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Africans Flock to South Africa in Search of the Perfect Body

From tummy tucks to the perfect derrière, customers are flocking to South Africa from across the continent in search of the perfect body. So-called plastic surgery "safaris" offer surgery and recuperation away from public scrutiny.

Agencies specializing in medical safaris say they have seen a surge in African customers.

Africa is being swept up in the global trend toward cosmetic surgery - with South Africa emerging as the continent’s top destination for the procedures.

For years the country has attracted medical tourists from Europe and the United States. But local plastic surgeons say more clients from Africa’s emerging markets are opting to go under the knife.

Lorraine Melvill, of Surgeon and Safari, has been facilitating cosmetic surgeries and recuperation breaks for nearly 16 years from her office in Johannesburg. She says that over 80 percent of her clients now come from sub-Saharan Africa.

“When the West started having its economic downturn, it was almost a symbiotic change and the scales just tilted. And we know Africa wasn't as affected by the economic downturn," she said. "There is also a huge emerging African middle class that has come to the fore…for us, the growing market is the sub-Saharan African market… Africa is where we are looking to the future."

Clients are ushered from the airport to a plush guesthouse, talked through the procedure and often operated on the next day, giving a week or two to enjoy a safari or splurge on shopping for clothes and handbags while the bruises fade and swelling subsides.

Clients can spend anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 on a cosmetic procedure and an additional $2,000 on accommodation for 10-12 days.

For many, coming from within the continent, less is more, says Melvill.

“A lot of Africans have a huge need for breast reduction. And also in terms of the African market, I would certainly say breast reductions, liposuctions and tummy tucks would be their main," she said.

Dr. Chris Snijman, national secretary for the Association of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons of South Africa (APRSSA), says that a favorable exchange rate and the availability of superior and safer methods have contributed to the uptick in cosmetic procedures in South Africa.

“We are seeing a massive influx of patients from sub-Saharan Africa not to mention our own emerging upper middle class group of patients in this country. Obviously they are becoming more socially aware, the social boundaries and stigma attached to cosmetic surgery are now far less than they were before and in addition, they now have a disposable income," said Snijman.

Usually highly-educated and well-traveled, Snijman says the majority of his African clients come from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola and Zambia, with an increasing number from Ghana.

The market is still dominated by women but this is also slowly changing, says Dr. Julie Sinclair, who performs dozens of non-surgical treatments a week.

“Over the last few years a lot more male patients are coming so in terms of gender, that has changed quite a lot," she said. "In terms of race, a lot of Asian, Indian, Thai, Chinese as well as black patients are realizing that they can do something about something that is bothering them and to some extent, they are more able to do it as the economical climate changes as well."

According the APRSSA, non-invasive procedures such as botox injections have increased by 788 percent globally, with surgical procedures increasing by 128 percent over the past decade.

Statistics on South Africa’s cosmetic procedure market are sparse, says Snijman.

“It's a huge concern [but] it is something we are very working hard on to coerce our members into giving us meaningful statistics so we know where we stand worldwide and for instance, what are the complications, what are the procedures that are causing the most grey hairs and possible litigation," he said.

Gaps in regulation have allowed rogue surgeons, who are not affiliated with a professional association, to proliferate.

South Africa’s medical professionals say the cosmetic surgery boom is set to continue but with it, has to come stricter regulation.