Skills diaspora goes into reverse

November 12, 1999


Sansa wants to make contact with more skilled South Africans abroad. Information from Lynda Loxton on: + 21 461 7321 or + 82 784 4621, email: Or visit its website at: South African academics lost to the brain drain and now dispersed around the world are being recruited into a network of highly qualified people on whose skills and knowledge the country hopes to continue to draw.

A University of Cape Town programme is aiming to transform the outflow of talent into a "brain gain", by putting skilled people abroad in contact with individuals, groups and communities who want to make use of their expertise and experience.

The South African Network of Skills Abroad (Sansa) has sent letters to about 28,000 South Africans living elsewhere and has already recruited 1,900 well-qualified people in 67 countries.

All are willing to help South Africa tackle its huge development challenges.

"We hope to recruit 2,000 people by the year 2000," said Jean-Baptiste Meyer, a sociologist and programme coordinator. "They will provide very cheap human resources for who they are. This is not asking expensive foreign experts but drawing on an existing resource base that just has to be mobilised."

Nearly half of the expats who have joined so far are in academia. "Their most frequently cited form of work is research, then management and teaching."

The government estimates that 82,811 South Africans emigrated between 1989 and 1997. But Sansa believes the number "could be closer to 233,609", many of them highly skilled.

Sansa collected data from five leading South African universities that revealed a huge skills diaspora. There are 21,485 graduates living abroad whose addresses are known. Half have gone to just three countries: the United Kingdom (20 per cent), Australia (17 per cent) and the United States (13 per cent).

At the UCT 28 per cent of doctoral graduates are known to live abroad - twice as many as among all UCT graduates. Many are being lost in areas of acute skills shortage: 43 per cent of medical graduates have left, 30 per cent in commerce, per cent in education, 26 per cent in science and 25 per cent in engineering.

Based in Cape Town's Science and Technology Policy Research Centre, Sansa is supported by the French Institute of Research for Development, which built a similar network in Colombia. The Latin American expertise has been transferred to UCT, though the project has been developed by Mr Meyer and economics professor David Kaplan.

"Our first step has been to characterise the kinds of skills networkers can provide and that is what our database reflects," said Professor Meyer. "They operate in many different skills areas, from arts to engineering. Every important field of knowledge is covered by these people."

Now, Professor Kaplan added, "it is up to us in South Africa, whatever our occupation or field of interest, to make use of it."

Despite enthusiastic take-up by expats, the network is not yet well known. "When people here begin to draw on its resources, connections will happen. There are more offers from the diaspora than there are requests from South Africans," said Professor Meyer.

Sansa believes a range of activities could be initiated through the network, from receiving graduate students abroad, training programmes and initiating research projects to technology transfer, sharing research results and making business contacts.

The idea is that expats will offer their services on a voluntary basis. But Sansa does not want to rule out business opportunities, and is not only recruiting experts but also business people and professionals. "Finances will be up to those concerned," Professor Meyer said.

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