Zimbabwe’s brain drain: Worker exodus escalates economic meltdown

Years of mass migration from Zimbabwe are surging as the country’s economic crisis deepens, exacerbating the loss of crucial skills essential for recovery. Recent data from South Africa revealed a staggering increase in the number of Zimbabwean immigrants, reaching 1.01 million in 2022, up from 672,308 in 2011. This exodus is fueled by the economic turmoil that began in 2000, resulting from land seizures and misguided policies. The UK has also seen a significant influx of Zimbabwean professionals, especially in healthcare. These trends paint a grim picture for Zimbabwe’s prospects, as emigration and remittances continue to rise.

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Zimbabwe Worker Exodus Intensifies With Economy in Meltdown

By Ray Ndlovu

Years of mass migration from Zimbabwe has gained fresh impetus as an economic meltdown continues unabated, further denuding the country of the scarce skills it needs to engineer a turnaround.

Census data released by neighboring South Africa this week showed the country was home to 1.01 million Zimbabwean immigrants last year, up from 672,308 at the last count in 2011 and an average annual increase of almost 31,000. Emigration data released for the first time by Zimbabwe’s statistics agency in September last year showed 908,913 of the country’s estimated 16 million nationals were living abroad, and 85% of them were in South Africa. 

Those numbers are likely an undercount, with frequent migration between neighboring countries making an accurate assessment tricky and undocumented foreigners unlikely to participate in population surveys.

Emmerson Mnangagwa

Once a regional grain exporter and one of Africa’s best-educated nations, Zimbabwe went into free-fall in 2000 after then-President Robert Mugabe backed the seizure of land from White commercial farmers. Export earnings collapsed and hyperinflation ensued, which led to the abolishment of the national currency in 2009. 

Mugabe was toppled in 2017 and his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa proclaimed the country “open for business,” yet less than one in 10 workers are formally employed and most of those that are struggle to make ends meet.

While land grabs tapered off a few years after 2000, the government has taken a series of other policy missteps that have hamstrung economic growth and undermined investor confidence. They include a 2019 decision to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar, which has distorted the foreign exchange market and caused inflation to spiral once again.

Further confirmation of the ongoing worker exodus comes from the UK, which eased entry rules last year to address skills shortages that followed its 2016 exit from the European Union and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Visas were issued to 20,152 Zimbabwean health and social care staff in the 12 months through June, an almost five-fold increase from the year before, and the third-most in the category after way-more-populous Nigeria and India, Foreign Office data show. It estimated that more than 112,000 Zimbabweans were living in the UK, almost five times the number authorities in the African nation reported 10 months earlier.

There has been “noticeable increase” in immigration to the UK over the past year, resulting in a brain drain across a range of professions, said Norman Matara, the secretary-general of Zimbabwe Doctors For Human Rights. “It’s mostly because of the state of the economy and the low remuneration that professionals are getting.”

A pick-up in the support that Zimbabweans working abroad provide to their relatives back home is another indicator of the emigration trend. Remittances rose 15% to $919 million in the six months through June from the year-ago period, and accounted for 16% of the country’s foreign currency earnings of $5.5 billion, according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

A vendor lays out her goods outside a money transfer service in the central business district of Harare, Zimbabwes capital.

The likelihood of Zimbabwe’s prospects improving appear slim, with Mnangagwa, 81, pledging policy continuity after winning another five-year term in a disputed election in August. The country has had no access to foreign lines of credit for more than two decades and is seeking to restructure $18 billion of debt.

The Zimbabwe dollar is widely spurned, and US dollars are used to buy everything from food and fuel to medicine. The local unit officially trades at more than 5,000 to the greenback and highest denomination note can’t even buy a single tomato. 

A slew of anecdotal evidence suggests migration picked up in the run-up to the election, which extended the ruling party’s 43-year tenure and was marred by allegations of rigging. 

The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, St. John Ambulance Association, state universities and privately-run Cimas Medical Aid, which offer short nursing-aid courses, have been flooded by applicants, including teachers and other professionals, who hope to secure jobs abroad.  

Cimas has trained 350 people since it introduced its three-week courses in March last year and plans to increase enrollments due to high demand, said Vulindlela Ndlovu, the company’s chief executive officer. At least three-quarters of graduates relocated to the UK, the former colonial power, he said.

The government has bemoaned the loss of its professionals, with Deputy President Constantino Chiwenga urging lawmakers to draft a law to stop other countries recruiting them from Zimbabwe. It was “a crime” when nations failed to train their own personnel and then hired them in poor countries, where people died in hospitals because there were no nurses and doctors to treat them, he said. 

The Zimbabwe Teachers Association estimates that 300 teachers are leaving their jobs each month, and has warned that their exit will take a heavy toll on education standards and the economy. The teachers are paid $200 in basic pay a month on average, less than a tenth of what they can earn as caregivers in the UK.

“The government is putting in money to subsidize the social services of developed countries,” said Sifiso Ndlovu, the CEO of the association, which has 39,000 members.

The Bankers Association of Zimbabwe, which represents the nation’s 19 lenders, estimates that between 2% and 4% of the industry’s workforce is emigrating annually. The bulk of those leaving are cashiers, tellers, clerks and other entry-level staff who manage to raise the about $6,000 that they need to relocate, but there have also been a number of high-level departures, said Lawrence Nyazema, the association’s president. 

Accountants and information technology specialists are also emigrating, mainly because their salaries aren’t competitive, and their departures aren’t being accurately recorded, according to Memory Nguwi, the managing consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants, a Harare-based human resources firm. 

“They do their paperwork quietly behind the scenes and just leave,” he said. “Sometimes they just resign once they are already out of the country.”

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