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What's so attractive about South Africa?


What's so attractive about South Africa?

Copyright © 2007 Marisa Berndsen 

Used with permission of the author:
Author: Marisa Berndsen 
SOUTH AFRICA - The Good News project

22 November 2007
This article appeared in SOUTH AFRICA - The Good News, 09 November 2007.


When I met up with Martine Schaffer, managing director of the Homecoming Revolution, earlier this week she was full of energy. Surprisingly so, considering the month she has had.

The Homecoming Revolution team has just returned from its second Careers Expo in London. They were joined by 35 of South Africa and the world’s top companies looking to attract UK-based South Africans with important skills back home.

The two-day event provided an opportunity for these companies to connect directly with South African talent, and importantly, an opportunity for South Africans to realise the opportunities available to them on their return.

Martine’s energy levels were soon understandable as she talked enthusiastically of their successes at this year’s event, which saw 1200 people, serious about job prospects in South Africa, stream through the exhibition’s doors.

“This year really surprised us. The people that attended were very focused on the career prospects that booming South Africa has to offer them,” says Martine.

For many years the perceived threats of affirmative action have been a big deterrent to white South Africans returning. But the message that the demand for talent in our growing economy far outweighs the empowerment requirements that have been set finally seems to be hitting home.

“Job prospects and career opportunities in South Africa have really grown since we launched the initiative in 2003. We have to rely less and less on the emotional pull of home to attract people back,” explains Martine.

Justification of Martine’s optimism that more and more South Africans (and Britons) are viewing South Africa in a positive light came in a Sunday Times article last month, “Survey shows that more people come to South Africa than those that leave”. Contrary to popular belief, a snap survey conducted by the newspaper of three leading removal companies revealed that all three experienced more Britons and expatriates coming into South Africa than leaving. Stuttaford Van Lines, for example, saw an inbound versus outbound ratio of 1.8 over a 12-month cycle – so for every person that the company took out of South Africa to the UK, it brought close to two in.

Companies from across sectors attended the Careers Expo. According to Martine, the financial services and IT companies had the most success, probably because they can offer competitive salaries.

Indeed, a recent study shows that for mid- to senior managers, South Africa is a competitive place to work. The World Pay Report, conducted by global management consultancy Hay Group, and released in July this year, shows that local managers have more disposable income than those in the UK and other developed countries such as France, New Zealand and Canada. According to the report, South Africa’s senior managers earn an average disposable income of R700 000, while Britain’s managers earn in the vicinity of R600 000.

“Even the companies that didn’t attract the talent they had hoped they would were very positive about their experience seeing it as a great branding exercise and an opportunity to get in touch with the demands of a global marketplace,” observes Martine.

“Having multinationals like Oracle and Microsoft along also gives a positive message – that these companies are committed to investing and growing their businesses in this country.”

And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just white South Africans that make up London’s substantial South African community. According to Martine, the split between white and black South Africans at this year’s event was 50:50.

“As such, companies that came with us were not only able to interview candidates to plug their skills gap but had the added bonus of meeting equity targets too.”

Although people of all ages attended the event a large proportion were people in their thirties with young families. “Despite our challenges, people still consider South Africa a better place to bring up children,” says Martine. “They believe it offers their children a better education, an outdoor lifestyle and strong South African values that they can’t find abroad. Not having to travel as far to work and domestic help also means that they have more time to spend with their family.”

Stefan and Niki Steenkamp fit this profile. They went to London in 1997 with no intention of coming back. “I left straight after university, not bothering to look for a job in South Africa first because of affirmative action,” explains Stefan.

“Both my wife and I set up our own businesses in London and were very happy – London is a great place if you are single but it changes when you have a family. When I watched my kids having to play inside in a tiny front room for eight months of the year, I began to realise that I was denying them the amazing childhood we had as kids. Eventually we realised that we could no longer deny that the positives South Africa offered for our young family outweighed the negatives.”

Stefan and Niki came back last year and have set up their own video and photography business in Cape Town. “We were nervous to come home with three children and set up a business from scratch. But all our expectations have been exceeded – we broke even in just six months. What surprised us most is that 75% of the business we have attracted in the last year has come through word-of-mouth. It’s amazing how strong our networks are back here, even a decade later. This is totally different to the experience we had in the UK were we had to spend large sums of money on advertising to get our name out there.”

Stefan says they are overjoyed with their decision to come back home. “Since we have been back home we have found that we don’t have to work as hard, we spend more time with our family and friends, we live a much healthier lifestyle and we get away more.”

It’s not just families that are returning though. Brenda Hopewell (34) has just returned home after eight years in London. What has surprised her most has been the buzzing job market and an overwhelmingly positive response to the skill set she has acquired in the UK. She is already working, just three weeks after her return. “People are becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities back home and I would say that the majority of my friends now intend to return home in the next few years.”

Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn’t just South Africans who attended this year’s event. There were a number of British people, especially partners of South Africans, exploring opportunities that South Africa has to offer.

Ann Porter attended the event with her whole family – husband, children and grandchild. She and her husband are both British but lived in South Africa for ten years in the eighties and are desperate to get back.

“There are so many reasons why we can’t wait to get back to South Africa – the weather, the people, the opportunities for our children and grandchildren. Sure South Africa has challenges, but its not like we don’t have problems here, the only difference is that South Africa doesn’t hide its problems. I know there is crime, but there is crime everywhere, I am too scared to go out of my house at night here (in Milton Keynes) so its not as if I will be sacrificing anything.”

Both Ann’s husband, an engineer, and her son, an IT professional, have had leads for jobs in South Africa since their visit to the Homecoming Revolution exhibition.

Latest statistics show that South Africa is becoming an increasingly popular place for retired Brits. According to an article in the Sunday Times on 28 October, immigration companies claim that the number of British citizens emigrating to South Africa has increased by about 50% since 2003. According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, South Africa has now overtaken New Zealand to become the sixth most popular new home overall for British citizens.

However despite their positive experience in London, Martine is well aware that there is still much work to be done. Speaking to Bruce Whitfield on Talk Radio 702 last week, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel highlighted the skills shortage in South Africa. “We are not even close to where we need to be in respect of skills and that is a big investment that will separate a good from a bad future.”

Martine believes that we need to tap into the interest the Homecoming Revolution received from non-South Africans and be more aggressive in our quest to attract skilled people. “We need to be doing what US, UK, New Zealand and Australian companies do here and actively recruit skilled people abroad,” she says.

So what is it that is so attractive about South Africa and why would skilled people choose to come to our sunny shores?

Says Martine: “Every year we prepare ourselves to deal with a bombardment of questions about the challenges back home – crime, politics and so on. These issues didn’t really come up this year. This is not because they don’t exist or because they aren’t important, but because people are increasingly not just coming back to South Africa for emotional or lifestyle reasons, but because of career and job opportunities too.”

Marisa Berndsen is the Publications Editor of South Africa – The Good News and together with Steuart Pennington has just completed a book on the 2010 FIFA World Cup entitled 2010: Africa’s time has come which examines South Africa’s preparedness to host the tournament, and importantly, the lasting legacy that a successful tournament will leave. She is now in the process of researching and writing Africa – The Good News, which hopes to paint a different picture of Africa to the all to common one of political unrest and poverty. She has a Bachelor of Journalism from Rhodes University and has worked as a business journalist both in South Africa and the UK. 

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