Life as an expat in South Africa

Expat stories
  • Camps Bay in Cape Town
Published on 2021-11-09 at 14:04
From October 1, 2021, South Africa moved to Alert Level 1 after multiple Covid-19 peaks, and life is slowly getting back to normal. Hannah, an expat from the UK, was lucky enough to relocate to Cape Town in September following her husband's intra-company transfer. She shares her views about expat life in the country she now calls home.

With a population of over 60 million and 11 official languages, South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in the world. We moved to Cape Town in September this year thanks to my husband's Intra-Company Transfer Work Visa, which enables us to stay in the country for up to four years. For years, we dreamt of moving and living abroad, having spent many holidays in Southeast Asia, namely Singapore, where my expat in-laws lived for over five years. However, the timing, nor the opportunities that came up, were never right until now. 

We were fortunate to have the support of my husband's employer when applying for our visas, as while the process is not difficult, it can be time-consuming. A variety of visas are available to visitors, as well as those who move to the country for work or to start a business, but the Critical Skills Work Visa is recommended for professionals whose occupation is on the critical shortage occupation list. It allows workers holding this visa to visit South Africa and search for a job. Despite the fact that the 2021 Critical Skills List has yet to be confirmed, early indications suggest IT, engineering, healthcare, marketing, and business and economics candidates will be highly sought after.

Even though we moved to South Africa during a period when it remained on the UK travel red list, and Covid-19 restrictions were in place, our initial concerns were quickly replaced with feelings of excitement and positivity because of the warm South African hospitality. South Africans are genuinely pleased to see foreign nationals in the country and are very much open for business after months of strict restrictions that have impacted tourism and global mobility. With South Africa now moving into their summer, the warmer weather will hopefully add to the appeal of those seeking some winter sun. It's a welcome change from the cold winters in the UK, and we're looking forward to having a braai (barbecue) on the beach at Christmas instead of turkey and all the trimmings!

Since we are first-time expats in a country where we do not have family or friends, it is especially rewarding to join a dynamic, social expat community. Enjoying being outdoors does help with making friends in South Africa, and there's an abundance of clubs to get involved in, from business groups to sport, religion and even board games. Aside from clubs, there's no shortage of things to do in South Africa. A 45-minute drive from Cape Town and you'll find yourself in the heart of the Cape Winelands surrounded by vineyards, bike and hike trails, nature reserves and mountain backdrops. It's hard to imagine how we spent our weekends before! Head along the Garden Route to Kwazulu-Natal and then on to Limpopo and Mpumalanage provinces to stay in some of the world's most luxurious private game reserves and lodges. Wildlife lovers come here from all corners of the globe in search of the 'Big Five': buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino. 

Looking at South Africa's cities, Cape Town is the most popular city for expats. Appealing thanks to its rich history, the abundance of things to do and famous landmarks such as Table Mountain and Robben Island. There are many safe neighbourhoods in Cape Town for expats to make their new home. We are currently renting in Sunset Beach, a coastal suburb north of Cape Town, famous for breathtaking views and numerous attractions.

Johannesburg, also known as Jozi, Joburg, or "The City of Gold", is the largest city in South Africa. Johannesburg is going through somewhat of a rebirth, with the construction of loft-style apartments and offices turning neighbourhoods into trendy, vibrant hangouts.

Just under an hour's drive from Johannesburg is Pretoria, the administrative capital of the Republic of South Africa (RSA). Pretoria is proud of its culture and history with many monuments and museums and is also home to some Jo'burgers who prefer its slower pace and laidback lifestyle. 

Durban is the third-largest city in South Africa after Johannesburg and Cape Town. On the road to recovery after the July unrest, this coastal city is known for its African, Indian and colonial influences. The warm climate and beaches add to the expat appeal. 

In addition to touring South Africa's vibrant cities to learn about its history, the country is well situated for travellers to do business or holiday in countries like Mauritius, the UAE, and Sri Lanka.

The cost of living in South Africa is also a big selling point for many expats looking for a high standard of living at a relatively low cost. Comparing costs to the UK, rent prices in London are 232% higher than in Cape Town, while the price of groceries in London is 85% higher (source: Numbeo, October 2021). It is worth noting, however, that while the cost of living is very reasonable, it does vary from city to city. 

While we do not yet have any children, many expats move abroad with their families, and moving abroad offers a host of benefits for the whole family. This year's edition of the HSBC Expat Explorer survey found that nearly half (43%) of expat children are perceived as having more confidence and a wider skill set since relocating abroad. South Africa, in particular, was called out by expats as a top location for children to make friends. 

Despite having a reputation for being an unsafe destination, adopting safe practices and using common sense, as you would anywhere else in the world, will help to alleviate any concerns you may have about safety in South Africa. You'll find that most people are friendly and will welcome you with open arms. This welcome, along with diverse cultures and landscapes, top attractions, high quality of life and exquisite cuisine, not to mention wine, will leave you with a lasting impression of life in South Africa. 

It truly is 'a world in one country', and I'm proud to now call it 'home.'