Running away

August 15, 2002

"GOING TO America 101," the headline declares on a South African Web site. The site goes on to give detailed information on such subjects as obtaining a mortgage, the intricacies of car insurance and tipping in restaurants.

It's a sign of the times. South Africa is experiencing a brain drain: An estimated 100,000 people -- mostly white -- have moved away in the past three years. Worse yet, 70 percent of skilled workers in a recent survey said they are considering emigrating.

This has emerged as one of the biggest challenges in post-apartheid South Africa. About 35 percent of medical doctors who graduated in the 1990s from the University of the Witwatersrand, the country's leading English-language school in Johannesburg, have moved to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States or England. The banking sector also has been hard hit.

Many emigrating professionals list crime as the No. 1 reason for their departure. Indeed, South Africa's homicide, carjacking and rape rates are among the highest in the world. But many white professionals also may be uncomfortable about President Thabo Mbeki's black government. Hundreds of thousands had been recruited from other countries to work in South Africa during the apartheid rule. But they still retain their original citizenship.

The exodus is bad news. The exit of so many top professionals dampens hopes for rapid economic growth. Moreover, the loss of each skilled professional is reckoned to destroy as many as 10 unskilled jobs.

Until now, the government has paid little attention to this problem. In the future, it will have to.

As decades of apartheid systematically eroded the educational opportunities for non-whites, South Africa produced few black doctors, accountants or engineers. In fact, hundreds of professionals from such countries as Ghana and Nigeria have moved there in recent years to fill the void.

Many business leaders think that if South Africa wants to enjoy widespread, long-term economic growth, it again has to start bringing in foreign professionals, including whites. The Mbeki government, though, does not share that view.

It would rather see local companies train blacks to fill the vacancies created by emigrating professionals. But because of the legacy of inferior education during apartheid, this is often difficult to do. That's South Africa's dilemma.

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