A Different Sort of Revolution

Dec 21 2004

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Dec 21 (IPS) – As the year hurtles to a close, a good many inhabitants of South Africa’s commercial hub, Johannesburg, have deserted their home town for coastal resorts.

Those still making their weary way to work along one of the city’s major highways, the M1 South, have of late been confronted with an interesting billboard, however. This giant sign is promoting the ‘Homecoming Revolution’, a campaign that aims to persuade South Africans who are living abroad to return to their country, and help rebuild it.

The initiative has particular resonance at a time of year when absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder, and people who have family members abroad feel their loss sharply.

According to Martine Schaffer, chief manager of the ‘Homecoming Revolution’, up to five million South Africans are living in other countries, although this figure is open to dispute. The largest concentration of ex-South Africans is said to be in Britain.

“People leave for various reasons,” observes Mark Herrington, who has worked with the World Bank on a project to help South African businesses make use of the country’s diaspora to branch out into international markets. “I left South Africa in 1986 because I didn’t like apartheid.”

The project was started in conjunction with the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. Herrington is director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the business school.

Many professionals joined Herrington in quitting South Africa to protest against its system of racial segregation. Still more emigrated after the end of apartheid in 1994, many of them whites who were uncertain of their future under black rule.

High rates of violent crime are also cited as one of the factors that has prompted the exodus of doctors, nurses, teachers and other skilled workers. This so-called “brain drain” is the subject of intense debate in South Africa, where those who board flights out of the country are sometimes disparagingly referred to as having joined the “chicken run”.

Whatever the motives of those who left, the ‘Homecoming Revolution’ would like to see them return.

“A lot has changed since (South Africa embraced) multi-party democracy ten years ago,” Schaffer told IPS. “Often when people go abroad they find that it’s not a green pasture.”

Those who come back, she adds, can help address the apartheid legacy of widespread unemployment, and the poverty that goes hand-in-hand with it.

“When the expatriates come back, they can create jobs. For every skilled person who comes back 10 jobs are created,” notes Schaffer.

The campaign, which has amongst its sponsors a local bank, has planned seminars and exhibitions for mid-2005 in London to promote the virtues of living in South Africa. And, there are hopes that similar events will be held in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States – all popular destinations for South African emigrants.

In November, a party organised in central London was attended by 150 South African immigrants. “People were keen to know what was happening in the country,” says Schaffer.

In addition, the Johannesburg-based campaign has set up a website ( www.homecomingrevolution.co.za) where people who are interested in the initiative can register. About 50 people are said to do so every week.

“Of the 1,500 people who have registered in the past six months,” says Schaffer, “only 10 percent say they are not coming home.”

The site provides information on a host of matters that are of interest to possible returnees, such as the regulations governing dual citizenship and the taxation of foreign funds.

It also allows expatriates to exchange ideas about burning issues in South Africa, and in some cases blow off steam.

“BEE (black economic empowerment policy) worries the hell out of me. I want to be judged on my skills, experience and international exposure. Not the colour of my skin,” says one contributor, all the while acknowledging that life elsewhere can be difficult as well: “I was sent to the UK (United Kingdom) for a 2 week contract once and I know the quality of life there is not that good.”

“I have high hopes for Oz (Australia)!!! The disappointing thing about South Africa is that you have to earn so much money to live an average life. Overseas you can be earning an average salary and still enjoy yourself,” the contributor goes on to say.

These opinions spark dissenting views.

“I think that you people are rather sad. You go out of your way to complain about a country you decided to leave. People have suffered for a long time, whilst people like you benefited. Jobs were given to uneducated “boers” (descendants of Dutch settlers) by virtue of them being white. Now, they have to work for it,” says another contributor.

“I have lived in Canada (Toronto), New York (Long Island), Ireland (Wexford) and now in Switzerland (Zurich) and can say with certainty that we compare and sometimes exceed many services (in those countries). South Africa is not perfect and is certainly not Eutopia but I am certainly looking at investing my cash in South Africa,” this person adds, identifying themself as being “Proudly South African.”

Schaffer says her initiative, which got underway two years ago, has no intention of sweeping controversial issues like crime, AIDS and BEE under the carpet.

But in the case of certain emigrants, too much water may have gone under the bridge.

“I believe that South Africa is a great place to come to,” says Herrington. “But some people have already established themselves overseas…I don’t know whether they would come back.” (END/2004)

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