Just as many South Africans as Poles in Britain

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The influx of an estimated one million Poles to Britain has been highly visible, with Polish delis sprouting everywhere and Polish politicians even arriving to solicit votes in the forthcoming election back home.

But according to organisers of a jobs fair at London's Olympia conference centre this weekend, there are just as many South Africans in Britain. Southfields in the capital has become like a suburb of Johannesburg or Cape Town – "because it has the closest Tube station to the Wimbledon tennis, one of the few locations in London that South Africans have heard of," according to a local resident.

Elsewhere, however, their presence is far less obvious than the wave of east Europeans, despite a sprinkling of Springbok-themed pubs, delis selling biltong and boerewors to homesick exiles and Afrikaans exchanges on the Tube. One reason is that many have British passports; another is that neither Britain nor South Africa keeps official statistics on South Africans resident in Britain. But whatever the number, their departure has left South Africa desperately short of skills, particularly when it comes to medicine – where vigorous recruitment of South African doctors and nurses by the National Health Service has caused protests – finance, information technology and engineering.

This has led the South African private sector to set up an organisation, titled "Homecoming Revolution", to lure well-qualified exiles home and help them settle back in. Thirty-four South African companies and more than 100 exhibitors will be at the Olympia event, which attracted more than 1,000 visitors last year. This time, according to the organisers, more than double that number have registered in advance, even though as fast as they try to bring South Africans home, British companies are mounting aggressive recruitment campaigns in South Africa.

Homecoming Revolution was founded by Angel Jones, who had made a new life in Britain, but succumbed in 1996 to the appeal of Nelson Mandela. The first South African President to make a state visit to Britain told the crowds in Trafalgar Square: "I'd like to fit each and every one of you in my pocket and return with you to South Africa," and Ms Jones decided to do just that. Her project was set up in 2003, and has staged 11 events around the world, including Saudi Arabia. Australia, New Zealand and the US, where many South Africans have emigrated, are also targets.

Apart from the lure of beaches and barbecues, South African expatriates are told that the economy is booming back home, and that preparations for the 2010 football World Cup are creating thousands of jobs. What about the notorious crime rate? "Those of us who have lived and travelled abroad know that every country has its problems," Martine Schaffer, managing director of Homecoming Revolution, told a gathering last week at the South African High Commission in London. She spent 15 years in Britain before going back.

Another question is whether returning South Africans will be seen as derailing the government's policy of black economic empowerment. Homecoming Revolution stresses that it is "non-governmental", but the fact that it was able to make its pitch at South Africa House seems to indicate official acceptance. "Unfortunately, the investment in skills just hasn't been made," said Penny Streeter, one of the backers of the project. "And it is not just whites who have left."

Edward Griffiths, a speaker at South Africa House, sought to allay such fears. "If you come back with the right attitude and the right skills, you will be welcome," he assured his audience.