Virtual emigration: How some South Africans are having the best of all worlds

Business Insider SA
  • Due to the work-from-home shift during the pandemic, more companies are now entirely comfortable with hiring remote workers.
  • This brings opportunities for South Africans who want to work for international firms and earn hard currency – but now don't have to move away from family. 
  • It has also helped to bring back expats.  
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The global pandemic has probably brought a permanent acceptance of remote working, with many companies across the world now entirely comfortable with workers who aren’t in the office.

This shift to a virtual labour force has brought opportunities to South Africans with the right skills.

Employers can now recruit skilled workers from anywhere without worrying about the logistical- and bureaucratic expense of relocating new hires. The time-zone correlation with Europe, competitive wage rates, advanced skillsets, and high English proficiency, make South Africans attractive recruits for foreign employers.

It may help to stem the tide of emigration, and has already lured expats back to South Africa.

“Anecdotal evidence from our sources shows that the 2020 lockdowns exacerbated homesickness among South African ex-pats abroad,” says Faye Tessendorf, managing director of the recruitment agency Homecoming Revolution.  

“We’ve seen a 30% to 45% uptick in ‘returning home conversations’ among South Africans across various social media platforms – homesickness and the mental health toll of the pandemic seems very real.”

Data from the UK Office for National Statistics show a net decline, year-on-year, of 26,000 South Africans living in that country, from 2019 to 2020.

One South African IT expert, who has been working in London for years, told Business Insider South Africa he returned to SA for what was supposed to be a short visit last year, but never returned to the UK. As lockdown measures spread, it quickly became clear to him that there was little advantage of being trapped in a small apartment in a very expensive city.

Other South Africans interviewed for this article mention the stringent lockdowns in foreign countries, isolation from friends and family, job losses, lacking support structures, long confinements, and general homesickness as key reasons for returning home.

Many can continue to work for their overseas employers from SA.

While the emigration of South Africans who leave the country for reasons such as crime, load shedding and corruption may continue, virtual work may also help to halt the exodus of those leaving for job opportunities.

There has been some anecdotal evidence of increased emigration from South Africa in the past months, although data from First National Bank shows that home sales due to emigration fell from 18% towards the end of 2019, to 11% at the end of last year. 

A recently released survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) also found that South Africans are significantly less willing to physically relocate to new countries for work. BCG found that only 59% of South Africans were willing to relocate in 2020, which is down from 72% in 2018. Among younger South Africans, only 56% would consider relocating.

Meanwhile, 73% of the SA respondents were open to being employed remotely, for a foreign company, while remaining in South Africa. “If you can work remotely in your home city of Johannesburg, you could just as well do the same work for a company based in Silicon Valley or Berlin,” Rudi van Blerk, principal consultant at BCG, said.

Those who have already virtually emigrated call it a win-win situation. They’re able to stay close to family and friends – and enjoy the South African climate, lifestyle and cuisine – while earning foreign income and building overseas networks.

Some of the South Africans Business Insider spoke to found work by actively engaging with recruiters via job portals LinkedIn,, and Indeed.

Meanwhile, virtual emigration may be a cause for concern for local companies.

With many industries struggling with skills shortages, employers may now have to compete with foreign companies snatching talent with minimal hassle. In the past, retention of employees was eased, as workers may have been hesitant to emigrate given the administrative and legal complexities. Now, they can be employed by foreign companies without leaving the country.

But Van Blerk thinks the net impact of a virtual brain drain could be positive. “Those staying in the country would still pay taxes here and spend their foreign-earned salaries locally.”

Jonty Leon, legal manager for expatriate tax at Tax Consulting, also thinks that this could be good news for the shrinking South African tax-base.

“South African residents are taxable on worldwide income – even working for a foreign company would be considered local income. Double taxation could also be avoided, seeing as the work is done in the country.”

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