The SA Brain Drain – Where are our Skilled Workers Going and Why?


South Africa has been shedding vital skilled workers more or less continuously since around 1995. While there has always been some ebb and flow in these migratory movements, the overall trend in emigration is an upward one. According to the World Bank, the number of educated, South African-born professionals living abroad increased from 307 000 to 745 000 between 1995 and 2017. In the ensuing two years, this total has surely increased and has shown some acceleration in the face of land reform and the state capture scandal. 

Pull factors

When considering emigration, we must look at both push and pull factors. The push factors driving workers out of the South African labour market are fairly well documented: most often mentioned are economic slowdown, corruption, political fears, land and BBBEE policies, among others. But when people decide to leave the country, where do they go and what informs their decisions regarding their final destinations?

The top five countries favoured by expatriates are all high income economies with good capacity to absorb and reward them. At the top is the United Kingdom, one of the world’s top five economies with high levels of employment, a steadily strong currency. As South Africa’s former colonial power it still retains some of its status as a “mother country” economic centre. Next up is Australia, which has all the benefits of the UK, together with a climate and culture that is more familiar to South Africans. Third is the United States, the powerhouse of the Western world, offering a wide range of vocational, financial and living opportunities. Then there’s Canada, often seen as a second option or gateway to the USA, and New Zealand, which offers similar cultural benefits as Australia. 

Although these countries are quite different in many ways, they also have a number of common pull factors for South Africans. They offer good education and business environments, financial strength and stability, varying levels of desirable state benefits and a good standard of living. They are also countries that have English as an official language, together with Anglophone cultures that South Africans – even those who are not mother tongue English speakers – find relatively easy to adapt to. 

Bureaucracy, culture and the weather 

From the South African point of view, all of these countries offer similar potential benefits. What is often the deciding factor as to whether tickets are booked for Perth, London or Toronto, is a combination of culture, climate, specific opportunities and bureaucracy. All five of these countries are becoming harder to get into, but some of them have more difficult barriers than others. The UK has historically been the most accommodating, although this has changed in the past decade or so. The USA has a long process of residency acquisition and Australia’s protective labour environment has always made immigration a challenge. In all of these cases, the path is eased substantially by employers inside the host countries. Without these in place, immigration for South African citizens is virtually impossible.

 Another important factor is climate. For South Africans, who live in one of the world’s most temperate and warmest countries, the UK, Canada and parts of the USA are regarded as too cold. Many will not regard this as a barrier, but just as many would sooner seek out the more comparably attractive climate of Australia. 

All migrants seek out prosperity and security that they see as unattainable at home. The same is true of South Africans. However, we in particular appear to have a low tolerance for acclimatisation compared to other migrants. They look for environments that offer maximum benefits and minimal discomfort in terms of adapting and settling in. This results in a complex set of push and pull factors that potential emigrants, business owners, investors and government should take into account.

Jason Scholtz is the CEO at Envision Investments and a leader in the property and strategic investments industry in South Africa. For more investor tips and an insider’s look into the South African market, be sure to get in touch, keep an eye on this blog or visit

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