Trafalgar time-out: South Africans voting in the 2014 elections. Source: Jonathan Reader, Marike Groenewald, Ed Kirby and Cindy Atwell.

Trafalgar toyi-toyi: South Africans voting in the 2014 elections. Photos: Cindy Atwell, Michelle Crowther, Marike Groenewald, Ed Kerby and Jonathan Reader.

And so it starts. While those of us lucky enough to be in the homeland will only get the chance to vote next week Wednesday, South Africans living abroad had the opportunity to vote today. And, as I’ve seen from the pictures on my Facebook-feed, it seems the sunshine (I think that is a greyish-blueish sky?) contributed to a festive affair in Trafalgar Square. But it’s not only the 10 000 or so Londoners that voted: I’ve seen pictures of voting stations in Australia, South Korea, Belgium, and even of a couple driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles to cast their vote.

Twenty years after 1994, it’s great to see democracy in action. But the pictures also put into perspective the thousands of South Africans that are working and living abroad. Early this year, Adcorp, a recruitment firm, claimed that more South Africans are returning home than the number of South Africans leaving, reversing the brain drain of skilled professionals that has been a feature of the last few decades. This seemed to suggest that government and private attempts, like the Homecoming Revolution which encourages expats to return home, were successful. Yet a recent study by Thomas Höppli suggests otherwise. Using official immigration and census data from recipient countries, Höppli shows that there are more than 750 000 South Africans living abroad, and that this number is increasing, even if the growth rate has slowed down dramatically. The stock of South Africans living abroad has ‘increased continuously from 2000 to 2010 at an average annual rate of about 5%. Growth subsided from 2010 onwards, averaging a mere 0,6% annually to 2013, but it has not turned negative’.

The brain drain, as the trend is commonly known, is not necessarily bad for the country. South Africans living abroad improve their skills and establish new networks which can often be beneficial for a country in the longer term. Yet the decline in the growth rate of emigration (although not a complete reversal) does suggest that, at least since the recession, South Africa’s relative attractiveness has improved considerably. Many returnees note the relatively high standard of living, good education and (private) health care, and sunny weather as the main pull factors. They should also add the low unemployment level for those with skills.

As a good friend that frequently travels abroad mentioned to me in passing the other day: We have a lot of problems in South Africa, but at least they are our problems. Twenty years after our first democratic elections, I’ll toast to that. Happy voting.