Your guide to expat life in South Africa

Living in South Africa

With its pristine coastline, wildlife reserves and winelands, 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.

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Accommodation

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.

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Renting property

Both furnished and unfurnished rental 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 provide proof of income and put down a security deposit of one or two months’ rent. Utilities are rarely included in your rent, and electricity is often prepaid.

Security

Opportunistic crime is widespread, and security is a concern. You can reduce your chances of becoming a victim by choosing a home with a perimeter fence, security gates and an alarm system that’s linked to a private security firm.

Culture changes

Although not without its 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.

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Inequality

It’s not uncommon to see a brand-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.

Crime

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.

Time

For many South Africans, there’s no rush to do something if it can be put off until later – and 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.

Social life

South Africans are known for being friendly and locals love braais, their version of a barbeque. These get-togethers are often organised around sporting events – another local obsession.

South African English

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 standard greeting of howzit, ja (pronounced yah) for yes, ‘robot’ for traffic light and ‘shame’ to convey empathy.

Education

There are disparities between public and private education in South Africa, and it’s usually only the affluent minority that has access to private schools. There are also former Model C schools that are part parent-funded, part government-funded, along with a number of world-class international schools. The school year runs from January to December with the main breaks in June/July and December/January.

For more information on planning for education see our Family Finances content.

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Public schools

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.

Private schools

South Africa’s private schools are excellent, but competition for places is fierce and fees are much higher than public or former Model C schools. Many private schools are faith-based. There are also some that use alternative teaching methods such as Montessori and Waldorf.

International schools

Most of South Africa’s international schools are in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The majority of these follow the American, British, French or German curriculum or the International Baccalaureate.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling 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.

Make friends in your local neighbourhood and don't be shy to ask them for help and advice with practicalities. Word of mouth is the only way to find out how to get things done in India

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Keeping in touch

Mobile

The main mobile providers are Vodacom, MTN, Virgin Mobile and Cell C. Government-owned Telkom also offers competitive packages. Coverage is generally good and people from all backgrounds have a mobile phone. Prepaid and contract options are both available. Calls on a contract may be cheaper, but you’ll be penalised if you terminate it early.

Landline

If you want a landline, you’ll have to get it through 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.

Internet

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 a number of providers. There’s no censorship, and locals are avid users of social media.

English media

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.

Television

SABC, the national broadcaster, only has three channels and a lot of the programmes are outdated. Most expats subscribe to DSTV, which has a wider selection, including many international cable channels.

Postal service

South Africa’s postal service can be unreliable and there are often delays, so you should insure valuable items or use a courier service.

Healthcare

There’s a massive gap in standards between public and private healthcare in South Africa, so most expats use private hospitals and clinics.

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Public healthcare

Medical staff are some of the best in the world, but facilities are poor and the system is underfunded and under-resourced, so queues can be very long. People are charged for healthcare services according to their income.

Private healthcare

The quality of private healthcare in South Africa is excellent, with world-class hospitals and clinics. Most expats take out medical insurance to cover consultation fees and treatment costs.

Pharmacies

You’ll find pharmacies attached to hospitals and clinics, as well as 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.

Emergency services

Public ambulance services vary from province to province. Response times in rural and impoverished areas tend to be very slow. You can also call a private ambulance, make sure your medical insurance covers this if you don’t want to pay for it yourself.

Getting around

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 the high cost of maintenance and fuel.

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Driving

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 can 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.

Buses

Bus services are limited and mainly cover the areas where expats don’t tend to 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.

Taxis

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 driven dangerously. Ride-hailing services, such as Uber, are also available in South Africa.

Trains

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 trains such as the Blue Train, Premier Classe and Rovos Rail are a great (but expensive) way to travel long distances and enjoy South Africa’s spectacular scenery.

Air travel

Because South Africa’s cities are so far apart, the best way to travel between them is to fly. A number of airlines, including budget options, operate regular domestic flights, along with flights to neighbouring countries.

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 October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

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