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SA should be embracing immigrants, not castigating them

Tim Cohen

As every scholar knows, the roots of what we know now as civilisation and democracy derive from huge strides in made in the city-state of Athens around 2500 years ago.

“Civilisation” is, of course, a loaded term: the amount of uncivil behaviour exercised in the name of civilisation is as legendary as the pillars of the pantheon. But to the extent the world has embraced the notion of the ‘demos’, the citizenry, and ‘kratos’, the power or rule, the people responsible are the Greeks.

So how is it possible that with such an enormous head-start on every other place on earth, that the economy of Greece is so dismal. In the early 1990’s, German GDP per capita was a short head higher than that in Greece. It’s now almost double.

There are lots of reasons, causes and explanations. But one topic dominates; immigration. There have been three waves of emigration from Greece, all associated with economic strife.

The first was between 1903 and 1917 and involved mainly working-class people who moved to the US, Australia and both Southern and Eastern Africa. The second was from 1960 to 1972, during the dictatorship years, and involved mainly young people in the service sector trying to escape the social disruption.

And the third began with the financial crisis in 2010, and is still continuing. The worrying thing is that it mainly taking place among young professionals.

It’s hard to know how many people have left Greece, but it is commonly estimated at that since the beginning of the 1900s, about 1.7-million Greeks left seeking a better life outside the country. For a country with a current population of around 10-million, that is a thumping number.

Greece is not the only European Union country with high levels of immigration – in fact, Bulgaria has seen the largest level emigration over the past decade. And the Greeks have recognised the problem and are trying all kinds of mechanisms to reverse the flow, with some success.

But its a long haul. Emigration is a largely unseen economic phenomenon because often its so gradual. But the long-term effect of emigration can be dramatic, and it takes the Greek case to demonstrate that.

The effect is similar to going bankrupt: Ernest Hemingway was asked once “How did you go bankrupt?” He answered: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

In some ways, the dangers of emigration are so hard to recognise because it is an anti-intuitive phenomenon. Surely if you have a given set of economic resources, if some people leave, well then, there is more to go round, right? Alas, if only economies worked this way. In fact, the effect is the opposite: emigration hurts and economy and immigration helps.

The best example is the US. For all its current problems, the US constitutes 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its wealth. One of the obvious reasons is that until the current president Donald Trump, it was welcoming of immigrants. Immigrants bring skills, ambition and knowledge; the evidence is incontrovertible.

But for existing populations, they seem like an extra burden – and sometimes they are for a while. Existing populations regard them with prejudice and suspicion, as we all know. Consequently, they make excellent fodder for unscrupulous politicians, as we all know.

South Africa is going through its own emigration and immigration crisis. It’s very hard to know what the exact number of migrants too and from SA are. The census does keep a tally, but the last time it was done was in 2011.

The United Nations tries to estimate it in something called the United Nations International Migrant Stock database. But at least as far as Southern Africa is concerned, the numbers are just hopelessly wrong. It claims there are about 1.2 million people born in SA living outside the country, and there are about 300 000 foreign-born people living inside SA in total.

Most, the report claims, are not Zimbabwean but Mozambican. You have to sympathise though; collecting this data is just impossible. Migrants move for all kinds of reasons, and many intend moving back to their homelands.

In Southern Africa, Zimbabwe is the big problem: many Zimbabwean’s live in SA, how many we don’t know. But its possible they don’t want to give up their citizenship perhaps in the hope of going back someday, or at least to visiting regularly. It’s different if you move further away.

But taken at face value, SA does have an immigration problem. Amazingly, contrary to SA’s xenophobic social media, the problem is not an inflow but an outflow. In some ways, that does make sense. Moving around the world is increasing at a rapid rate. SA’s growing emigration problem coincides with a recognition (with some notable exceptions of course) that immigrants generally add value to the destination countries, and governments are responding with investment immigration options.

In SA, it’s a growing and lucrative business for lawyers. Recently, the emigration of SA’s youth and some of the most skilled and richest South Africans does seem to have increased, at least if these legal practices are reporting honestly. If that is true, then SA should be doing more – much
more – to attract immigrants – as opposed to threatening, intimidating or castigating those that come.

This article first appeared in the Business Maverick

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