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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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.
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