Cape Town, South Africa Report of what it's like to live there - 10/01/17
Personal Experiences from Cape Town, South Africa
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No. I have lived in Guatemala, Spain, the Philippines, Thailand and the United Kingdom.
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?
United States -- Washington, D.C. Total travel time is about 24 hours, via either Dakar or Accra (you don't deplane, just sit for an hour, although some passengers will get off and others get on) and Johannesburg.
3. How long have you lived here?
A bit longer than a year.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Most U.S. diplomatic housing is in a couple of gated communities near the consulate, which is is located in the southern suburbs. A few singles or couples without kids live in apartments near the Cape Town waterfront.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Most things are available, at prices lower than the U.S. Baking supplies are harder to find, and your choice in breakfast cereals is limited. We have cats, and although cat litter is available here, it's non-clumping. Other items we have trouble finding include peanut butter and graham crackers.
There are several different grocery store chains here -- Pick 'n' Pay, Woolworths, Food Lovers, Makro -- and you can generally find everything you need or acceptable substitutes, but you may need to visit multiple stores for some items. Lactose-free milk is available intermittently.
South Africans love to "braai" (grill), and red meats in particular are good quality and inexpensive. Cape Town is wine country, so there is a wide variety of excellent quality, locally produced, low-price wine.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing really. The things that are not locally available, we have shipped via Amazon, Walmart or Target to the pouch.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Where to start. Cape Town is the food capital of the country and maybe Africa. Most visiting Americans say the steaks in particular are better quality and less expensive than anything available Stateside. Cape Malay food is delicious and less spicy than its Southeast Asian counterpart. There's a significant population of Indian descent and Indian food is plentiful. There are some local restaurants, like Test Kitchen, for which you'll need to make reservations months in advance, and in general during tourist high season (December-February), at any nicer restaurant you'll want to get reservations a few days in advance at least.
For fast food, there are plenty of McDonalds, KFCs, Dominos and Pizza Hut as well as local pizza chains; South African chain Nando's, which has spread across Africa and Europe and has some American locations, is a delicious alternative. South Africans also love burgers and they make them big. Many local restaurants will do home delivery, although for some you have to go through a third-party delivery service that tacks on an extra charge.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We have periodic ant infestations.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We do almost all mailing through the pouch. DHL is available locally but is expensive and, depending on where you're mailing to, can take a while.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
We have a housekeeper that comes twice a week, and I think it's fairly typical among embassy staff to have a housekeeper to come once or twice a week. Unemployment is high in South Africa and there are plenty of people looking for this kind of work; it can be a bit of a challenge linking the prospective employer with prospective employee. You may want to consider asking coworkers already in South Africa if they have housekeepers who are looking for extra days of work, or if they know people who are looking for work as housekeepers. I understand nannies are also available, but as we don't have children I can't speak to that as much. Most families also have a gardening service; in the gated communities, however, you may be limited to companies that have a contract with the community owners, and the quality/reliability can be lackluster.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The gated communities will often have gyms that are free to use for residents, and there are plenty of gyms scattered throughout the city. Many Capetonians enjoy cycling, hiking, etc. Jogging unfortunately is not recommended outside gated communities or other secure areas due to the high crime rate -- in general, do not jog, hike or cycle alone, or after dark.
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?
Credit cards are fairly widely accepted -- most restaurants and stores take them. Visa and MasterCard are most widely accepted; many places explicitly will not accept AmEx. In stores and restaurants, you put your card into a card reader and enter a PIN -- it doesn't leave your sight. In fact, South Africans are weirded out by US credit cards that don't require a PIN to use, as they see them as unsafe.
ATMs -- generally okay to use if inside a store or bank, but recommend against using outdoor ATMs -- credit card skimmers are occasionally used here, and some gangs in the past have actually blown up outdoor ATMs with explosives. When using any ATM, be aware of your surroundings.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Cape Town is a very religiously diverse place and English language services in most major religions are available locally. I know of Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Mormons, Unitarians, and non-denominational Protestants who all attend locally. Cape Town has fairly large Muslim and Jewish populations as well and I imagine those services are also not hard to find.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Everyone in Cape Town speaks English, though for many it's not the mother tongue. Local accents can sometimes take some getting used to. If you want to learn Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu or one of the other commonly used local languages, I believe local tutors are available. Because of the cosmopolitan nature of Cape Town, classes in many other widely spoken international languages are also available.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Probably some. Accommodations are more widely available here than probably most cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, the outdoor focus of many Cape Town activities are likely to be more difficult for people with physical disabilities. The lack of safe, reliable public transportation means that if you have disabilities that prevent you from driving, you're likely to have a tough time.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
U.S. consulate staff are forbidden from using local buses, trams or trains due to safety issues. There are two kinds of taxis in Cape Town -- minibus taxis and your standard sedan taxis. The minibus taxis primarily serve working-class locals; they are driven unsafely, frequently on strike, and often involved in violence against rival taxi companies. The standard sedan taxis are safe if you stick with respectable companies -- check with local contacts. When arriving in Cape Town, the registered taxi companies with a presence inside Cape Town airport -- the ones inside the actual building -- are reliable.
Uber is available here and reliable, though be warned that in Johannesburg/Pretoria, taxi drivers sometimes attack Uber drivers and force their passengers out of the car; this has not happened yet (to my knowledge) in Cape Town.
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?
You cannot bring a left-hand drive car to South Africa. If purchasing a car here, unless you are very comfortable driving a manual transmission, suggest buying an automatic as Cape Town's many hills make it a not-so-great place to learn to drive a stick. Automatics are a little harder to find than manuals locally but are available. Plan to spend a few weeks car-shopping -- because everything here closes at 6-7 pm on weekdays and noon-1 pm on Saturdays, you'll probably need a few weekends to find something you like. When shopping, ask specifically about how many airbags the car has -- some only have driver-side (not passenger-side). Suggest purchasing an inconspicuous car -- a Toyota or Honda sedan or something smaller, an SUV if you plan to do self-drive safaris or off-roading -- and for what it's worth, a large majority of cars in Cape Town are white.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
The communities near the consulate have recently switched over to fiber internet. The speed is generally good, though there is occasional slowness --sometimes lasting the better part of a day -- or outages. Installation can take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks -- customer service, punctuality and reliability are not prioritized here the way they are in the States or many other places, and that is true of Internet installation as with many other services. But you could get lucky. If your home is already wired for fiber, M-Web or Web Africa internet service is generally fairly easy to set up; we were able to set up Web Africa over the phone as we already had a router in the house.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We brought our (unlocked) mobile phones from the States and use local providers on a pay-as-you-go basis, which I think is fairly common. Vodacom offers monthly plans as well and I know some people who use them. Vodacom is nice because you can purchase airtime online without having to go into a store.
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?
We have a good vet in Steenberg, and there are plenty of good vets as many Capetonians keep pets. Cats and small dogs do not need be be quarantined upon entry as long their shots and microchips are in order. I think some bigger dogs do have to be quarantined. Many locals allow their dogs and cats to roam outside without supervision, and leash laws are often not followed.
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?
Because of the State Department EFM hiring freeze consulate jobs for spouses are hard to come by. There is a reciprocal work agreement with South Africa, but because unemployment is so high locally it may be difficult to convince a local company to hire a foreigner unless you have a unique skill set. Be aware that local laws incentivize hiring black South Africans.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Not really sure -- haven't looked into it. I don't know of any other consulate staff that do a lot of local volunteering, except perhaps through their religious congregation.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual. Business attire at receptions/official functions. I have not needed formal dress here, though you may want it for the Marine Corps ball or similar events.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime. South Africa in general has a very high crime rate, including violent crime. Large parts of Cape Town are recommended no-go areas for this reason. Carjackings are far more common in Johannesburg/Pretoria but can occur here. Several people have been mugged or robbed walking near the U.S. consulate, and that's in one of the nicer areas of Cape Town. Be aware of where you're walking, don't walk around while distracted with your phone, etc., don't leave any items in your car in view.
Unfortunately, police corruption is a major problem in Cape Town and South Africa generally and police have been arrested recently for colluding with robbers -- including by loaning out weapons, uniforms and so on.
If traveling to Johannesburg, be aware of the spate of "follow-home" robberies of late and if at all possible travel from the airport to your hotel during daylight hours, or use one of the smaller airports as an alternative to OR Tambo.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Local medical care is probably the best in Sub-Saharan Africa and is of a Western standard. Cape Town/Johannesburg is actually the medical evacuation point for most nearby countries, and a number of people I know have given birth here.
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?
Air quality is good. Locals talk about the "Cape Doctor," the winds that come down from the mountains and blow the air pollution out to sea. Some people may experience seasonal allergies.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
I have a colleague who is gluten-intolerant and manages without too much trouble. As noted above, medical care locally is good and allergy medication is easily available.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
The weather and natural beauty of Cape Town are good for the soul and for mental health. That said, the extra vigilance required by Cape Town's high crime rate can get wearing after a while. A wide range of local mental health care professionals are available locally and, though I haven't personally made use of their services, are likely of a Western standard.
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Mild and windy most of the time. Winters are chilly: not overly cold by U.S. standards, but can feel colder due to the wind and the lack of central heating in many houses.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
I don't have kids but I know that that several families I'm familiar with send their kids to the American International School of Cape Town. There are also a number of local private schools that might appeal to some families.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Because the U.S. consulate is so far away from downtown and the rest of the diplomatic community, I can't speak to morale among expats overall, but morale at the consulate is quite high generally, though tempered somewhat by the crime concerns mentioned above and occasional frustrations with South African bureaucracy.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Church, gyms or exercise groups, braais (cookouts), house parties. There are no particular groups I'm familiar with, but groups of all kinds are likely plentiful here. There are plenty of bars and clubs downtown near the CBD/waterfront, just be careful of criminal activity after dark.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's good for couples and for families, because of the number of outdoor activities, including kid-friendly. Also plenty of movie options, shopping and so on. Families I know with kids here are generally pretty happy. I can't speak as confidently for singles, but I imagine it would be a pretty good city, especially for those who are outdoorsy.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. South Africa is almost certainly the most progressive African country when it comes to LGBT issues -- same-sex marriage is legal here -- and Cape Town is a progressive city with I believe a sizable LGBT community.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Yes and no. As noted above, Cape Town is a progressive city, and most Capetonians are friendly enough regardless of ethnicity or religion. But Cape Town has a high degree of racial inequality as a result of apartheid, and it's fairly common to go into a restaurant or shop where all (or most) of the staff is black and all (or most) of the customers are white. You are likely while you're here to hear some older white South Africans voice some fairly racist stereotypes about black criminality etc., especially if you travel to more rural areas.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Safaris all over southern Africa. Driving the Cape peninsula and soaking in the natural beauty. Whale watching in the Overberg. Visiting botanical gardens, such as Kirstenbosch.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
People really enjoy wine tours. Hiking is popular. V&A waterfront has a lot of entertainment and shopping options. Cape Town has some great surfing spots, like Muizenberg for beginners or Kommetjie for the more advanced. Shark cage diving or swimming with the seals.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
The biggest thing people shop for here is local wine. Some people ship massive amounts of Cape Town wine back home when they leave post.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The beauty, the food, the proximity to safaris, just the lifestyle in general.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I wish I'd read more about the history of apartheid generally and in Cape Town specifically, because that colors a lot of life in Cape Town and South Africa today.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Definitely. I'd stay longer if I could.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Snow gear, expectations of efficiency and quick customer service.
4. But don't forget your:
Sunglasses, hiking boots, surfboard, love of good food and wine.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Good history books about Nelson Mandela, the ANC and apartheid; Gang Town by Don Pinnock.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Cape Town's great. You'll like it.