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Mon 29 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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The new South African exodus

As many as 50,000 South Africans have moved to the UAE amid rising unemployment at home where one in four people in the country don't have a job. But what will it take to convince them to return home?

As many as 50,000 South Africans have moved to the UAE amid rising unemployment at home where one in four people in the country don't have a job. But what will it take to convince them to return home?

Jackie Longworth was on her way to dinner with friends in Johannesburg when she was robbed by armed men as she withdrew money from an ATM at a filling station.

In an instant she had become one of the 1.1 million victims of crime in South Africa every year - more than 300,000 of them involving theft including robbery.

Today the 30-year-old marketing coordinator has moved to Dubai, lured by safer living, better pay and vastly improved prospects. "I think there's a lost generation of South Africans right now," she says.

As many as 50,000 South Africans have moved to the UAE according to the country's Consulate General in Dubai, fleeing violent crime and high unemployment. More than 18,000 people were murdered in the country in the year through March according to South African Police Force statistics. Only one in four people are employed.

It has led to an exodus of South African ethnic minorities in a trend which has become known as "packing for Perth", as more and more of them leave to start new lives in Australia, Europe, the US and increasingly the Arabian Gulf.

Longworth also blames affirmative action hiring policies of the governing African National Congress for the migration. I know friends that studied as chartered accountants but couldn't get the position because of their colour and had to leave the country to follow their careers somewhere else. White males back home are being told they lie fifth on the employment ladder."

But after becoming the victim of two attempted carjackings and, most frighteningly for Longworth, the armed robbery at the ATM, within the space of 18 months, she decided she had to leave.

"I was withdrawing money from an ATM and four guys pulled up," she recalls. "One of them tried to tell me he worked for the bank but I could smell the alcohol on him and I had another one standing behind me holding something to my side, to this day I'm not sure whether it was a knife or a gun. But I pretty much had to do what they said and hand over the card as I feared for my life."

Emma Pinkerton, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Johannesburg, is another recent arrival in Dubai, who left because she couldn't get a job.

She says she became increasingly frustrated as she sent her CV to a succession of design agencies, rang around recruiters and scoured employment websites in her search for a job in Johannesburg

As a white middle class female, Pinkerton was repeatedly told she didn't fit the profile of someone who had been previously disadvantaged, under the terms of the South African government's black economic empowerment initiative.

Nine months later, she is happily settled in Dubai after landing her dream job with brand design consultancy Genius Loci.

The white male population of South Africa aged between 25 and 44 has declined 12.8 percent to 595,435 between 2001 and 2008, according to government estimates. The white female population has declined by a greater measure over the same period - dropping 13.2 percent to 589,439.

According to the Dubai Residency and Naturalisation Department (DRND), entry permits issued for South African nationals reached approximately 70,000 last year. Estimates provided by the Consulate General of South Africa in Dubai suggest there are more than 50,000 South Africans residing in the UAE.

Accurate figures are not available as a large number of South Africans have dual nationality and often use non-South African passports to enter the UAE, and as a result, are not captured as South Africans, says the Consul General.

"Judging by the increase in the number of businesses since my arrival in December 2005, there appears to be a continuous growth in the South African population in the UAE. We expect the trend to continue in the future as more businesses set up," says Consul-General Agnes Nyamande-Pitso.Former President and Nobel laureate Frederik Willem de Klerk, blames "unbalanced affirmative action" as one of the reasons behind the emigration of ethnic minorities from the country.

But Nyamande-Pitso counters that emigration is a "normal process that happens in all democratic countries in view of globalisation". "Whilst people are leaving South Africa, others from the region are going to South Africa as they see it as a promising job market," she says, adding: "It is interesting to note that some of those people leaving return to South Africa once they realise that the grass is not always greener on the other side."

The ANC was unavailable to comment on the claims and the South African Department of Labour did not respond to calls and emails.

John Loos, an economist at First National Bank of South Africa, does not agree and cites the change in leadership of the ANC as one reason that people are leaving.

"I think it has a lot to do with the political leadership change of the African National Congress.

"One of the problems we have in South Africa is that we are not that used to democratic set up and every time there is a political leadership change we get rather jittery, not the whole country but minority race groups," he says.

"The people that seem to go are not the people who struggle to find jobs - professionals like engineers. We have this big construction boom so there's no shortage of work, but the problem is there is a big construction boom elsewhere in the world as well. The other countries are often headhunting civil engineers here," says Loos.

Two of South Africa's biggest construction players, Murray & Roberts and Group Five, have established Dubai units and are recruiting increasing numbers of South Africans to work on projects in the Gulf.

Janet Mamirbayeva, client manager and recruitment consultant, at ABC Consultants, says an increasing number of South Africans are in demand for specific sectors such as engineering, communications and public relations.

"South Africans have experience in civil engineering works and manufacturing. The construction and property boom brings them here," says Mamirbayeva.

"They settle here easily compared to other westerners because they come from a multi-cultural background. It's also safer for them here.

"The stability and tax-free environment are incentives for South Africans to come to Dubai," she says.

Loos argues that many of the "risks" that whites face in South Africa are "misplaced". The white population has been taken down a level from the position of privilege it used to enjoy, argues Loos.

"In the human mind when you've had a privilege for long enough you come to regard it as a right and when it gets taken away you see it in a negative light.

"I think that's the problem. Whereas, if you take the black population on the other hand, they come from a position of under-privilege," he says.

In the meantime, for émigrés like Jackie Longworth, Emma Pinkerton and 50,000 other South Africans thought to be living in the UAE, the Gulf has become a home away from home.

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