Remittances to the developing world exceeded US$400 billion last year, far greater than official development assistance flows. While these soaring remittance flows are being celebrated by the developing world as a possible means of recovery from the departure of donors, South Africa should not be too hasty in popping open the champagne.

In a two-year study of remittance patterns and attitudes towards countries of origin among those who have left Southern Africa for the developed world, the Southern African Migration Programme (SAMP) found a vast difference between South Africans and those from the rest of the region.

While people from countries outside South Africa showed strong ties to home, with most remitting cash and goods frequently and regularly, South Africans had mostly used their education and skills to leave the country and had no desire to look back.

Researchers analysed survey responses of nearly 2 500 recent immigrants to Canada from countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the majority of the South Africans had entered Canada as economic-class migrants, less than 10 percent of them said that their primary reason for coming was economic. Conversely, 40 percent said that their main reasons for emigrating related to personal safety and security, as well as political reasons.

Among immigrants from other Southern African countries, only 20% entered Canada as economic-class migrants. While one-third entered as asylum seekers or refugees, only 23 percent of them cited politics or personal safety and security as primary reasons for entry.

In comparison to immigrants from other Southern African countries, those from South Africa are high earners. As many as 44 percent of the respondents said they earn more than 100 000 Canadian dollars (about R900 000) a year and a quarter earn more than double that. Yet, almost half never send money to South Africa and only 12 percent could be considered regular remitters, sending money back at least once a month.

Most also have no intention of returning to South Africa to work.

They are nostalgic about “home”, but while they keep in touch with their families in the country and return fairly often, most are not interested in being involved in development initiatives or help in skills transfer. In fact, their responses show that they strongly feel that they are victims of post-apartheid policies, rather than acknowledging that the education and skills they benefit from are in part a result of racist apartheid practices.

In contrast, nearly 70 percent of the immigrants from Southern African countries outside South Africa have much lower earnings than South Africans yet remit far more regularly. The average amount sent back is R9 000 a year. Just over half also remit goods with an average annual value of R4 500.

While immigrants from the region excluding South Africa focus their remitting on meeting the living expenses of their family back home, the money they send clearly has positive development implications at the household and community level, including contributing to improved food security and nutrition, medical expenses and education. Remittances have been shown to reduce the level, depth and severity of poverty.

SAMP made use of social media to track involvement in diaspora associations and found considerable evidence in Canada of diaspora-led contributions to Southern African countries in sectors including education, health, humanitarian assistance, gender and development, poverty reduction, food security, and basic amenities development.

A more thorough evaluation of these initiatives would help to identify best practices that could be scaled up, with appropriate financial backing, for broader impact.

While countries like Angola, DRC and Zimbabwe can safely weigh up the benefits of remittances to their economies against the brain drain of their citizens, the same cannot be said for South Africa.

In light of SAMP’s findings, South Africa has to face the reality that most of those who head north cut their ties and are economically lost to the country.

South Africa has to face the reality that most of those who head north cut their ties and are economically lost to the country.
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