What about the people left behind?


By dr. Sulette Ferreira

Almost all of us experience the impact of, or know someone who has been affected, by the growing trend of South Africans emigrating. The driving forces are legion, with the main goal of finding a better quality of life in other corners of the world.

Risenga Maluleke, statistician-general, confirms that emigration is a popular topic of discussion in contemporary South Africa, evoking passionate opinions everywhere.

There are complex psychological and socio-cultural aspects associated with this phenomenon that have profound consequences, not only for the emigrant, but also for those who remain behind. The available literature on South African emigration focuses mainly on the economic effect, including the loss of skills, while studies on the social and psychological impact of emigration are conspicuously absent.

Latest figures

Statistics South Africa’s (StatsSA) very first migration profile report has recently appeared. This confirms that almost one million people have already left the country permanently.

It is based on the latest census data, as well as data from household surveys, academic research, the World Bank, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees, Unesco, the South African Police Service and the Departments of Home Affairs and Basic Education. The European Union (EU) funded StatsSA’s long-awaited migration report.

The report indicates the number of South African-born citizens living abroad since 2000, as depicted in the graph below, which projects the data to 2025.

In 2024 it was reported that there is a surge of interest from South African emigrants to return to the country – it was mentioned that 30% of emigrants are inquiring about property in South Africa, as if they would soon return. The StatsSA report confirms the number of South African citizens who returned – the report calls them returnees – in just two specific years: In 2011, 45,866 citizens returned (46.2% were men and 53.8% were women), but by 2022, the returnees had dropped to 27,983 with an equal distribution between men and women.

Those who are left behind

Emigration is often considered an individual decision that affects only the emigrant. Yet the reality is not so simple. The ripple effect of emigration extends much further and especially the emigrant’s closest family members are affected.

The StatsSA report shows that 914,901 South African-born people live abroad in 2020. The number of people affected can double or even triple when the extended family is included.

In a country where family ties are deeply cherished, two or three million or even more people are therefore affected by emigration.

My research as an emigration therapist shows that although each parent with children abroad’s emigration journey is unique, it always gives rise to a fundamental change in the social and emotional dynamics within families.

Parents usually experience conflicting emotions: relief and pride, mixed with uncertainty. While they are relieved that their children experience a better life in a more successful country, they would still prefer that the children remain a physical part of their lives.

As we grow older, we become increasingly dependent on our family for care and companionship. Next to spousal support, the support of children has the most influence on the general well-being of the elderly. Research also shows that the emotional and psychological vulnerability of parents who are left behind increases, which can lead to a feeling of loss, loneliness, anxiety and a reduced quality of life.

A further complication is that many grandparents are also deprived of the joy of seeing their grandchildren grow up.

Although monetary contributions from children abroad can help ease the parents’ financial burden, it does not lessen the emotional loss. The longing for family closeness and the ‘what could have been’ takes a toll on the mental and emotional state of the parents.

The impact of emigration destinations

The StatsSA report shows the 10 main countries where South African emigrants are located, as depicted in the accompanying graph.

The English-speaking countries of Britain, Australia, the USA, New Zealand and Canada are by far the biggest attraction for South Africans.

The only lifeline the parents have with their emigrant children and grandchildren is online communication and visits to and from their children. Therefore, the country of destination plays an important role in the parents’ experience of their adult child(ren) and grandchildren’s emigration.

Regular communication is complicated by the time zone difference. Australia is six to eight hours ahead of South Africa, depending on the specific location. New Zealand is 10 to 11 hours ahead of us, with the daylight saving arrangement playing a role in that.

Canada and the USA are again 7 to 10 hours after South Africa. These time differences make it difficult to coordinate phone calls or video chats.

The distance between the emigrant’s new home and their home country, with the associated high costs, can hinder regular visits to parents and relatives. A flight from South Africa to Australia takes between 11 and 14 hours. In the case of Canada, the flight duration is 17 hours.

A parent explains:

“He went so far as to compare with people whose children “only” emigrate to Europe. America is much worse because of the travel time and flight frequency. One is never really happy with a situation like this. Alas, there is someone you love and his family and they are far away. Too far away! Uhm, I’m actually very grateful that when I first went overseas, they had a direct flight from here, just past Miami, but it was still 15 hours on the plane.”

International flights require preparation, planning and organization well in advance of the travel date. Those traveling with South African passports require a visa to travel to most countries. Insurance must be taken out for the full duration of the intended visit.

These realities lead to emigrants and their family members missing out on important family events and milestones.

Some parents have children in different countries which further complicates the situation, with more than one time zone to consider.

More than numbers

The disturbing statistic that almost a million South Africans have left their country does not tell the full story. Behind each data point lies a personal story: families forced to redefine their relationships in new ways amid the challenges that geographical distances create.

It is a consolation for South African parents that their children can pursue better opportunities, but this comes at a high price – profound change at the core of family relationships.

Stephen Miller rightly said: “Immigration is an emotional issue, and it should be an emotional issue, because it affects people’s lives”.

  • Sulette Ferreira is a counselor and researcher in social sciences in private practice in South Africa, specializing in the emotional effects of emigration. She founded the Facebook group, Worlds Apart Living in One Heart, which aims to support especially parents whose children emigrate.