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Living The Expat Life in South Africa

Liezl Hesketh in Life skills, Stories 

Expats living in South Africa

Things Are Different Here

If you are moving to South Africa as an expat or an intern you’re going to learn quite quickly that things are different in Africa.

The Time

Forget what you know about time. African time basically consists of ‘now’, ‘now-now’, and ‘just now’. ‘Now’ is pretty much a foreign concept. A bit like ‘immediately’. If you want something done immediately I hope you’re an extremely patient person – with a good sense of humour. The closest translation of ‘now-now’ could be ‘I’m on my way’ or ‘in a minute’, but don’t hold your breath. ‘Just now’ is one of the most elastic terms ever invented. It could cover any length of time between ‘as soon as I’ve finished this’ to ‘before I go to bed’. Or next week.

The Size

South Africa has 2,798 kilometres of coastline that stretches across two oceans, the Indian and the Atlantic. It covers 1,219,912 km2 and is the 25th-largest country in the world. You could fit Germany, France, Syria, Cape Verde Islands, Jan Mayen Island and Gibraltar inside and still have space left over. Admittedly only 2 km2, but still. We have eleven official languages and nine provinces, and three capital cities. Cape Town – the legislative capital and the seat of the nation’s Parliament, Pretoria – the administrative capital, and Bloemfontein – the judicial capital, the seat of the Supreme Court of Appeal.

The Weather and the Geography

If you come from north of the equator then the next most important thing to know about is the weather. We spend Christmas at the beach. We’re famous for our sunshine. If you live in Cape Town you’ll have winter rain, but the outside of the Cape you’ll have it in summer. In Johannesburg which sits at 1 694 metres above sea-level it usually doesn’t go above 30°C in summer, but drops to below zero in winter. So although we may be a sun-soaked land you’re going to need a good jersey or two.

Speaking of coming from north of the equator, geography is also something you’re going to need to relearn. There’s South Africa, Up North – anywhere north of the Limpopo River – but usually limited to Zimbabwe or Zambia, Australia, New Zealand and Overseas which covers everywhere else.

The Communities

Because of our diversity and history there are a number of different communities, each with their own language, customs, culture and food. But when it comes to the food you’ll find influences of nearly all the cultures in a lot of the dishes. If you come from the USA, you’ll most likely be horrified to hear people being called Coloureds. Don’t be. It’s not an insult in South Africa.

Most expats live in the major towns across South Africa. In every city, like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, there will be a fairly large expat community that you can link in with and make new friends quickly. But don’t restrict yourself to the expat community. South Africans are friendly and welcoming.

Cape Town – the Mother City

The New York Times listed it as the best place to go in 2014, thanks to its mild climate and natural beauty. If any place was the embodiment of ‘just now’, Cape Town would be it. Its laid-back, relaxed and cosmopolitan atmosphere is almost the exact opposite of Johannesburg’s high stress, fast paced frenzy. Because of its cosmopolitan heart it’s easy to live the good life in Cape Town as an expat, whether you’re climbing The Mountain, enjoying the arts or relishing the gourmet food. It’s also become one of the film industry’s go-to places for making mega-blockbusters. The MyCity Rapid Bus Transport system makes it fairly easy for residents to get around but most expats prefer to use their own car. If you want to be really trendy you may want to invest in a scooter.

Johannesburg – Egoli, the City of Gold

Hidden in the largest man-made forest in the world, Johannesburg is the financial heart of Africa and it all began with the gold that is found in the labyrinth of mines beneath its streets. The continent’s richest square mile is not in the city centre as you may expect but rather in the up-market suburb of Sandton. Jo’burg or Joey’s, as the locals call it, is fast-paced and vibrant. The climate is almost perfect with hot, clear summers that revel in our spectacular and dramatic late afternoon thunderstorms. Cold winter nights and chilly mornings warm up pleasantly during the day. Not far from Jo’burg is the Cradle of Humankind, game parks and nature reserves. Once you’ve left Johannesburg behind you’ll find yourself in the iconic African landscape.

Port Elizabeth – The Windy City

Very few people in South Africa call Port Elizabeth anything other than PE. It’s one of South Africa’s most important ports as it has the largest ore loading capabilities in the southern hemisphere. One of the reasons the city is home to a large number of expats is the fact that it’s the heart of South Africa’s car industry. Major car companies like Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen all have plants here. Sitting as it does on South Africa’s Garden Route, it has the country’s mildest climate and it’s also the second mildest in the world.

No matter which city you live in you will need to find accommodation. You can either find yourself a realtor or search online at TheRoomLink.

It’s all very well telling you about the climate, the size of the country and what we call geography but you’ll need some practical advice as well, which will be good to know before you get here.


  • The Banks

Standard Bank, Nedbank, First National Bank, and ABSA are the four biggest banks in South Africa. Major shopping malls, airports and sometimes train stations will have branches of most, if not all of these banks. They all offer Forex transaction facilities and Online Banking facilities. You can usually open a ‘Non Resident’ account at most banks, but be prepared for some frustration as there are very (unfriendly) rules that govern these!

Others are Capitec, Investec, African Bank, and BidVest Bank. Most banks adhere to the same business hours – Monday to Friday: 8h30 until 15h30, Saturday: 8h30 until 11h30, Sunday/Public Holiday: closed – but check with the bank’s website to make sure.

  • After Hours Banking and Cards

After hours you can get cash from the ATMs (Automated Teller Machines) with a local debit card or a local or international credit card. Most shopping centres and petrol stations will have an ATM of at least one of the major banks, and no matter which bank you are with you will be able to use it, you will have to pay higher fees though. If you bank with FNB you can get cash without fees attached from some supermarkets like Pick n Pay. Every bank has an ATM outside their branches. If your credit card is supported by VISA or MasterCard, American Express, Diners, VISA-Electron or Maestro Cards then most of the ATM’s will accept them.

You will be able to use your credit card for most transaction as long as you have a pin code. You may also need to sign the slip at the till as well.

If you have any questions about using your credit card it’s best to check with the bank before you start merrily swiping away. Be aware that very few shops or restaurants will accept personal cheques. It’s important to check this with them first.

In South Africa we have ‘garage cards’ and ‘fleet cards’. Garage cards are linked to your cheque account, a.k.a. your current account. These cards, which you can order through your bank, can be used to pay for garage services, gas – petrol or diesel, car wash services and tolls. Be careful, toll booths don’t accept foreign debit cards or regular credit cards. If you’re planning a journey, take some cash along to pay for these.

Debit cards can’t be used for shopping online, and many online South African websites don’t accept foreign credit cards. But if you contact them, they will try and help you by enabling you to pay another way, like with Paypal or direct bank transfer, called EFT.

  • Foreign Exchange.

Foreign exchange companies outside of the major banks include Imali Express Forex, Master Currency Foreign Exchange, Rennies Foreign Exchange, Tourvest trading as American Express Foreign Exchange and Travelex Worldwide Money. You can usually find at least one of these in the major shopping malls.

  • Travellers’ Cheques

The local banks, specialised foreign exchange bureaux as well as most of the bigger hotels will cash your travellers’ cheques for you. They will need your passport, your flight ticket and your South African address.


If you’re arriving from the UK, you’ve been spoilt by the National Health Services (NHS). You cannot rely on the public healthcare in South Africa.  Depending on how long you’re be in South Africa, you may need specialist insurance. Check the fine print in your regular travel insurance policy – if you’ve been out your country of residence for more than 6 months, you might find yourself in “no man’s land”, as hardly anyone will insure you.  Try a site like who cater for people who find themselves in this gap.

South African health care ranges between the most basic primary health care to the highly specialised, hi-tech health services. It is possible to have a successful triple by-pass at state funded hospitals and receive excellent nursing care. Most of the middle to higher income earners in South Africa are members of a medical aid scheme and opt for private hospitals. Many companies and organisations offer, if not full medical aid, then at least some as part of a remuneration package. If you can, we would advise that you have medical insurance.

You should also consider taking out Life Insurance, Car and Home Insurance – make sure your Will covers both your country of origin home and your South African home – Personal Accident Insurance and Critical Illness Cover. It will help enormously if you can supply proof of a no-claims bonus on any insurance you may have back home.


We drive on the left (pretty important piece of information that) and most people drive non-automatic cars. You and your car both need to have a licence. It’s a good idea to arm yourself with an International Driver’s Licence (in English) before you get here. Once you have a resident’s permit you have a year in which to get a South African licence. If you don’t have a resident’s permit but you do have a diplomatic permit you can apply for a South African driver’s licence.

If your foreign driving licence is valid, has your photo and signature on it and is in either English or one of the other eleven official South African languages – or has a letter of validity from your embassy and a translation – there should be no reason why your licence won’t be converted to a South African licence. You can find out how to go about getting a South African driver’s licence here. Don’t leave it to the last minute. Don’t leave anything to the last minute. Remember what we told you about time here in Africa?

Your car must be registered. You can find out how to do that here. You have 21 days in which to do when you buy a new car. Do it straight away or you may end up with a fine.

Expat Communities

Expats who live in South Africa have come for many different reasons. The weather and the outdoor life are great and so are the economic opportunities. The World Bank has classed South Africa as an upper-middle income economy. It’s most vibrant industries are mining, agriculture, manufacturing, fishing, vehicle manufacturing and assembly, food processing, clothing and textiles, telecommunication, energy, financial and business services, real estate, tourism, transportation, and wholesale and retail trade as well as the film industry are the backbone of our country.

There are strong expat networks from nearly all nations in South Africa that can help you make the transition easier and Facebook Groups, like Expat Cape Town which will help you link with people already in South Africa.

The Outdoor Life

Having a sense of adventure will go a long way to helping you settle in. And the outdoors is a big part of the South African lifestyle. The first thing you’ll discover is braaing, our version of barbequing. Soccer/Football, Rugby and Cricket are almost national religions but nearly every other sport is played here as well. Except for American Football and that’s because we play rugby. And you will never convince us that American football is tougher. Don’t even try.

Non-team sports are also extremely popular with some of the world’s toughest races held every year in cycling, canoeing, marathons, triathlons and Ironman competitions.

If you live near the ocean you can indulge in board surfing, kite surfing, scuba diving and deep sea fishing. Where ever there are mountains there will be every mountain sport imaginable.

The Whenwes

When you leave South Africa you will inevitably become a member of the Whenwe Club. This is a very select African club. You’ll find members all over the world. They usually come from Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. You can easily identify them. They start conversations by saying, “When we were in Africa…” You will find yourself doing it as well because Africa gets into your blood and it’s very hard to let go when you leave.

Oh, and one other thing before I forget, it’s important to remember when asking directions that in South Africa traffic lights are called robots.