South Africa: Expat Observations

South Africa: Expat Observations

South Africans often ask me why I left the United States to move to South Africa. It’s not a purely inquisitive question, but one laced with a hefty dose of, “are you crazy.”  And while it’s easy to formulate an answer explaining why I came here, it can be harder to articulate why I want to stay. The easy answer is that I moved here for work and the reason I want to stay is because my job is challenging, rewarding, and every day is different from the one before, but the answer is also much more nuanced than that. South Africa is a multifaceted, complex country and my knowledge of its history, politics, and cultures only skims the surface, but it’s a country I want to get to know. None of the following observations are remotely profound, but they might help you understand what I love and what occasionally frustrates me about living in this remarkable country.


Even though South Africans like to complain about the weather, the weather in Johannesburg is humidity free and glorious. During my first few weeks here, my mom asked me what my favorite thing about South Africa was, and without hesitating I said, “my hair look amazing everyday” – a flip and narcisstic remark for sure but also true.

At the height of a summer day the temperature rarely rises above 88F and cools off considerably over the night so that sleeping is rarely unpleasant. During spring, summer, and fall, all the windows in my house are thrown open and, if I am home, the doors too. There are no screens on the windows so this invites all kinds of lizards, slugs, and bugs into the house which has lately created some interesting cat/lizard high speed chases. And, at over a mile above sea level, there is no malaria in Johannesburg, but the mosquitos in summer are vicious and I have to sleep with a fan, not to stay cool, but to blow them away from me. The nights I forget the fan, I wake up in the morning covered in itchy bites. Spring and summer also bring epic high veld (open plains) storms with the most incredible lightning displays and if they occur in the late afternoon huge double rainbows. In the US, double full arch rainbows were a rarity so much so that the time I saw one in Washington, DC it caused busy DC denizens to stop complete strangers on the street to ask whether they had seen the impossible-to-miss rainbow and then to marvel at the sight.

In winter, temperatures rarely dip below 30F and there is not a drop of rain or even a hint of clouds from May to September. While winter itself is not unpleasant, South African homes and many businesses do not have central heating. My house has underfloor heating in most rooms – an incredibly costly and energy inefficient way to try and heat the house. While I love winter and snow, I dislike being cold indoors. It is common to not remove your coat at the office, and my South African colleagues have multiple, fashionable coats. When I was unpacking my winter coats, I hung my full-length down jacket in the spare bedroom thinking to myself that I would never have an opportunity to wear it during the mild South African winters. Actually, I wore it in the house everyday from the moment I walked through the front door until the moment I climbed into bed.


South Africans often comment that I have seen more of the country than they have, but when you are an expat and you know your time is limited, you have to see and do as much as possible. I travel at least two weekends a month which is about the same amount I traveled when I lived in the U.S. The difference being in the U.S. I was often flying all over the country to see friends and family, not to visit a particular city. Travel has been a way for me to meet interesting people from around the world and has been a good solution to not having many friends in Johannesburg. In South Africa there are excellent roads and flights to every corner of the country. Moving around is relatively easy, although it is also a large country so distances between places can be quite far. People are often surprised when I tell them that Cape Town is a 2 hour flight from Johannesburg or 15 hours by car. There is so much to see and do in this country and the longer I stay the longer my list becomes.


South Africa offers an incredible quality of life for an expat. But to me the true pleasure of being an expat, is the subtle differences in how quotidian activities are done differently. When I lived in Santiago, I loved that you had to have your fruits and veggies weighed by someone in the produce section before you went to the check out counter. In Ecuador exchanging money entailed waiting in line for an hour or two before making it to the teller who more often than not didn’t have enough bills. It took me one week and four visits to Vodacom to get a cell phone contract when I first moved here. I had to give them copies of my lease, work permit, bank statements, a letter from my bank, a letter from my employer with my salary and confirmation that I was employed. After all that they wouldn’t even give me the contract I wanted because they were unsure whether I could make the monthly payments. While frustrating, these are the things I secretly enjoy. The fact that not everything is easy or that routine activities can suddenly be transformed into an adventure.


I often meet fellow travelers who ask me whether I feel safe in Johannesburg given its notorious reputation for crime. My standard response is that it isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. That isn’t to say that crime and safety are not concerns, but so was crime in Washington, DC. The week before I moved to Johannesburg, I exited a popular eatery on 14th Street in DC to find the street blocked off with yellow crime tape because a man had been shot in the leg a block away. Another morning I had to be at work early and as I exited the metro I noticed a trail of blood leading out of the station. Someone had been gutted with a knife on the platform seconds before I exited the train. People in South Africa seem surprised when I tell them about violent crime in the U.S. That being said, there are a number of things I do differently in Johannesburg to mitigate the risk of crime. I wouldn’t think of walking anywhere. I rarely drive alone at night and if I do, it is only for short distances. There are places I just won’t go alone or at night. And, I live on a huge estate with a massive security infrastructure. It is the kind of place where if you accidentally push one of  the emergency buttons that are located throughout the house, a gun toting guard will arrive in minutes. This certainly has resulted in adjustments in how I live my life, but I don’t feel scared or like I can’t do the things that I want to do.

And for all visitors who bypass Johannesburg because of its high crime rates, don’t. This is one of the most important cities in Africa and while its grittiness will not charm you right away, it is an important stop if you want to try and understand South Africa and its history.


Overall, this is a car culture. Status is communicated by the kind of car you drive and you have to drive everywhere since public transportation is virtually non-existent. It also means that traffic is horrendous and if you are traversing a certain route at a certain time of day, you should pad your travel time.

I am often asked if it is difficult driving on the “other side of the road.” Mastering driving on the opposite side of the road was simple. It probably helped that prior to moving here, I had driven 20 times in 10 years and any muscle memory had been long erased. What I have not gotten used to is the craziness that happens on the roads. Robots (traffic lights) are often not working either because of theft, power outages, or disabled by heavy rains.  Taxis (minibuses) are unpredictable, driving on the dirt alongside the tarred road if traffic is backed up, running red lights, passing on the left shoulder, and generally just pulling into your lane (and car) if it suits them. This behavior is often emulated by all other drivers on the road, although with less audacity. Then there are the people who dart across large highways or even walk in the road. While this is understandable given the lack of sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, it is also nerve wracking. My greatest fear on the road is knocking down a pedestrian which seems like a fairly common occurrence given the number of times it is reported on morning radio. Then there are bakkies (pickup trucks) loaded down with people in the back driving 140km per hour on the highway. South Africa has some of the highest numbers of road fatalities in the world and in 15 months I have seen a fair number of fatal accidents.

Service Level Delivery

If the internet, electricity, and water are all working, it’s a good day. When I first moved into my house, the owners confided I should keep plenty of water on hand because the estate was often without water, but the electricity rarely went out. This year the power has gone out on numerous occasions at first because of equipment failure and now because of load shedding. For the past few weeks, every weekend we have had the power cut for 4.5 hours during the day, although we are notified in advance which allows you to plan and cope better.  Load shedding, while not entirely convenient because I lose internet when the power is cut, isn’t nearly as terrible as days without water. On the plus side, over the past few months I have perfected the bucket bath – first heating water in my tea kettle and then hauling it to the bathroom. But the worst utility to forgo is no internet. Although even when I do have internet, it is often dial-up slow or even nonexistent. I realize how completely dependent I have become on the internet often because I have a work deadline or project but often because the internet has become my main form of entertainment. While being without electricity, water, or internet can be frustrating because I had expected consistent provision of these services, sometimes its quite enjoyable to use it as an excuse to unplug and lay by the pool in the garden.

This is an amazing country and while not everything operates perfectly, (name a place where it does) it is an amazing country to call home for a few years. I feel incredibly lucky to have landed here and to experience all aspects of life in Johannesburg.