that crucial thing – a ring of honesty, that ephemeral sense you can’t define but recognise instantly. But think about the broader question: is it truly possible that young South Africans are so worried about the future of this country that they are honestly thinking about emigrating to Botswana? Apparently so.

This is not to denigrate Botswana, a fabulous country, which has managed its post-independence period with extraordinary aplomb. But the overt view is that most emigrants are essentially racist, and are leaving to avoid a “black” government. If Botswana is the target, that caricature cannot apply.

This all confirms my suspicion that South Africa’s youth of all races feel they are overlooked, ignored and denigrated. No doubt the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated this sense, and it’s not just an SA issue. The World Economic Forum recently published a huge survey of young people around the world, which discovered, among other things, that incredibly young people tend to trust algorithms more than they trust politicians.

If young people can’t see a future, a fundamental strut in the superstructure of society is threatened. It’s been said so often before but it bears saying again: bridges are officially burning. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 8

  • With so few white children being given an opportunity to get jobs in State owned companies or even to assist our struggling dysfunctional municipalities and with BEE preventing some of our brightest whites from getting jobs in the private sector is it surprising that so much talent is emigrating?

  • The youth flies below survey radar. The recent BusinessInsider article focused on HNWI and tax base dilution. The usual assumption is it’s the racist whiteys leaving. Those left by 1994 or shortly thereafter. People are now emigrating before entering the job market. I see many, or various hues, taking up highly skilled immigration opportunities. There’s a large, mostly invisible brain drain of highly educated and skilled young people.

    • Working in a services firm of young professionals, emigration is an open question for all races. Skilled people are looking for better professional experiences not easily available here due to low growth. Botswana is an often talked about destination, as is the Middle East. It’s also becoming much easier to use and gain experience abroad without actually leaving, or before leaving. My sense is that skilled people do want to make a contribution here, and to the continent, but that it’s been made very difficult to do so.

      • With remote working, signs are we are losing skilled workers to remote employers. It’s a good hedge. Earn some Euros/Dollars/Pounds, build a track record and when the times comes, they have a job and likely sponsor for immigration. Either way, they’re lost to the local market. Most would love to stay, but just don’t see a long term future. I’m surprised no-one has done the survey/research yet.

        Another group is parents with children finishing school. Many universities have limited intakes for specialist fields like medicine. Emigration opens many study options and subsequent job opportunities and it’s easier to move the entire family.

  • I’m not that young, but still young enough to emigrate. I’ve lived in several cold countries. If I were to emigrate, I’d look for a nearby country in which skills are valued over other factors – both in the public and private sector.

  • Good piece Tim. Like you I am a “seasoned” professional writer with many miles on the clock. I have lived on four continents and visited 82 countries, some numerous times. I chose to spend the last 20 years in SA and still consider it one of the finest countries on earth, hoping to contribute in some small way to a strong, equitable future. But, despite my natural shield to doom and disaster, I can only watch as the country plunges headlong in a downward trajectory. I am not defeated but dispirited by the failure to recognise and nurture the best talent of all colours, the obsession with racism and tribalism, the total lack of political will, economic planning and transparency of process and the dogmatic hold of a failed ideology.
    I therefore have reluctantly decided to repatriate taking my knowledge, mentorship and financial wealth and would neither deny nor discourage any South African of any age to seek a more rewarding life or opportunity to sell their marvellous characteristics of tenacity, intellect and talent.