Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 23

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


South Africa is experiencing a substantial "brain drain", underestimated in official emigration statistics. Yet there is uncertainty over issues such as why some leave and others stay, whether people who leave do so for good, and whether the brain drain will accelerate in the future. The surveys upon which this paper is based aimed to add some substance to the debate on the loss of core skills to the South African economy. They present a profile of the skilled population of South Africa and provide some insight into the factors determining emigration potential. Two distinct surveys were conducted: one of South African citizens and one of non-citizens (i.e. foreign immigrants).

In this policy paper, the focus is on gender as a key variable influencing potential emigration. The survey results suggest that women have significantly lower emigration potential than men, despite a remarkable concurrence between male and female South African citizens in their general attitudes and specific concerns about life in South Africa and abroad.

The following are the main findings demonstrating women’s lower emigration potential:

• Almost three quarters (73%) of the men had given "some" or "a great deal of thought" to emigrating, whereas the equivalent figure for women was only 61%. The gender difference is most striking in the category of respondents who had given "a great deal of thought" to emigrating.

• Women were more likely to express a desire to live outside South Africa temporarily, whereas more men expressed a desire to leave permanently.

• As prospective emigrants, women were more likely than men to make frequent return visits to South Africa, less likely to dispose of assets in South Africa, and less likely to wish to retire or be buried in a foreign country.

• Women had more limited foreign travel experience than men, and lower levels of contact with foreign professional associations or employment agencies.

• Women were more likely than men to say that it would be difficult or very difficult for them to leave South Africa. In addition, close to half the men and two-thirds of the women said they could not afford to emigrate.

If the survey results were an accurate predictor of future emigration, then the brain drain, in addition to being largely white, would be predominantly male. However the fact that most people migrate not as individuals but in couples or families makes such a conclusion over-simplistic.

The relationship between gender and migration has to be considered in terms of gender relations and of migration as a household strategy.

Much of the survey questionnaire was concerned with identifying motives for emigration. The main findings of a gender-based analysis of the results were the following:

• There was remarkable gender agreement in people’s level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a range of "quality of life" indicators. Economic factors such as taxation and the cost of living, along with social concerns such as safety and security, are the main sources of dissatisfaction for both men and women.

• Within this broad overall concurrence, the categories for which skilled women expressed higher levels of dissatisfaction relative to men were employment-related factors such as their job, income, job security and prospects for professional advancement; and aspects of everyday family life such as access to acceptable housing, schooling and medical services.

• Overall women seem to be slightly more satisfied with their present quality of life than men, reinforcing the finding of women’s lower emigration potential.

• High levels of dissatisfaction on the part of both genders across a number of quality-of-life indicators confirm that there are several push factors that might encourage skilled emigration. Most respondents also anticipate a decline in social and economic conditions over the next five years, especially in education and health care. Such pessimism was higher among men than among women.

• The biggest "push" factors for both men and women were crime and lack of security. There was a small gender difference in the relative significance of factors that would encourage people to stay in South Africa: men ranked improved security first, followed by "family" and "patriotism", whereas more women ranked "family" as the primary consideration that would prevent them from emigrating.

It must be noted that the male and female samples of South African citizens were distinctive on a number of counts. Although the "white" racial category dominates both groups, the proportion of Africans was far higher among the female respondents than among the men. Women were concentrated in occupations such as nursing and teaching, whereas men dominated professions such as accountancy and engineering. The female sample was also younger, less married and poorer than the male sample. A straightforward gender comparison may therefore reveal less about gender alone than it does about the interaction between gender and these other variables.

Breakdown of the data by race-gender combinations suggests that African men have the highest emigration potential, followed by white men, African women and white women. Gender thus seems to be a more significant determinant of emigration potential than race. People of both race groups rated safety and security as the most significant push factor, reinforcing the national importance of addressing the crime problem as a deterrent to the brain drain. In terms of factors discouraging emigration, there seems to be a significant gender as well as a race dimension.

Women in both race groups were more likely than men to identify "family" as a reason to stay in South Africa; men of both races were more likely to cite "patriotism".

Demographic differences in the skilled foreigners sample likewise limit the utility of a straightforward gender comparison in understanding the "brain gain". Men in the sample came from a wider range of countries than the women surveyed, especially African countries. They were less likely than women to have permanent resident status in South Africa, and more likely to be recent immigrants. This suggests that in addition to an Africanisation of skilled immigration since the end of apartheid, there has also been a masculinisation. The notion of direct "skills replacement" is over-simplistic, but if skilled emigration means the loss of families to countries like Australia and skilled immigration means a gain of single men from Africa, then this brings with it a host of potential social consequences.

The decision to emigrate from (or immigrate to) South Africa clearly depends on the interaction of a host of forces, certain of which are experienced or perceived differently according to gender. Any attempt to influence those forces and their impact must therefore be based on a sound understanding of gender differences and similarities, as well as of gender relations:

• One key implication of the finding that women have lower emigration potential is that this is likely to act as a significant brake on skilled emigration of both genders. In practical terms, most emigration is undertaken collectively rather than individually. For men with permanent partners and family dependants, the opinions of those people will be perhaps the single most important factor determining whether their own emigration potential is turned into reality. Women’s reluctance to emigrate therefore serves to keep women and men in South Africa.

• Intuitively, one of the policy implications of this study might be that affirmative action on gender grounds could be an effective strategy for reducing South Africa’s brain drain. However, if such affirmative action were to lead to real or perceived disadvantaging of men, the strategy might prove counter-productive, encouraging skilled males to emigrate, taking their female partners with them.

• Another flaw in any simplistic gender-based strategy to reduce the brain drain is that the gender differences identified in the survey may have been caused by factors other than gender alone. Further analysis of the survey data, and indeed further surveys that allow more thorough demographic analysis, are required in order to investigate the cross-cutting of variables such as age, marital status, race, level of education, occupation etc. with gender, in determining migration attitudes and behaviour.

In understanding immigration or emigration, it is clear that "gender matters". Women make reluctant emigrants. They are nevertheless concerned about their families’ welfare and security. Reducing the threat of crime is the single most important factor that would encourage skilled South Africans of both genders and all races to see a future for themselves and their children in South Africa. Effective crime reduction would also encourage skilled immigration from other countries. The lesson from a gender analysis of the brain drain is that it is in the social sphere of security, education and health care that the solution to the loss of core skills to the economy must be sought.