Cape Town, South Africa Report of what it's like to live there - 08/26/13

Personal Experiences from Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa 08/26/13


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

5th expat experience after Brasilia, Maputo, Lusaka, and Georgetown.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

DC. There are a couple of flight options, but our family normally does DC-Jo'burg-Cape Town.

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3. How long have you lived here?

1 year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?


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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing for the Consulate is great. Most houses are modern and spacious, some have bigger yards and some smaller, very few have pools. The vast majority is in housing "estates" (secure, gated communities) 5-10 minutes drive from work. Where I live backs up to the Consulate area and I can drop my kids off at the bus stop and walk to work. The security is great and the kids ride bikes, roller skate and play soccer in the streets--picture a 1950's U.S. neighborhood. There are also 2 small parks in our housing estate and kids gather there to play on the jungle gym.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

As long as you are not buying all import brands, you will spend about what you would in the U.S. Toys and games are pricier and less sturdy, as are paper supplies and some cleaning stuff. Otherwise, this is the first place where we have been in 11 years where we are not paying twice as much for our weekly shopping.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing really--everything is available here and mostly at reasonable prices.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

McDonald's is here and for about the price you pay in the U.S., but honestly--SKIP IT!! Even the local fast food--Nando's chicken--is way better. Cape Tonians are true "foodies" and the restaurant selection is endless and extremely reasonably priced. Almost every neighborhood has a local farmers market on weekends and you can easily spend your weekends going from one to the other. Several of Conde Nast and other magazines' "50 best in the world" are located here--recently, my husband and I split an appetizer, each had a main course, and shared a dessert at one of the best steak houses in the world (Conde Nast Traveller) with drinks and spent a grand total of US$50.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Very few insect issues. Having come from other parts of Africa, we were suprised by the lack of insects. No need for malaria medication in Cape Town, few ants, no roaches/beetles.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We use the pouch and it take 3-4 weeks. You can use a FedEx or DHL local office to get stuff back to the U.S., but it is pricey.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Reasonable, but MUST be trained as to how you want things done. We have a full-time lady (7:30 to 4:30, Mon-Friday) and it costs US$400/month. I would suggest a recommendation from someone who is departing.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Cape Townians are extremely outdoor-oriented, as you would expect from the home of the Cape Argus bike race and the Two Oceans marathon. Even in the "soggy" months of July and August, there are bike riders, joggers, and walkers in the parks and on the roads. The Consulate has a small gym "in house" but there are bunches of gyms and classes--yoga, Pilates, spin, etc--on offer at the local places.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

ATMs (and the scams that accompany them) are common here and I avoid using them, unless I am at the mall or other well-trafficked public area. When I have run out of cash, I have had no issues with ATMs in this situation. I normally use credit or debit cards only at the major retailers. Like other types of crimes, use common sense--don't go to a dark ATM in a low-trafficked area late at night.

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5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Yes. We have AFN, but DSTV is also available and the package prices are pretty reasonable--US$40 to 75/month.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is all you need.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Cape Town is surprisingly friendly. In the city itself, there are sidewalks and "cuts" in good repair. While many of the smaller venues in older buildings may present some difficulties, Cape Town is well aware of the power of the tourist dollar and has made great strides in improving accessibility at all major tourist sites. Grocery stores, malls, etc will easily accommodate wheelchairs. Parking a wheelchair-accessible van may prove challenging, as most partking spots are on the smaller side.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are OK, if you call for one and are expecting it. Any hotel or business can do this for you. Otherwise--No, No, No. Consulate personnel are not permitted to us local trains or mini-buses. The luxury Roovos Rail is another story, but you have to be prepared to spend big bucks for this 5-star event.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

If you plan on going out "in the bush", get a high-clearance cross-over or SUV. Otherwise, South Africa has an excellent road system and a regular sedan is fine.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

I don't think "high-speed" internet, as a concept, has reached here. The internet we have is suitable for Skype and downloading movies, music and TV through I-Tunes. It costs about US$70/month and the service has been pretty good when I have had issues.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Cell phones are provided for officers. Spouses/kids can get cell phones and a "pay as you go" plan locally. Or you can bring an unlocked, quad-band phone and buy a local chip.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No, but they will have to come air-cargo, which is expensive!! And South Africa requires a mound of paperwork to get your dog here.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

We have not had to kennel our dogs, as the housekeeper will watch them while we are away and we pay a neighborhood kid a little money to come over and play with them occasionally. However, we do have a good vet close by and he does do some kenneling for short-term.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Most spouses here have small kids and are at home or find volunteer opportunities. There are a few jobs available at the Consulate. While there is a work agreement for diplomatic spouses, the South African rate of unemployment is high and salaries are not communsurate with the U.S.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

At work--Business. In public--what you would wear in the U.S., but a bit nicer (no baggy, falling-off-the-butt pants or skin-tight tee shirts)--think U.S. in the early 1960's.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

All of South Africa has crime problems, some very violent. That said, we have had no issues going any where or doing anything, as long as we use common sense--doors locked and windows (mostly) up when we drive, don't flash lots of cash or expensive jewelry/cameras, saty out of the bar/night club areas after dark, etc. If you wouldn't do it in a major city in the U.S., don't do it here!

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

I have not had any experience with this, as my kids are very healthy. That said, there are lots of good doctors and pharmacies around. South Africa is the medical evacuation point for Embassies in the southern Africa region.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality is excellent, due to the moderate to strong winds that regularly blow. Called "the Cape doctor" by locals, it keeps everything fresh and clean.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The year is opposite the U.S.--summer in December to March and winter in June to August. Winter is definitely chilly (lows down in the 40's at night), but it warms up pretty well during the day (high 60's or low 70's), with rain normally at night. Summer is glorious--80's, sunny, no humidity, light breezes. The kind of days that make you sad you are in an office.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Most Consulate students attend the American International School of Cape Town ( It has about 350 students in K-12 and a preschool program. Average class size is 12. Instruction is in English and they offer a choice of French or Spanish as a second-language, starting in first grade. The school is located on a lovely piece of property that was an old wine estate, then a convent school, now AISCT. There is a pool, tennis court, basketball court and lots of "running" room.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

The school makes some accomodation for mild special-needs, but you must consult with them in advance to ensure that they can meet your child's requirements.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes and Yes. If you have a driver or are a stay-at-home parent, your kid can do anything from horseback riding to fencing lessons. The American School offers soccer, tennis, basketball and swimming as after-school activities.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Huge, but invisible. We just blend in.

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2. Morale among expats:

Excellent, as you can imagine when you live in the "Fairest Cape in all the world" (Sir Francis Drake).

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Casual dinners among friends, BBQs (called "braais"), eating out at the many, many restaurants will be a good portion of your life. If you have kids, expect 1,000 birthday parties to which older/younger siblings are often included. There are charity dinners and/or wine-tastings, if you are involved in volunteer work, museum events, if you are not. There is an active music and art scene.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Cape Town is great for everyone!! Singles may find South Africans to be a bit stand-offish at first, but there are clubs and groups to join and lots to do.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Judging from newspapers and advertising, Cape Town likely the most gay-friendly city in all of Africa. People seem to be out and open. South Africa pioneered same-sex legal marriage on the continent.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

I am probably not the best person to answer this, but will take a stab at it. Issues from apartheid linger in all of South Africa. The racial and socio-economic divide is very wide. Every restaurant, store, mall and business still bears a sign that says "right of admission reserved". That said, I have observed a wide mix of people being served in all places of public accomodation and don't necessarily see problems. However, it may also be that this is more subtle than I am picking up, since it is not aimed at me.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The Cape Town area is stunningly beautiful. The sun on the hills, glinting off the old Cape Dutch farmhouses and among the rows and rows of grape vines cannot be adequately described. Even after living here for a year, it still amazes me as I am driving to the grocery store or to pick up the kids from school.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

The list is endless--just type "things to do in Cape Town" or "Kids in Cape Town" in your search engine. You will be overwhelmed with options.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Wine, Wine and more Wine. For those who don't drink--lots of arts-and-crafts and knick-knacks. "Big Five" safari stuff--though that is not really 'Cape Town'. Very cool carved ostrich eggs from the ostrich farm. Anything and everything with Table Mountain on it. Local trips--whale-watching, seal-watching, bird-watching, flower-watching, fishing, hunting.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Cape Town is fabulous and amazing all around!! Lots to see and do for all age groups--from cultural activities to animal encounters to wine-tasting tours (where you CAN bring the kids to play on the playground, while you are tasting the wine!!).

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11. Can you save money?

Depends on how many activities you want to do, how many sites you want to see, how much wine you can drink and how many lessons you want your kids to take. I wouldn't count on it!!

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

I am crying into my keyboard at the thought of leaving next summer.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Friends and relatives--NOT (everyone will want to come visit you)--you just opened up a B&B and didn't know it!! Expectations that this is "just like the U.S.". It is not and there are frustrations to living here--why is customer service so slow? Why are Cape Tonians just a touch superior-feeling (well, look at where they get to live)?

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3. But don't forget your:

Camera. Sense of adventure. Well-trained taste buds (and if you don't have any, develop them).

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