The Brain Gain: SA expats are flocking back home

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Leaving the land of your birth, to settle in another country, is never an easy process. Logistically, financially, culturally, and above all, emotionally, it’s a change that sparks upheaval as well as opportunity. But harder still, is making the decision to pack up and come back home. The grass isn’t always greener across the seas, and nor is the global economy as open and accommodating as it used to be. For many expatriate South Africans, the prospect of a homecoming may be tempting, even it must be weighed up against load shedding, Rand-shedding, and other symptoms of the troubled state of the nation. But according to recent media reports, based on figures from Statistics SA, more than 400,000 South Africans have chosen to repatriate since 2009, when the global financial crisis was at its peak.

Among the returnees is Angel Jones, who was working for an advertising agency in London when she heard Nelson Mandela, standing on the stairs in Trafalgar Square, saying to the crowd, “I love you all so much, I want to put you in my pocket and take you home.” That moment of heartfelt epiphany led to the creation of a movement called the Homecoming Revolution, at first an NGO and now a commercial organisation, that encourages and facilitates the return of South Africans to home sweet home. Is it working? And if so, what draws people back to the land they left behind? Angel sat down with Ruda for a chat about the “brain gain”, the harsh realities of life abroad, and the challenges of making a new home and a new life in the happy-sad land we call South Africa.

Hello, and a very warm welcome to another session of the Change Exchange, where we talk about life, we talk about the changes, we talk about the decisions we make … And my guest today, Angel Jones, warm welcome to you.

Thank you Ruda, nice to be here.

You did … What? Economics and something else at UCT? And then a post-grad qualification in advertising? What attracted you to advertising?

I always loved talking, chatting, telling stories and all the rest and I remember at school we were told every second person wants to go into advertising and it’s almost impossible to do that, so I remember thinking if I take Economics at varsity, then that will give me that extra edge because I need to know how to sell stuff. The Economics at the end of it, not just the pretty pictures and the lovely words.

So the advertising came first, in your head? In your heart?

Always. My mother showed me a clever ad when I was young, and it was about them not … an anti-mining campaign for the Kruger Park. And she explained the line to me, and it said, “We  dig the Kruger Park, and they musn’t”. And she said, “That’s a pun, and that’s how it works” and I was fascinated by the use of clever language, to be up there on billboards.

You worked in London for … what was the name of the company? It was one of the Saatchi …

That’s right. It was M&C Saatchi, and in fact it was named after Morris and Charles Saatchi, the two original Saatchi brothers who walked out of the big Saatchi & Saatchi agency and took 12 people with them, and I managed to get in as a runner. I was the 13th person to join them – literally running around during the day, getting cappuccinos and dry-cleaning for Charles Saatchi, and at night writing ads and almost practically sleeping under my desk. And I managed to do that for a couple of months, then found a wonderful art director and we again worked through the nights and managed then to get a job in the industry, which was amazing.

Watch: The brain drain has reversed – bringing skills back to SA and uplifting the nation

But after seven years you decided to come back to South Africa. Why? When was that?

So I never meant to go for so long. It was a year or two of backpacking and then setting in London, I thought, for a year and bit, but after seven years … the trigger moment was my moment. It was a … Every South African has that moment of wanting to return and I was lucky enough to see Madiba, standing on the stairs of Trafalgar Square, looking out over all of us, saying, “I love you all so much, I want to put you in my pocket and take you home”. And I burst into tears – I’ve been writing letters of home all the time, in a shiny, new, bright South Africa, I’ve grown up very conscientised, never been part of my flag or the colour of my skin and Madiba was released when I was at varsity, so the symbolism of now feeling proud and free was very big in my life. So that was my trigger moment, and returned home to start the M&C Saatchi branch of the ad agency here, before we bought them out …

When was that? Was it ’94?

No, so ’94 was when I just arrived in London, ironically enough. Madiba spoke at Trafalgar Square late 1990s and I arrived in 2000, then we started the business but also started a non-profit agency of Homecoming Revolution, which I’ll tell you about there’s a big change that happened three years ago. That built up as a non-profit in my advertising business. We bought out the Saatchi brothers, in fact, and then named it Morris Jones, and then were able to launch some really good brands.

Let’s walk through that slowly. What is it like to actually put yourself on the line? You’re no longer employed and getting a guaranteed salary cheque …

Sure. So the big leap into entrepreneurship started with the ad business. In London I was working for the Saatchi brothers and that was wonderful. But coming back to open up the branch here, that was taking a risk with Nina Morris,  she was the CEO; I was the creative director. And so we always felt like we were in the wind in terms of needing to deliver, and the opportunity to be able to buy out the Saatchi brothers was amazing, you know, to name the agency after ourselves, and then very much as an independent shop having to build itself up was never, never a dull moment. Taking risks everywhere.

How does one cope with that stress? Because I think that that keeps many people tied to a corporate life because they … the security … they just can’t give it up?

Sure, so a combination of factors … Having a partner was really good. I miss having a partner now in the Homecoming role. So we took turns to have … you know? “It’s my turn to jump off the balcony and commit chop suey today because I’m so stressed and the other one would be more calm, so we’d have turns in that sense. As far as it goes, being a business owner, especially being a woman, being able to have children and then being able to choose whether you were going to go to your important meeting of a senior client or your just as important meeting of going to watch your daughter swim in a gala – you know, being your own business owner gives you that ability and lucky enough to build the business just as technology was allowing you to still do business on the road. So the idea of being in corporate and being held to a 9 to 5 role and not being in charge of my own destiny – you know – it’s just unthinkable.

I once had an opportunity and I remember talking to someone about it, and I said, “I don’t know what to do! This is such a wonderful offer!” and she said: “Would you have to ask someone for leave?”

That’s the big qualifier, isn’t it? So your choice was no, never!

Because freedom is an amazing thing, and especially for a woman, still …

Definitely. I think we’re clever enough at our multi-tasking to play the role of the wife, and the boss, and the mother and you can switch quite quickly into those roles during the day by being in charge of your own destiny. It’s hugely rewarding. And the risk that comes with it, that stress attached – the highs and the lows. The lows are the deeper but the highs are bigger.

And Homecoming Revolution – you started as a website?

We started as a website back in the day to tell the stories of other people who returned home as a way of …

Why did you start?

Because I came back and realised, you know, there was this perception abroad that if you came back, then you’re a failure, that you couldn’t hack it abroad, which is completely the opposite. You’re seeing the opportunities and the ways that you could reconnect with people and really have an amazing business life and lifestyle and make a big difference by being home … prompted us to start the website and overnight just blossomed. This was the days before Facebook or Twitter, so our platform was used as everybody’s love hate relationship with South Africa. FNB, we found a sponsorship and we managed to grow a fully-fledged team running it, and then I had my very convenient mid-life crisis three years ago, and wondered … my passion was Homecoming, my head was advertising, and so, took the leap, sold my ad business – I sold Morris Jones – and stepped fulltime into Homecoming Revolution and commercialised the entity.

What does that mean?

So now we’re not a non-profit anymore; we shamelessly have turned it into a business and we’re repatriating South Africans to South Africa, but also Kenyans and Nigerians living abroad back to their respective countries – so we’re the brain gain company for Africa. And we introduce employers at home to African professionals worldwide, with the trigger of the reason you return home is friends and family, sense of purpose and belonging, wanting to make a difference, and yes, your career. So we use all our emotive case studies and all the tools – practical tools of property, schools, relocation services to allow people to come back.

So you are a placement agency and more?

Yes, we’re a hybrid. So people can’t often figure what is Homecoming Revolution, because we offer all the marketing platforms for people to practically advertise to people abroad and those coming back, so whatever products and services they need, as well as being able to place people. But most recruitment firms will work on a placement fee, once they get settled – we go on a much smaller charge of introductions. We see ourselves as the dating agency for corporates and talent – we have these speed meet events in London and New York and Nairobi and Lagos where we bring together talent and employers for three minute sessions and from there the employer will decide whether to hire or not. So it’s a different model, and really working for us. We have these wonderful ideas of this massive wave of repatriation back to the continent. In South Africa we’ve seen over the past five years 359 000 South African professionals have returned home, and you know for every one skilled person that comes back to South Africa, nine new jobs are created in the formal and informal sector. So it really is rewarding stuff.

How do you sell it at the moment? Because there is so much negative news?

It’s been the worst five months I think, that we could … 2008 we thought was bad, but I think obviously the worst that ever was, was the apartheid and before the elections when we really did think that we were all burning. We find that in South Africa you will always have a love hate relationship with being South African. I mean, my life, in London, I was this happy and this sad so it was a very predictable life. Here I’m this happy and this sad, so you know, you can be horrified and overjoyed in one day. We deal with people all the time who want to come back. We’re seeing right now in South Africa people questioning ‘is this the right place?’, ‘is this?’, ‘isn’t it?’ … you know, crime, loadshedding, xenophobia – it’s all related. I think without a doubt in South Africa now we’ve got a crisis with our political leadership – there’s no question – I think this gives rise to other parties having a voice and being able to play a role, and what it does for me is … when I see for example the xenophobic attacks – I see a small pocket of radicals doing that, and then a massive wave of people saying actually, that’s wrong. So it brings to the fore the conversation about being actively South African versus sitting passively on the side-lines.

And here your life makes a difference?

Ja, it’s rewarding. It’s rewarding, so I drive down with my windows down, I chat to people on the street – I feel intensely alive. I look at my kids, you know, Lulu this morning rehearsing her Zulu test and me being able to test her because she’s taught me enough as well, which is wonderful. Feeling that you can really play an active role, and that you can … You know, we know enough people in different sectors to create change and make it happen. And you’re often being a lone voice in the wind, but we’re encouraged by more and more people abroad who are saying ‘I know it’s got its problems, but I don’t want to wait until it gets better, I want to come home and make it better’.  To be able to align your purpose with a business aim is amazing. I wondered would we lose any credibility when we became a business, and in fact, we’ve gained it. People take us more seriously now.

Ja, because you’re putting your own salary on the line.

Exactly. We’re now able to employ the best talent ourselves in the business and we’re at the high table with all the embassies and the public sector and different multinationals looking for talent, so it’s an exciting place to play.

And on a personal level? Your husband Carlos? How long have you …

Wonderful, wonderful husband. When he met me, I had Lulu already – I had this wonderful moonbeam of a daughter that beamed into my life quite by accident from one night. She was six months old and there I was, literally still in those days wearing these big wings – I used to wear 12 different pairs of wings made out of different things … my daughter and my wings … and most men were absolutely terrified and would run a mile, but this guy – the only other Christian Buddhist I’ve ever met in my life, who got me. So we’ve been married now for … I think eight years. We’ve got a lovely little boy too, called Samuel, who’s seven. And so … he works across the  continent, he works for Roche; he’s head of sales in Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t travel as much anymore – he does a lot more of that. Ja know, we make sure we’re there for the kids in the mornings, we get home, we get to eat dinner every night, we’re hands on with them all weekend and we’re very aware of how lucky we are. We’ve just moved to a lovely house near the Johannesburg Zoo, and I think we give thanks all the time. We are very, very aware that in South Africa this Gini Coefficient is probably the biggest in the world, and we remind our children just how lucky we are. I feel very blessed.

A relationship doesn’t just happen by itself – it either goes up or down. How do you keep yours strong?

So we have – every night  for the past eight years … ten years we’ve known each other. “My high about you is this, My low about you is this. And what I’m looking forward to with you is this.” So that acts as a barometer. Every night we do a sort of a control, alt, delete on how we’re feeling. Sometimes it is “My high about you is you; I don’t have a low about you” or “My low about you is you, I don’t have a high”. It’s funny, the little things that count. “My high about you is that you brought me coffee; my low about you is that you don’t notice when I cook the food.” So that’s a great way that we’re constantly recalibrating where we are with each other.

It’s awareness?

Ja, absolutely. I’ve realised his love language is very different to mine. His love language is more about tidying – isn’t it amazing? I’ve got this wonderful husband who decorates and tidies – he’s a Portuguese man – so you know, got this wonderful sense of home and decor. And my love language is very much words, and affection. We meet in the middle. Learning what his love language is, is a hard one, because when he wants to show me how much he loves me he starts tidying up, which is the opposite of what I would do. It’s been a wonderful time – we’re lucky enough – we’ve got both sets of parents here, and all our siblings are here. So it’s lots of family get-togethers … Very big Portuguese family on his side; I’ve got … I’m one of four siblings on this side, so it’s a lot of loving each other’s families at the same time, which is also very rewarding.

It’s not always easy, because you meet a person, but you marry the family?

Indeed. I’ve always wished that I spoke proper Portuguese – I gave that to him as a Valentine’s present for me, back in the day. ‘I’m giving myself Portuguese lessons, darling.’ But they only lasted about five weeks and then I kind of lost track, so that’s one regret. One day I think I’ll do that and make sure I learn Portuguese.

Talk to me about your children? You say your daughter came like a moonbeam?

She was my little moonbeam!

How did that change you?

For one thing I stopped wearing wings when I fell pregnant.

What do you mean by wearing wings?

I used to wear these big, full on wings with feathers and made of flames and beads and so people would come up to me and go ‘who are you, what are you’. And you know, my name is Angel and I run an ad agency and it works, shameless PR. I think having Lulu really relaxed me, because I was sort-of 33, and I was flying solo and I was thinking I don’t know if any man wants to marry me, I’m too crazy and too intimidating and whatever. So  by the time I had her, I kind of almost … I didn’t need a man anymore … I sound terrible … when I stopped looking, then there was Carlos. She de-stresses me, and Samuel does, coming home, playing guitar with them and reading stories is really amazing, and I feel so much more whole. It has certainly made all the difference in being able to look at the little things, and you stress out about whatever’s not working, but then when you sit and you practice the G or the D7 chord with your boy, it really does focus your life.

What are the most important values that you try and teach them?

Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. So every night, ‘Thank you God for…’ we have our standard stuff we say thank you for, and then each child needs to think about what that’s about. Awareness of how blessed we are. Awareness that we’re all healthy, and we go to wonderful schools and that we live in a beautiful climate … Awareness of how not every South African is as privileged as us, and what can we do? So always thinking how can you make a difference and all the rest. We supposedly have the value of not shouting at each other – we’re not very good at that … There’s supposed to be no shouting in the house, but then we each have our turn. Music, dancing – we put up the music and we dance around. Family. Humility. It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? We sound like these real martyrs, but I promise you …

No, but at least you’re being aware of it. Even if you can’t reach it every day, as you’re saying. And tell me about your home? Where is it?

We’re in Saxonwold, we’re very lucky. We had a big control alt delete in our life about two and a half years ago, which was thinking we can’t live in Jozi anymore, we must live in Cape Town, and looking back on that, I think it was a reaction to me wanting to get out of the ad industry and me realising that was equating Joburg with my ad world life. And so the only practical thing that seemed to be possible was to sell our house, move to Cape Town … so we did. We didn’t actually move to Cape Town, we sold our house, rented in Greenside for a year, got the kids into their new schools in Cape Town and were just about to move, and then realised that we would be living on an aeroplane. I think if I was happy in Cape Town to be a soccer mom and not needing to work, then that would be different, but here we were thinking of taking the kids away from our friends and family, out of their schools and then I was going to say ‘bye guys, I’m flying off to Lagos and Nairobi for work’. And that was not going to work. So, being able to have this kind of fresh look at Joburg was amazing and realising the diversity here and the opportunity here and the great stuff we’re doing with Homecoming Revolution meant that we bought a new house in Saxonwold and we’ve called the new house Cape Town, so we’ve moved to Cape Town. And it’s really great to feel that we’ve actively chosen to be in the city. We’ve just been voted, Joburg, as the coolest city in the world. So we see all the people fly in and out from all over the continent and from abroad and feel very actively Joburgers.

And the house itself? How did you … What did you look for when you …

So my man is a … what do you call? A spruce and sell genius. He will find a very, not dilapidated, good bones house. And a renovators dream. And in fact this is now the seventh time we’ve moved. Now we’re staying put. We’re not moving again. But from the minute I met him, he bought his house in Parkhurst – I hadn’t even been dating him for more than a week – and he was already painting my house in Parkhurst. Then we got engaged, I bought a renovator’s dream in Parkview, and then another one in Westcliff. And then now in Saxonwold. So bought this one, good bones …

So is that what you look for? The good bones?

Ja, and you wouldn’t recognise it. Every Saturday Carlos is there going into the garden and chop or painting or doing, and I’ve learned that I sometimes try and put a statue there, and then it will get moved … So we have this thing where I will put it back and he’ll sort of … My last refuge are my cupboards, which is complete turmoil. He once tried to tidy those and I was so furious. He knows, that’s my last space that is mine. The rest of it is … our house looks like we Live in a magazine. It’s amazing, I walk around going ‘Wow’. Crazy!

Well thank you very much for joining us this morning.

Thank you.

And enjoy Jozi.

Thank you, Ruda.

Thank you, goodbye.

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