Emigration nation: should you get on the plane?

Is there a more emotive topic for the South African middle class than emigration?

We are staring down the barrel of the toughest economic times this country has faced since democracy. It makes the 2009 Global Financial Crisis look tame (the numbers don’t lie: real GDP fell -1.5% in 2009 and we are expecting worse than -7% in 2020).

When a ship is battling a terrible storm, the passengers look to the captain and leadership team for hope. Our leadership team isn’t inspiring confidence in anyone right now, forcing the passengers to at least consider whether the lifeboats might be a better option.

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This isn’t an SA-bashing article

It’s too easy to just say “of course you should emigrate” – the decision deserves far more analysis than that.

South Africa has problems, but we are still one of the most important emerging markets in the world. There’s still an S in BRICS. We are still in the G20. By no means are we some obscure country that has no relevance to global trends, junk status or otherwise.

There is unquestionably opportunity here. Although the overall economy has been stagnant in recent years, many have still made their fortunes here.

This is a long article, but you need to read it carefully

I’m going to take you through a decision process that looks at:

  • Mitigation of crime as the initial test
  • Separation of financial and physical emigration
  • How to make the physical emigration decision
  • Treating the views of SA expats with some caution

The most important caveat to objective analysis: crime

I want to explain the way I think about the emigration decision and the factors I consider, but I must first touch on the most difficult issue of all: crime.

It’s not about feeling safe, because very few countries are perfectly safe. It’s about feeling like you can successfully mitigate the risks.

I moved from Joburg to Cape Town partially because of how gorgeous Cape Town is, but also because I couldn’t handle the risk of violent crime happening to my family while driving between home and work. Cape Town has crime too, obviously, but the hijacking realities are a fraction of what they are in Joburg.

I felt that hijacking is a risk I cannot mitigate and so I semi-grated, along with thousands of other Joburg families.

Housebreakings, on the other hand, can be mitigated to a great extent by living in a secure complex. The risk is never zero, but it can be managed to an acceptable level in my opinion.

If you feel like you cannot mitigate the risks, or you cannot live a full life in South Africa because of crime, then you can stop reading. You should be on visa application sites instead, giving yourself a shot at happiness elsewhere. I totally get it and respect that decision.

Separating the financial and physical decisions

South Africans are allowed to take R1m offshore every year without jumping through hoops and up to R10m per year with permission from the SARB and some other paperwork nightmares from SARS.

I raise this because the vast majority of South Africans will never be at risk of not getting their money out. The exception to this would be a Zimbabwe-style liquidity crisis where the Rand literally becomes worthless in a matter of weeks, but I believe we aren’t at that point.

The Zimbabwe thesis is a frightening one though. Take a look at this Tweet I came across this week:

When doctors are getting food parcels from government, you need to really question what the hell is going on there.

If I believed that we are headed for Zim status in the next 3 years, there are two things I should be doing:

  1. Selling all my fixed assets (especially my house as soon as possible)
  2. Shifting all my Rands into offshore investments or JSE-listed investments with offshore exposure (e.g. S&P 500 ETFs)

This is the decision to financially emigrate rather than physically emigrate. It is often the precursor to physical emigration, but isn’t always.

I’ve already switched most of my “liquid exposure” (shares etc.) into offshore investments though. The concept of selling the house and becoming completely liquid is currently under family discussion.

I have a European passport, so that’s also an insurance policy for now considering I have no idea which country I would even move to.

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How do I make the physical decision?

Having already discussed the concepts of crime mitigation and financial emigration, we now need to look at the biggest decision of them all: physical emigration. This is the classic “packing for Perth” except Perth isn’t the usual choice anymore now that mining isn’t as attractive as it once was.

A four-quadrant decision matrix is a favourite tool for strategists. It allows you to assess four scenarios based on two variables. In this case, I believe the most important variables are:

  • Importance of proximity to family
  • Income prospects in South Africa

Obviously, these points are highly personal.

Let’s deal with the family point first. It’s easy: you either do or do not place high importance on being close to your family and close friends. This is especially difficult when you have kids. If you’re young and single and most of your friends have left anyway, then it’s much easier than when you are taking your kids away from their grandparents, for example.

The second point is trickier. Your ability to earn an income is a factor of your skills and your relationships. If you go overseas, your relationships start from scratch, so your skill set has to be fantastic and sought after in whichever country you go to.

Let’s look at the four scenarios:

Quadrant 1: Upskill / change job

If you want to be close to family and friends but your income prospects aren’t looking good, then you have to do a bit of soul searching and figure out how to upskill yourself in a new direction.

Should you start a business? Do you need to study further? Is it time to do something completely different? This is the decision facing many of the pilots at SAA, for example. It’s not a pleasant situation to be in, but the tough survive.

In some cases, there is little choice but to emigrate. This is the most emotional emigration of the lot, as it is based on push factors rather than pull factors and you leave your family behind.

Quadrant 2: Do not emigrate

The decision to not emigrate is only clear in one quadrant. If you want to be close to family and your income prospects are strong in South Africa, then physical emigration makes no sense (unless you cannot mitigate the crime issue).

With the right crime and financial risk mitigants in place, you can keep lighting the braai.

Full disclosure: I think of myself as being in this quadrant currently.

Quadrant 3: Emigrate

The decision to get out is also only clear in one quadrant. With weak income prospects and your family already somewhere else, why would you logically stay here?

Quadrant 4: Enter the global job market

This quadrant is typically where professionals with global mobility find themselves. They are specialists in a specific field and can work in many different countries.

If family isn’t an issue, then these people must logically continuously seek the best possible job market for their skills.

Treat the views of expats with some caution

Ask 10 South African expats whether you should emigrate and I guarantee 8 will give you a resounding yes. Of those 8, maybe half are genuinely happy.

South African expats don’t have it easy. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, their hearts still feel something when they think about braais, biltong and Springbok world cup victories.

Many will tell you that “leaving is the best thing they ever did” and “life is so perfect here” – which, in some cases, it is. In many cases it isn’t.

With the greatest of respect to expats, they suffer from confirmation bias and few are willing to admit it. I have enormous respect for those who are capable of giving a balanced answer.

They so desperately NEED emigration to have been the right decision that they only look for positives in the country they’ve moved to and they only focus on the negatives in their place of birth. Except when the Springboks win of course, then the expat population are the first to break out the green jerseys.

Once you’ve packed up your family and sold everything to move to a foreign land, you will seek confirmation all the time, even if you are sometimes really clutching at straws for good reasons why your life is now better.

The human psyche is far more complex and fascinating than even the markets.

Final thought: this is a fluid process

I don’t make this assessment once every 5 years. I do it almost continuously in my mind. The facts in front of us are always changing. Our country seems great one day and terrible the next.

Whatever you do, just do everything possible to take emotion out of the decision. Consider your options objectively and calmly and you stand a much better chance of making the right decision.

Good luck!

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  • Graham

    So I also believe I’m in quadrant 2, good income in SA and relatively safe. However, I fear for my children’s prospects…

    • The Ghost

      Absolutely – technically a super high income can fix that with overseas study opportunities, but that’s really a tiny proportion of the population that can afford that.

  • Stephen

    One aspect I feel you didn’t touch on. That is you want to be close to family and your financial status is ok. However what are the prospects for your children, what does there future look like. I personally left family and a good secure job to ensure a future for my children. You can mitigate certain aspects of crime, as you mentioned by living in a secure estate. What you didn’t mention is all that comes as a cost. Not everyone can afford to live in secure estates and complexes and frankly you shouldn’t have to. That is the whole point.

    • The Ghost

      I agree with you – we shouldn’t have to live like this. But one cannot make decisions based on what we wish the world looked like, much as we all wish we could! And re: kids, that’s absolutely right, although it goes back to my income point. With high income, your kids will be fine. They can study overseas and attend the best schools here. With lower income, it’s a huge problem. That’s why each of us needs to take a long hard look at the decision and try make it objectively. It’s difficult, because most of us do love South Africa!

  • Terry Yates

    Much of what said is pertinent, however the msot important point which is often overlooked is as follows:

    My situation was that I was successful in business as a director of a company, when at the time the ANC decreed that all businesses over 50 employees must be 51% BEE owned. I was expected to give away ownership of a company I had built up over years-ANSWER a big NO !.
    And lastly, I lived in an area which one had to pass through a boomed off suburb, electric gates, burglar alarm system with security call oiut, razor wire on pre=cast walls, and sensor beams in the garden. In fact I left my office to lock myself in my own prison-these are the msot important questions one must ask -is it reasonable to expect to have to live like that ?-I am now in New Zealand after transfering my business and do not ever have to ask or question myself that the decision I made was correct -I am in what is probably the closest thing to paradise, although its never 100% perfect and yes I miss my family , but if they want to stay they can always visit us.

  • Craig

    I’ve moved overseas and I can tell you it’s not easy but I’ll take not easy against living in SA any day. Just the crime issue is something we can go on about for ages. We don’t live a normal life in SA. ‘mitigating risk’ is not normal at least not in the SA context. Because you move from a normal suburb to a secure complex to feel safe is normal and risk mitigation in SA it’s not normal in other countries. Sadly you only realise this when you’ve left. The stress we live under is crazy and not normal. That’s not a life, it’s making the best of a crappy situation. we just adjust to make the best of an abnormal situation. Only when you can truly feel safe by seeing your kids walk home from school or ride their bikes or walking your dog at anytime of night…will you appreciate what you don’t get in SA. We haven’t even gotten to race or economic issues or even white collar crime or corruption. We can’t all leave, those that can might. those that can’t have to make the best life they can with what they have, but I’ll tell you something I’ve never been more chilled in my whole life and I earn less & live in a smaller home. but I’m safe, my kids are safe, I don’t pay for medical aid or private school fees either. What I sacrificed in the size of my home, the weather and the pay cheque ive gained in peace of mind. That is priceless

    • The Ghost

      There is definitely a “frog in the boiling water” argument where we normalise behaviours that are otherwise absurd in most other countries.

  • K

    For the first time in my life I am seriously considering emigrating. Things where already shaky pre-Covid-19, our economy was lagging behind in many respects. The Lockdown (although necessary ????????) made things worse. I am also not convinced that we have a clear action plan to pull us out of this rut.

  • Chelsea

    Having a European passport is a fantastic backup that most South Africans don’t have. I think more would stay if they had one, but for most, emigrating is the hard, but only way, to craft an escape route.

    Ironically the question of how close you want to be to family is what makes people emigrate, once you play out future scenarios. What often shifts people’s minds is when they realise that their children will most likely emigrate one day (if they can). For them it then becomes a question, do they leave their aging parents behind in South Africa now, or will they be the aging parents left behind in South Africa, away from their children and grandchildren. Which generation will be the one that has to tread the difficult path of leaving ‘home’?

    • The Ghost

      Absolutely right – it’s really tough to face the issue of “either we leave or our kids do”

  • Brandon

    Fantastic article, TFG. I’ve been living in the UK (London) for a few years now and I always do find it amusing at how some expats try so hard to prove to everyone else that they’ve made the right decision. At the end of the day, you are going to have pros and cons to the situation and should be willing to acknowledge the bad along with the good. ESPECIALLY when speaking to people and families that are strongly considering emigrating.

    I do feel a sub-factor that should be considered in the “Strong income prospects” is not only your ability to find work, but also the level of income that you are able to obtain. This allows you the ability to reduce the impacts of family proximity as you are able to fly, or pay to fly family to you, more often.

    Lastly, emigrating does not have to be seen as an irreversible or long term decision. Yes, emigrating with children does make it more difficult, given the effort and commitment with enrolling them in schools. However, you can still decide to emigrate for a few years with the intention to return to SA, conditional to the political, social and economical climate improving to an acceptable level. I fully agree with your sentiment that it is a fluid process. It is a fluid process on both sides of the emigration.

    Thanks for all the insightful content! I found your content through Daily Bagel only a few weeks ago and already feel more “in the know” than I ever have.

    • The Ghost

      Thanks for the detailed comment Brandon! I agree, a balanced view is so important and no decision is truly final. I hope you’ve subscribed for the mailer so you can make sure you never miss new content! Cheers, The Ghost

  • Dominique Reed

    Great and balanced article with interesting and valid points. We moved to the Netherlands, husband and wife both 57 years old, when my husband was transferred – January 2017. Fortunately we did not emigrate! Working on and planning our return to South Africa to happen within the next 18 months. In a sentence – You don’t realize what you have in South Africa – until you live elsewhere. Living in a country where everything is CONTROLLED by the Government leaves little room for growth, innovation and general well being. Human beings function as robots with no soul. It’s a stifling environment in the long term. For me personally, the experience of living in a so called (perceived) first world economy is not all “it’s made out to be”. South Africa is streets ahead on many fronts, to name a few – Medical & Banking. Discussions for another day, over a “lekker braai” and good old South African wine.

    • The Ghost

      Thanks for your comment! And good luck with your move back home. Indeed, the pastures aren’t always greener.

  • Philip King

    My sister from New Zealand phoned me in the middle of the night last night – time zones are not her thing – to ask if I was ok ‘cos she’d heard about all the looting and violence, and she asked me if I had considered emigrating. Then, a link to your article appeared this morning. Is this a sinister coincidence? Is it a sign from above? Nah. Your article was VERY good and sensible and cogent, but I absolutely love this country. I have lived here for 40-odd years and the mere thought of living somewhere else makes me shudder. I just wish we South Africans would take a minute – stop – and fix the basic stuff that needs fixing. It’s not rocket science. Then, I believe, South Africa would be one of the best countries in the world, and people would emigrate here.

    • The Ghost

      I totally agree with you. It’s the hardest decision to even contemplate!

  • Jenni

    Thank you for bringing this back into our inboxes TFG!
    Such a good article. I’m interested to know if you are more tempted to go now with the rioting and violent “protesters”. We would definitely feel more at ease if we had a EU passport in our back pockets, but I think your move to CT is definitely the next best decision that we need to consider as we are stuck with SA passports. In the meantime, we need to upskill to meet the skilled list.

    • The Ghost

      Jenni, I haven’t looked back since moving to Cape Town. It’s a very good compromise.

  • Salome

    Thank you TFG for a very well-thought-out article. My experience is kind of on the other side – my parents moved to the UK and I was born and raised there basically my whole life. When I finished school I decided to take a gap year in SA, which turned into a few, and now I’m studying here. I am very grateful to my parents for the opportunities I had in the UK, which I don’t take for granted, however, some aspects were sometimes difficult. In my experience, the grass is not greener, just different, and I agree that every country has its pros and cons. The crime levels may be better in the UK, however, it is by no means absent and there are still places you avoid and don’t wander around at night, as people do here. Free healthcare is something I am grateful for, but the struggle to get a doctors appointment and extensively long waiting lists for surgery that comes with it is also something to take into consideration. My parents struggled to build relationships in the beginning, as people in the UK tend to be far more reserved, whereas I found people here to be generally more friendly and outgoing, although it was a bit overwhelming in the beginning.
    I personally found it difficult growing up in a South African household surrounded by British culture everywhere else, in the sense that I am a mixture of both cultures and a foreigner in both. I also missed out on building relationships with my extended family, who we only saw roughly every 2 years. Overall, I think I have come to value my family all the more, and although my experiences are only one aspect, I look forward to seeing how things change and what lies ahead. I love both countries for different reasons and really believe each have something they bring to the table – I appreciate your objective approach to the topic of emigration and the importance of making an informed decision.

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