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South African Ex-Pats Heading Home To Escape Economic Crisis In UK, US

Often white and well-trained, South Africans are leaving their adoptive homes in the "developed world" to return to their native land where the cost of living is lower and jobs are more plentiful. Some whites, though, complain they are s

Life is nice at the Johannesburg Zoo (Axel Bührmann)
Life is nice at the Johannesburg Zoo (Axel Bührmann)
Sébastien Hervieu

JOHANNESBURG - "I would have loved to stay in London," says Rykie Pretorius, an interior designer. Following three years in the British capital, the South African native landed back in Johannesburg in December 2009 after the company she worked for in London didn't renew her contract because of the recession. "So I had to come back," she says.

Numerous other South Africans have since followed her path, they too victims of the growing economic crisis in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and even New Zealand.

According to a study by Adcorp, a recruitment agency, of the 285,000 South Africans, mostly high-qualified Whites, who had left to work abroad since 1990, 39,000 purchased a return ticket between mid-2009 and mid-2010.

"The rhythm has accelerated over the past year," estimates the study's author, Loanne Sharp, a specialist in the South African jobs market. The wake-up call caught many of these engineers and finance specialists off guard. Suddenly there were consequences to the fact their contracts were only good for three to five years.

Some didn't even have the funds to move back, says Tyron Whitley, an former London ex-pat, today back living in Durban, where he has started a company that ships returning South Africans' cars. Whitley's order book has doubled since 2009.

It is difficult to calculate precisely the breadth of this phenomenon due to the dual nationality of some of the new arrivals. But, says Brigitte Britten-Kelly, director of the Internet site Homecoming Revolution, which proposes practical advice for returning South Africans: "There are some 100 requests for information a month, and I noted a 137% jump in visitors on the website over one year."

South Africa needs their skills

Created in 2003, this organization actively encourages South Africans who have left the country to come back in order to help the local economy, which could benefit from their skills. The 25% unemployment rate at a national level is misleading. For the most qualified executives, it doesn't go above 1.5%, and the powerful emerging economy is coming up against a lack of skills in certain sectors due to the under-qualification of a large part of the population. "It's the case in engineering, construction, and new technologies," says Bonnie Currin, marketing director at PAG, a recruitment agency.

Still, though jobs are more plentiful in South Africa than elsewhere, returning South African executives often have unrealistic financial expectations, and are disappointed by the local salary scale. Living in South Africa also means factoring in race with job prospects. In targeted sectors, some candidates struggle to find a job because of the "BEE" (Black Economic Empowerment) program, set up in South African companies, mainly for Black people, to address the inequalities linked to the legacy of apartheid. Thus, a part of positions advertised are reserved for BEE candidates.

For other South African ex-pats, returning home is more of a lifestyle choice than a purely economic decision. After being overseas for several years, a large number of South Africans reaching their 30s decide to definitively return to their homeland to start a family, and benefit from a better quality of life.

When his wife became pregnant with their second child in 2010, Carel Bouwer, who had been living in Paris for three years, decided it was time to pack their bags. "Here, in Johannesburg, we bought a house of 160 square meters (1,722 square feet) with three bedrooms for 850,000 rands (80,000 euros) – we have a cleaning lady for 100 rands (9.50 euros) a day," notes this manager at Lafarge, a construction materials company. "Imagine how much all that would have cost in the 16th arrondissement of Paris!"

The couple can also make the most of the presence of grandparents to look after the children. Despite the advantages and an exceptional rate of sunshine, certain South Africans have still found it difficult to adapt. "Obtaining a telephone line, taking administrative steps, everything is slower than in London," grumbles Charl Whitlock, who has opened a restaurant in Pretoria.

In the future, this father of one doesn't so much fear the crime rate as much as the corruption which, in his opinion, is poisoning the current crop of managers and risks putting a stranglehold on the economy for the next 10 to 20 years. "My wife and I both have dual citizenship," says Whitlock. "I don't think going back one day to England is out of the question."

Read more from Le Monde in French

photo - Axel Bührmann

*Note: an earlier version of the story included a quote, which has since been removed because of a misunderstanding between the person cited and the correspondent.

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