When the waves of xenophobic violence erupted again against African foreigners living in South Africa last month, the country’s academic community took a united stand against the barbarity.
“At universities, in particular, we recognise the enormous contribution by scholars and students from other African countries who come to enrich the level of teaching, learning and research in higher education across South Africa,” said Max Price, vice-chancellor of University of Cape Town, South Africa. 
Price’s statement typified the sentiments expressed by academic leaders after the attacks, which started in Durban and later spread to the regions around Johannesburg. But even as foreign African scholars receive praise, the reality facing them in South Africa is not always rosy.
Foreigners in South Africa face tougher immigration laws as of last year. The government has dropped its ‘exceptional skills’ category under which academics often obtained visas before. The long-term effects of these new policies are not yet clear, but there are fears that it might make it more difficult to attract talent from other African countries.
And while most people endorse the idea of ‘transforming’ South Africa’s top universities to include higher proportions of black students and staff, there are doubts whether foreign Africans should count towards these goals. Foreign Africans were excluded from the ‘black’ student demographic category in a 2013 proposal for an equality index for South Africa’s universities. 
“The long-term effects of these new policies are not yet clear, but there are fears that it might make it more difficult to attract talent from other African countries.”
In other words, foreign African scholars may not be as welcome in South Africa as the university leaders were saying last month. Even on-campus attacks may not be outside the realm of possibilities, as the university leaders implicitly admitted when they urged anyone witnessing intolerant acts to report them immediately to campus security. 
Yet, judging by national data, South Africa’s goal of becoming a knowledge economy will depend on its continued ability to attract staff and students — particularly at graduate level — from the rest of Africa. If these people no longer want to come, the repercussions will be heavy for South African universities, and possibly also harm the country’s economic growth.
South Africa’s government has, as part of its National Development Plan, set a target of increasing the number of PhD students graduating annually in the country from the current number of around 1,500 to 5,000 by the year 2030.
This will be a tough ask, and might prove impossible if there is a reversal in the recent upswing of foreign Africans coming to South Africa’s universities. Because, as data published last month shows, the fastest growing group of PhD candidates in South Africa hails from the rest of the continent.
The data appears in a chapter written by three South Africa-based academics in the book Knowledge production and contradictory functions in African higher education, published on 28 April this year by African Minds. 
It says that while post-Apartheid South Africa PhD enrolments nearly tripled from just over 5,100 in 1996 to almost 14,000 in 2012, the annual growth rates of enrolments from the rest of Africa was nearly double that for South African students (17.7 per cent versus 9.6 per cent).
So who is coming to the country, and why? Zimbabweans topped the list of international students graduating with PhDs in 2012, followed by Nigerians, Kenyans, Ugandans and Ethiopians.
“A more sensible policy would be to remove barriers for academic migration, and to forge a more inclusive notion of academic development where the coming and going of foreign students and academics is truly seen as enriching.”
Indeed, of the top 20 countries of origin of international PhD graduates in South Africa that year, only three countries were not African. Only one non-African country, the USA, appeared in the Top 10.
As for why, money likely plays a big part. According to the chapter’s authors, a degree at the US-based University of California, Berkley, can cost up to four times as much as a degree at a top South African university, making the latter “a bargain”. 
A lesser evil
However, if international students and staff are too fearful of their safety to come to South Africa, or are prevented from coming by onerous immigration rules, the steady flow from the rest of the continent could very well slow to a trickle.
If that came to pass, could the country get the PhD candidates it says it needs to fuel its knowledge economy locally? Perhaps, although at the moment young black South African undergraduates are highly sought-after by industry, and are sometimes offered higher salaries than their university professors if they step away from academic institutions. A more sensible policy would be to remove barriers for academic migration, and to forge a more inclusive notion of academic development where the coming and going of foreign students and academics is truly seen as enriching.
Such policies do have the drawback further down the line of creating tensions with the country of origin if it results in an exodus of talent to South Africa. But as far as evils go, that is preferable to losing those students to other continents — or to graduate education entirely.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.