Assessing the South African brain drain: a statistical comparison

Assessing the South African brain drain: a statistical comparison

Emigration and immigration: the South African figures

What are the true dimensions of migration and the brain drain in South Africa? The accuracy of the official statistics on the extent of emigration from South Africa, particularly skilled people, has been increasingly questioned by journalists and academics. Doubts arose in the mid-90s as empirical findings indicated that the departures were far higher than the data published by Central Statistical Services indicated. This paper attempts to answer this question, by conducting a systematic comparison of South African emigration official data with those of other countries.

Two methods are used to extract a realistic picture of the extent of migration from South Africa: the first method measures the discrepancies between SA and other countries' data; the second estimates the realistic outflows of skilled South Africans. A description of the data precedes the explanations about both methods, followed by a presentation of the main results. The paper then assesses the discrepancy, estimating the brain drain and attempts to correct the picture.

The paper finds that:

  • for the last decade, SA has lost about 4600 professionals every year, which represents 0.3 per cent of its national stock
  • in terms of labour market flows, the brain drain levy on the professionals turn over nationally is around thirteen per cent
  • whilst the brain drain is a significant percentage, and a considerable concern for the development of the country, it is not of a magnitude that puts the country’s immediate future in jeopardy

The paper concludes that:

  • the brain drain is three times higher than that described in official statistics, however, its recent increase is much smaller than what the official data indicates
  • when put in perspective, the brain drain is not a deluge, moreover, it is not narrowly tied to the political changes of the last decade
  • the brain drain is a slow though significant erosion of the country’s human resources and endowments
  • emigration has been going on for decades, however what makes it more critical today is that it is no longer compensated by immigration
  • there has never been such a degree of loss for such a long time, moreover, the trend is not improving

The implications include that:

  • South Africa is not under threat of a sudden and massive desertion of its talents
  • the issue should not be narrowly politicised, the phenomenon does not originate in the recent political changes, though they do have an impact on its evolution
  • over the longer term, the country cannot afford to continue to loose these skills which are ever more necessary to its development