Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


It is a human inclination to want to position oneself where conditions are best for personal fulfilment, growth and success. People migrate because they perceive their environment as inadequate in terms of what they desire or deserve. The more deserving they consider themselves the more likely they will be to leave a suboptimal environment in search of one in which they will be appreciated – through recognition or pay – and where they can develop their potential, live securely, work towards their goals and enjoy standards with which they align themselves.

Skilled people recognise that they have something to offer; they have a bargaining chip for a better quality of life. Their services or expertise are in demand and they encounter fewer hurdles in changing to a new environment. In a rapidly globalising world, skills can move further and more easily than ever before. Globalisation is offering increased opportunities for skilled people to migrate.

There is a loss to the original environment when a skilled person leaves. This loss can be measured in terms of a shrinking skills base, a decreased capacity to deliver services, diminished capital, a loss of attractiveness for investment, lost potential for invention and innovation, lower transfer of knowledge and expertise and a shrinkage in the economy. There is also a social element of loss where those left behind may feel inferior and develop hostility towards those who leave.

Nevertheless, it is neither ethical nor fair to expect people to curb their desire to migrate towards better circumstances – real or perceived. Governments would be illadvised to suppress such aspirations among their people. While there is a need to recoup the loss, the most obvious policy direction would be to create an environment that fewer skilled people would consider sub-optimal. This is difficult under conditions where vast numbers of skilled people are leaving or have left. However, the bulk of research within the field of the brain drain suggests that South Africa is not under undue threat and remains capable of creating an optimal working and living environment if committed to do so.

In the South African context, it is essential that economic growth continues, that large investments are made in skills development and training and that attention is directed towards filling needed skills gaps. Plans should be developed to ensure that salaries of skilled professionals become internationally competitive. The participation of the diaspora should be maximised. Recognition should be given to innovators and academics who raise the standards of what South Africa is producing. Many of those who are ahead in their fields are developing brands for South Africa that will inevitably draw in greater investment for greater development.

Moreover, it would be wise to engage in public information campaigns highlighting employment standards and social conditions in countries that are frequent destinations for our skilled people. The fear of comparing South Africa to other countries should be pushed back by the courage to market South Africa and highlight its development. Relying on a sense of patriotism and duty is not sufficient to keep skills or entice them back home. The human dimension must be properly considered. Are we making it worthwhile for skilled South Africans to stay in South Africa or are we leaving them no choice but to go?