By Zamokuhle Manana

One can argue with good reason that emigration is synonymous with Eswatini’s history. As early as the 1900s emaSwati were migrating to other countries, mainly in search of job opportunities in South African mines.

The migration of unskilled and semi-skilled labour continues to the present day. Data shows that beginning from the mid-1990s, the skills profile of migrant workers started to change. This new form was characterised by an exodus of highly qualified people, hence the beginning of Eswatini’s brain drain.

During Eswatini’s golden age (1980 – 1989) the economy grew exponentially and was listed as one of the 20 fastest growing economies in the world. In this decade, Eswatini maintained the fourth highest average rate of real GDP growth above 4% per year. This made way for many opportunities, including employment, not only for locals but also attracting skills from as far as the UK, West Africa, and SADC region, presenting positive migration or a brain gain.

Eswatini’s golden age did not last long and in the beginning of the 1990s, growth rates took a nose dive. This, coupled with the end of the apartheid era in South Africa in 1994, threatened Eswatini’s attractiveness as an investment destination. This resulted in some businesses relocating to South Africa, thus constituting a brain drain as they migrated with their employees.

The low growth rates continued till the early 2000s, leaving the country with an array of macroeconomic problems and increased unemployment rates. High unemployment, especially amongst the youth, continues to the present day and has since manifested into different social and economic issues, one of which is brain drain.

From Eswatini’s perspective, brain drain is increasingly becoming a cause for concern and somewhat justified for numerous reasons; the first being lack of economic and employment opportunities. According to the 2016 Labour Force Survey, Eswatini continues to experience a high unemployment rate of 23%.

Owing to the economic crisis, the 2016 drought, and inability of the economy to create jobs, government is encouraging citizens to be innovative and entrepreneurial. While this might work for those who have the drive and passion for entrepreneurship, the lack of dynamicity in the economy creates an unconducive entrepreneurial environment for the sustainability of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Moreover, this prescription does not deal with the root problems of the persistent levels of unemployment causing the brain drain.

Given the few employment opportunities available and questionable strength of the social safety net – denoting that unemployment is not an option in which a person can survive – more often than not, people then opt for casual and informal work. Individuals who have the option to migrate, leave to find employment opportunities that are otherwise not available in the country, causing a brain drain.

The absence of employment opportunities also creates a low rate of absorptive capacity of the labour market. A 2017 ESEPARC (Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre) study on industry skills gap in the country found that one in every two young people in Eswatini is unemployed, and the country is struggling to create enough jobs to meet the growing youth population.

According to Miriam Caldwell, it takes a global average of six months for a graduate to find a job, that is if they are dedicated to the search. If this is the reality for a younger generation that is accustomed to immediate feedback, a brain drain would be justified considering how long it takes to be part of the labour force.

Another factor that may explain Eswatini’s brain drain is the lack of entry-level jobs even when employment opportunities are available. The proportion of junior and middle management jobs compared to entry-level jobs advertised in the media are unparalleled.

A question of policy interest becomes: where are fresh graduates expected to acquire experience in the absence of internship opportunities or entry-level jobs? Is our economy doing the best it can to provide enough entry-level jobs for the throngs of students who graduate annually from the country’s institutions of higher learning? Failure to provide employment opportunities means a negative return on government’s investment in education, specifically tertiary.

In 2018, 1 493 students graduated from UNESWA alone – which could be triple or more if we consider the other universities, colleges, vocational, and industrial training centres across the country.

The reality is that the longer graduates stay out of their profession after graduating, the more their acquired skills become outdated and the less competitive they become, which makes migrating the only viable option to escape the obsolescence of their skills.

What does brain drain mean?

 Primarily, a brain drain suggests that there are no economic opportunities in the country and therefore we are unable to get the best out of our human capital as Eswatini’s best brains have to go elsewhere to ply their trade. The absence of this skilled labour presents a low growth stasis due to the lack of innovation, which is necessary for the inception and survival of domestic SMEs.

In addition, in order for Eswatini to lay the foundation to participate in the economy of the future, we need to promote the diffusion of new knowledge into the economy. The World Economic Forum in 2017/18 ranked Eswatini the 128th most competitive economy out of 140 countries. This requires the country to rethink empowerment policies with a focus on providing opportunities for young people.

If not managed, the brain drain could potentially decimate the human capital of the country, creating negative production and fiscal externalities. Ghana, which is grappling with high brain drain, in 2018 was estimated to have incurred a fiscal loss of US$6 300 (approximately E90 809) per skilled-emigrant annually.

This brain drain and inability of Eswatini to provide opportunities for young people will also be felt in the future, having implications and ripple effects across different sectors that will require a skilled labour force. For instance, investments the country is making now to develop science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills to add value for our industrialisation, innovation and value chain development in the future will not be realised should Eswatini’s brain drain persist unabated.

How can we turn the situation around?

It is evident that brain drain has become a survival mechanism for the citizens of Eswatini running away from an ailing economy, therefore it is in the country’s best interest to address its root causes.

So what can be done? Considering that we are all in it for the good of our country, a need arises for the private sector and all economic agents to consider providing internships to the throngs of emaSwati graduating every year.

Graduates are advised to also consider volunteering to acquire practical skills. This matters a great deal as the global economy has entered the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and many jobs are being automated. Developing countries are losing out because 4IR jobs are accruing elsewhere in developed countries.

Making Eswatini Africa’s New Promise means government must come to the party. Often, the private sector loses time and money training graduates, so to entice their participation in upskilling the youth, government could provide soft incentives to companies that provide learnerships.