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Emigration | South Africa |

South Africa International Migration in South Africa


Katharina Schilling

/ 5 Minuten zu lesen

South Africa has attracted immigrants ever since its colonization by the Netherlands and Britain in the 17th and 18th century. Especially immigrants from the region of Southern Africa are drawn to the economically prospering country in search for work.

Demonstration against the Apartheid in South Africa in London 1985: One high point of emigration was in 1977, when more than 25,000 people left the country. Among them were many Black political activists, who worked in exile against the South African government. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

For the last 20 years, the net migration in South Africa has been negative. That means that more people have been leaving South Africa than are entering it. Especially the emigration of highly skilled labor is an enormous problem. Historically, significant emigration movements in South Africa were usually triggered by political and societal crises. The first emigration movement took place after the victory of the Afrikaner Party at the parliamentary elections in 1948; many people of British descent – referred to as Anglos – saw the British domination of the country threatened, and they emigrated. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a rise in protests against the White population and the discriminating Apartheid policies. The violent repression of these protests and the increasingly civil-war-like conditions led many people to leave South Africa (cf. Figure 5). One high point of emigration was in 1977, when more than 25,000 people left the country. Among them were many Black political activists, who worked in exile against the South African government. Also many Anglos left the country to avoid the military draft. From 1989 to 1997 an estimated 233,000 South Africans emigrated to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the USA.

More emigration arose as the optimism at the end of Apartheid quickly became overshadowed by the realization that the effects of the inhumane system would continue to divide the country. For the first time a significant number of these emigrants included Afrikaner, the descendants of the Dutch who settled the colonial Cape of Good Hope. Since the end of Apartheid emigration has continued to increase – especially in the form of labor migration. This can be seen in the negative net migration in South Africa. Between 2000 and 2003 it was -18,982. The exact number is, however, difficult to determine because there is no legal obligation to register your move with the local authorities. At the airport one is asked to give information as to the reason for his/her flight out of the country, but answering is only voluntary. For this reason Figure 5 only includes those people who actually declared that they were emigrating. It is estimated that one and a half to two percent of the South African population live outside the country.

Figure 5: Immigration and emigration, 1965-2003 (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Reasons for Emigration and Countries of Destination

People emigrate for numerous reasons and with many different motivations. A lack of economic, societal and political stability, especially after the end of Apartheid, motivates many to leave. Additional reasons include the unfavorable labor market, the growing unemployment rates and poverty, an increase in violence and crime, but also a general worsening of the living conditions, for instance due to higher costs of living and taxes, the miserable state of health care services and the education system, as well as increased xenophobia.

Many South Africans emigrate with the hope that they will find better prospects for the future as well as more security and stability. Pull factors in other countries also include better employment conditions and higher wages. Another factor in this decision may be particular other countries’ recruitment programs aiming to deal with their own sector-specific labor shortages.

The majority (75 percent) of South African emigrants live in five destination countries: Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA. These so-called Big Five hold long migration relationships with South Africa and all have significant South African migrant communities. The choice for a particular destination country is influenced by many different factors. Similarities in language and culture are obvious for the Big Five. Another important consideration is the contact that potentially emigrating people have to those who have already emigrated, since this is helpful, for instance, for gaining information about a country or searching for a job. But also legal regulations in the respective countries sway migration flows, because they can make immigration easier or more difficult.

Brain Drain

Like many countries in the Global South, South Africa is increasingly affected by the emigration of highly skilled labor. This is especially the case for the health care sector, which has been going through a tremendous transformation process since the end of Apartheid. Aside from the already named reasons for emigrating, other factors may be, for instance, especially difficult working conditions, lower pay than abroad, and the prevalent confrontation with diseases such as HIV/AIDS. In Great Britain alone, 5,305 (that is, two percent) of the 267,323 doctors registered there in October 2014 had been trained in South Africa.

The emigration of skilled workers is referred to as a brain drain. In the short term, this leads to the loss of human capital as well as financial resources, which had been invested in the training of emigrated skilled labor. In the long term, this trend endangers the economic and social development of the country. South African employers react to this brain drain by recruiting skilled labor from other countries (see above). Since these workers usually come from the neighboring countries, the brain drain phenomenon extends to the entire South African region. The brain drain problem in South Africa was underestimated for a long time, but now three political strategies are being taken to confront it: first, developing incentives to stay, for instance with better working conditions; second, easing the recruitment of foreign skilled labor; third, motivating emigrants to return to the country.

Emigration – especially of highly skilled labor – will be an important challenge in South Africa’s future. For this reason it is important to ask how South Africa can counteract the shortage of skilled labor, use its existing human resources better, and invest in the development of the country.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile South Africa.



  1. Myburgh (2004): 141; Segatti/Landau (2011): 72.

  2. Lucas et al. (2006); Segatti/Landau (2011): 72; Louw/Mersham (2001).

  3. Myburgh (2004); Lucas (2006); Adepoju (2003).

  4. Bhorat et al. (2002); Brown et al. (2001); Lucas et al. (2006); Bhorat et al. (2002).

  5. General Medical Council (2014).

  6. Crush et al. (2005); Bezuidenhout et al. (2009); Grant (2006); Ellis/Segatti (2011); OECD (2004).


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Katharina Schilling holds a bachelor's degree in social work of the Catholic University of Applied Sciences North Rhine-Westphalia (Cologne) and is currently enrolled in the master's program "International Migration and Intercultural Relations" at the University of Osnabrück, Germany
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