Want to live in South Africa?
With its pristine coastline, wildlife reserves and vineyards, there’s an incredible amount to explore in South Africa, making it very appealing to expats with families.
As well as a good standard of living and a laid-back lifestyle, expats also have access to excellent private schools and high-quality childcare that doesn’t cost the earth.
Accommodation in South Africa
There’s a wide choice of accommodation in South Africa. Security estates and gated communities are popular choices for expats. Given the weakness of the South African rand, many expats on long-term contracts choose to buy a property rather than rent.
Those who wish to rent will find that both furnished and unfurnished properties are widely available. Renting a place is a straightforward process – most expats get help from an estate agent. Lease terms are usually a year. You’ll have to show proof of income and put down a security deposit of one- to two-months’ rent. Utilities are rarely included in your rent, and electricity is often prepaid.
Opportunistic crime is widespread, and security can be a concern. To protect yourself, choose a home with a perimeter fence, security gates and an alarm system linked to a private security firm.
Local culture in South Africa
Although it has some challenges, post-apartheid South Africa is an exciting place to live. However, the glaring disparities in wealth are an initial shock for expats from Western countries. South Africans are also very security conscious – and the degree to which this impacts daily life can take some getting used to.
An unfortunate legacy of apartheid is that South Africa is still deeply divided along race and class lines. Most crime occurs in poverty-stricken areas with high unemployment, but you should always be vigilant and take common sense precautions, even in the more exclusive suburbs. Due to high levels of inequality, it’s common to see a new Mercedes parked next to someone rummaging through a bin. Don’t let guilt overwhelm you – if you want to help, consider donating to a reputable charity.
Although English is widely spoken and understood, the country’s cultural mix has resulted in colourful colloquialisms that transcend race and class. These include the greeting howzit, ja (pronounced yah) for yes, ‘robot’ for traffic light and ‘shame’ to convey empathy.
For many South Africans, there’s also no rush to do something if it can be put off until later. The local expression ‘just now’ can mean anything from a few minutes to a few days. This isn’t the case in the corporate world where Western standards of punctuality are upheld.
South Africans are known for being friendly and locals love braais, their version of a barbecue. These get-togethers are often organised around sporting events – another local obsession.
Education in South Africa
There are disparities between public and private education in South Africa. It’s usually only the affluent minority that has access to private schools. The school year runs from January to December with the main breaks in June/July and December/January.
Standards in government-funded public schools vary widely. In less affluent municipalities, schools are underfunded and teachers underpaid, resulting in a poor level of education. Schools in wealthier areas tend to have better resources.
South Africa’s private schools are excellent, but competition for places is fierce and fees are much higher than at public schools. Many private schools are faith-based. There are also some that use alternative teaching methods such as Montessori and Waldorf.
Home schooling is becoming increasingly popular among expat parents in South Africa. To register your child, you have to apply to the head of the Department of Education in your province. Lessons must follow the basic phases of education defined by the department.
Most of South Africa’s international schools are in Cape Town and Johannesburg. They mainly follow American, British, French or German curricula or the International Baccalaureate.
Keeping in touch in South Africa
The main mobile providers are Vodacom, MTN, Virgin Mobile and Cell C. Government-owned Telkom also offers competitive packages. Coverage is generally good and most people own a mobile phone. Prepaid and contract options are both available. For landlines, you’ll have to contact Telkom – and you could wait anything from a day to a month to have it installed. International calls can be expensive, but Telkom has packages that give you discounts on local call rates.
South Africa’s mobile broadband is close to international standards, and ADSL and fibre lines are available in most areas. Internet packages are available from several providers. There’s no censorship, and locals are avid users of social media.
For those who wish to read the local newspapers, most big cities have their own daily and weekend publications. The national weekend paper is the Sunday Times. Several syndicated magazines have South African editions, and you can also buy imported magazines, but they’re expensive. Most expats subscribe to DSTV, which is a satellite TV company that has a broad selection of channels, including many international cable channels.
South Africa’s postal service can be unreliable and there are often delays. You should insure valuable items or use a courier service.
Healthcare in South Africa
There’s a massive gap between public and private healthcare in South Africa, so most expats use private hospitals and clinics.
The medical staff at public hospitals and clinics are some of the best in the world, but facilities can be poor. The system is underfunded and under-resourced, so queues can be very long. People are charged for healthcare services according to their income. The quality of private healthcare in South Africa, however, is excellent, with world-class hospitals and clinics. Most expats take out medical insurance to cover consultation fees and treatment costs.
You’ll find pharmacies attached to hospitals and clinics, and in most shopping malls. If you’re travelling to a remote area, take a supply of medication with you because the nearest pharmacy could be some distance away.
Public ambulance services vary, and can be slow in poor or rural areas. If you call a private ambulance, make sure it’s covered by your medical insurance or you’ll have to pay.
Getting around in South Africa
Although millions are being invested in developing South Africa’s public transport infrastructure, it’s still limited and unreliable, even in the main cities.
Most expats own a car, despite high fuel and maintenance costs. Urban roads are generally well maintained, but those in rural areas are often in a poor state. You can expect traffic congestion during rush hour and power outages often cause problems on the roads. Compared to other developing countries, South African drivers are generally considerate and law-abiding. You can use your driving licence from home, as long as it’s in English and features your photograph.
You’ll find metered taxis in big cities, although they can be an expensive way to get around. There are also minibus taxis, but they’re often overcrowded, in poor condition and drive dangerously. Ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Bolt, are also available in South Africa.
In terms of public transport, bus services are limited and mainly cover areas where expats don’t live. Metrobus is the official service provider in the Johannesburg area. Cape Town has a rapid bus service called MyCiTi that also offers a shuttle service from the airport to the city centre. Various companies have long-distance bus services between the main cities and many smaller towns, but they tend to be very slow.
Trains aren’t very widely used in South Africa. The Gautrain MRT rapid rail system connects Pretoria to various places in Johannesburg, including OR Tambo International Airport and Sandton, the city’s business district. Its trains are safe, clean and efficient, but the route is very limited. Luxury services such as Blue Train, Premier Classe and Rovos Rail are a great - if expensive - way to travel long distances and enjoy South Africa’s spectacular scenery.
Because South Africa’s cities are so far apart, the best way to travel between them is to fly. Many airlines operate regular domestic flights, along with flights to neighbouring countries.
Cost of living in South Africa
The cost of living in South African cities is far lower than the likes of London and New York. But everyday expenses like groceries and electricity are increasing. This is mainly due to the weakening of the rand against the euro and US dollar. If you’re paid in a stronger currency, you’ll probably have more disposable income than you did back home.
Imported groceries are easy to find, but you’ll pay a premium for them. Locally produced food is much cheaper, and the quality is excellent. You’ll almost certainly need a car to get around – reliable vehicles are expensive, and fuel is expensive.
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Top tips for South Africa
See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in South Africa.
South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. But make sure you have a good financial plan to allow you to do what you want to do in South Africa before expating.
All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.
All other content is provided by expatarrivals.com, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.
This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.
Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.
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