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South Africa's brain-drain generation returning home

By Lebo Diseko for CNN
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More South African expats are contemplating a return home.
  • Hundreds of thousands of South Africans have left the country and built new lives overseas
  • Crime and instability have driven about 20 percent of professionals away since 1995
  • South Africa's natural beauty, financial growth and jobs market are tempting expatriates back
  • The economic crisis is pushing many of them away from Europe and pulling them back home

London, England (CNN) -- With the economic crisis lingering in Europe and the United States, South Africa is enticing thousands of expatriates back home.

For the past 15 years, South African Nick Durrant has called London home.

In that time he has built a business, bought property and started a family, following in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of other professionals who left South Africa for countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, fearing crime and instability back home.

But he is one of a growing number who are returning home.

An NGO set up to encourage people to resettle in South Africa says it has seen an 80 percent increase in enquiries about moving back compared with two years ago -- and the majority of those queries are from the United Kingdom.

"I think always in the back of my mind I wanted to go back. It's home at the end of the day," Durrant told CNN as he prepared to leave London and start a life back in Cape Town.

There's been this migration of my friends leaving the UK over the last two years -- I think the recession triggered that off.
--Nick Durrant, South African living in London

"There's been this migration of my friends leaving the UK over the last two years," he said. "I think the recession triggered that off, and a lot of them have gone back and have good things to say and are enjoying themselves back there."

In 2009 it was estimated that about 20 percent of the country's professionals had left since 1995. Around 800,000 white people, of a total white population of four million, are thought to have left the country.

One of the most common reasons given was crime. South Africa has some of the world's highest rates of murder, rape and other violent crime. Other professionals feared their career options might be limited by the government's affirmative-action policy.

All these issues made London an attractive option for the thousands of South Africans entitled to British passports.

But that tide may be turning, with a combination of economic and social factors creating a push from countries like the United Kingdom, and a pull back to South Africa.

A recent employment survey found more than 100,000 South African job seekers were expected to move back home this year.

Gordon Glyn-Jones, who runs a South African newspaper in London, has also noticed he is bidding farewell to an increasing number of friends.

"I think certain economics have played a part, with the recession. Making a living here is perhaps not quite as lucrative as it was before. Potentially after the World Cup there are more opportunities in South Africa," he said.

But the decision to move back is not necessarily an easy one.

Everything's been tried and tested in Europe, whereas I think in Africa big opportunities exist.
--Gordon Glyn-Jones, South African living in London

"If you're going to live in South Africa it's a commitment of a different sort, in that you are living in a post-colonial country. You are living in a country that's had incredible difficultly, politically," said Glyn-Jones.

"On some level a lot of people respond to that very well. It's a very exciting place to be. Everything's been tried and tested in Europe, whereas I think in Africa big opportunities exist."

For multinational companies looking for staff, the attraction countries like South Africa hold is clear.

"Africa as an emerging market is offering a lot more than it was two to three years ago," Stuart Clarkson, CEO of Siemens South Africa, told CNN.

"It's offering much more growth than some of the more traditional markets and that's generating increased interest in the African market at the moment."

Andile Ndlovu, a surveyor who came to London to work in the building industry, sees a host of opportunities in his homeland.

When the economic crisis hit Britain in 2007 he found himself out of a job. He's since become partner in a new company, but he's frustrated at limited opportunities in the United Kingdom, and is keen find out what South Africa might hold.

"You can go back home, ship whatever you've learned over here and open up your own business at home, and employ people. As far as I understand, South Africa needs many small enterprises to make it," he told CNN.

Concern over the country's future hasn't completely disappeared. Crime rates remain high and issues like affirmative action still concern many whites.

As Durrant prepares to leave, he hopes his previous fears are unfounded.

"South Africans are great ones for sitting over here and only looking at the negative things," he said.

"All the things people thought were going to happen haven't happened. It's always difficult when you're lifting up your family and all your life from here and moving back home, and it is going to take some time to adjust. That's just natural, and I'm looking forward to it."

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson contributed to this report