Cape Town, South Africa Report of what it's like to live there - 02/26/18
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 London, Canberra, and Johannesburg.
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?
London is currently "home." There are non-stop flights from Cape Town, or cheaper options to connect through the Middle East. We have family in Australia, which typically means a connection in Johannesburg, then either direct or stopping in SE Asia.
To the USA, the quickest route is usually via Amsterdam, because KLM flies to Cape Town on a reverse schedule from other EU carriers (south during the day, north overnight) meaning shorter connections. There are cheaper options to the USA via the Middle East.
3. How long have you lived here?
Twelve years in all, with a three-year gap between stints here.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Spouse's work with an international corporation.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are distinct areas of the city where expats tend to live - Southern Suburbs, City Bowl, Atlantic Coast, Northern Suburbs, etc. We have always lived in moderately sized stand-alone homes in the Southern Suburbs with small gardens. A commute to downtown from either north or south could be 45-60 minutes one way. American diplomats, who seem to enjoy this site, live in modern, spacious homes in a gated community right next to the US consulate.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
In the past decade or so, Cape Town has become a serious foodie scene, and prices have adjusted upward as a result. Everything you could wish for is available, often much higher quality (fresher, less processed) than UK or USA, and generally about 60-75% of the price of UK/US or less. I guess if you are very picky about a certain branded item you could be disappointed, but that's about it.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Can't think of anything that isn't just as good or better here at a lower price.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Cape Town has everything - some of the world's top restaurants (often associated with a wine farm), fast food, and everything in between. There is even a new trend in American BBQ, but it isn't the real deal.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Those little black ants that like sweet things will invade our house every winter and build a nest in something electrical to stay warm... we've lost a printer, router, cordless phone, DVD player... Flies get annoying in the summer and it takes some effort to fight the roaches. Big cat-sized rats are spotted in the city, but we've only found tiny little mice in our home.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We try to avoid the SA Post Office. Local courier services are available for important documents, and to send overseas, the local copy/shipping shops have a system of couriering to the UK and then using the UK post to final destination.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Housekeeping and gardening are quite common. A good housekeeper can be found for around $550/mo for 5 days/week at current rates, which is far higher than many other jobs pay. Gardening is about 60% of that or so. I don't personally know anyone with a cook, but I suppose it happens. Many housekeepers can double as nannies. You can find someone via the grapevine or through several local reputable services.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are two or three big gym chains here, one of which is right next to the USA Consulate. They're generally fine and probably cheaper than UK/US prices. CrossFit-type places are popping up now, but outdoor activities like biking, running, hiking, surfing, etc., are how most get exercise.
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?
Skimming was a big deal, so now just about every shop and restaurant uses a wireless machine to swipe in front of you. You will want to use a chip-and-pin type card for security and to avoid confusion, because that is the only type of card most cashiers have seen. ATMs are generally safe if you are aware of your surroundings.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
You will find every denomination under the sun here - most services in expat neighborhoods will be in English, or perhaps a few in Afrikaans.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
It is always appreciated to use as much Xhosa or Afrikaans as possible (as appropriate), but in general, you can easily survive in English only, especially in the Southern Suburbs. The Northern Suburbs tend to be more Afrikaans-speaking.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I imagine it would be easier than most African cities and harder than many US cities - I rarely see specific accommodations being made.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Uber is our choice when using taxis. When I was younger, I used local transportation and got to know the real city that way - the taxis are a culture unto themselves! Trains have been more and more unreliable lately, but they are an option.
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're sticking to the city, you can drive anything at all - 95% of cars on the road are half the size of US cars! We like camping, and have found loads of beautiful places that are 4x4 only, but you can manage most places with a small hatchback. Chevrolet is leaving South Africa, which might impact Americans bringing a car, but we are right-hand drive here anyway, so perhaps not. Japanese and German cars dominate.
Carjacking happens, but usually in a few hotspots, which can be avoided or driven with extra awareness. A new crime trend is jamming of remote locking keys, which means you have hit the lock button and left, but your car is unlocked and cleaned out when you return.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Fiber is being rolled out in some areas of the city. ADSL is up to 20Mbps, and microwave is also available to avoid copper line theft, which is an issue. Ten years ago, it was super slow and super expensive. Now you can get unlimited (or near to it) data at a streaming/facetime happy speed for around $100US.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Easy enough to pop in a R1 (ten US cents?) SIM card into a phone and top up when needed from any shop or via an app. We use a plan than combines enough data/sms/airtime for us that costs about $7US per month, so that seems pretty cheap.
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?
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?
Local salaries are definitely lower than UK/US, owing to huge unemployment and lower cost of living. If you have a particular rare skill, you could find work, but for people with common skills, there are many local people looking for work with lower salary expectations than you have! Telecommuting to Europe is easy because of the time zone.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
As you can imagine, there are tons of opportunities, mostly with resource-poor women and children. There are thousands of NGOs working in Cape Town, so you can find a good fit with a bit of looking and asking.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Cape Town is described as the LA to Johannesburg's New York (I agree), which is evident in dress code. There are some social circles where image is everything, but for the majority of us, Cape Town is relaxed and laid back at work and at play. I see CEOs wear flip-flops to work because they are going surfing in the afternoon.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
House breaking does happen and sexual assault is real - property crime tends to get violent for no good reason. You learn to be hyper-aware at all times, but the trick is not letting that sink into fear and keep you from getting to know the real Cape Town and enjoying this city!
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
No special health concerns, and for people with access to private medical care, it is world-class quality at developing world prices. Americans will be amazed to pay full-price cash here for less than their co-pay at home. If you need a specialist, UCT (University of Cape Town) has one.
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 Southeaster (a serious wind!) blows away most of the air pollution before it gets too bad. When it isn't windy (rare) it can get smoggy, but it doesn't linger. Seasonally, people suffer from allergies/hay fever here because Cape Town has a huge variety of plants that only grow here, so your body isn't used to the pollen.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
Winters can be damp and moldy, due to lack of central heat in most homes/buildings. We have relatives that eat gluten-free that visit often without issue, and they report that the grocery stores and restaurant awareness is pretty good.
5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Too much of a good thing? Feelings of superiority?
6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Think San Diego with the seasons flipped (Southern Hemisphere!).
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Our children attend local schools of exceptional quality - far better than the international schools from what we've been able to gather from friends. If you're not adverse to a Southern Hemisphere school year (Jan-Dec), you should definitely consider some of the top local schools. There are two smallish international schools, one of which is generally British (ISCT) and one American (AISCT). Anecdotally, AISCT has more "international" students and ISCT has a better academic reputation.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Check with the individual school.
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?
Preschools are great! We've used a few different local preschools, which you generally find by hanging out with other moms. Prices are very very low compared to UK/US.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
The big three here are soccer, cricket, and rugby. Almost all sports are played at schools level (even primary schools) and you can find great coaching clinics for extra practice if wanted. We've found private music tutors through local bands and schools. Cape Town tends to be pretty kid-friendly in general.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I have no idea what the size is, because expats are truly blended into the local community. If you're looking for a lot of support from people who share your US/EU background, you might be disappointed. There are large numbers of expats from other African countries, which have more community support, especially from Francophone countries due to the language barriers and xenophobia they may experience.
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?
We find our time revolving around other families with children at the moment, which is to be expected. There are plenty of clubs, live music, outdoor activities... you name it!
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
I've never met any expat (except from Joburg... does that count?) who is unhappy in Cape Town. It has something for everyone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
It is the LGBT-friendliest city in Africa, but you will still experience discrimination and attention, as many South Africans have very traditional upbringings.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Gender equality is an issue in practice, but mainly in the workplace. Expats from other African countries will experience prejudice and xenophobia if you are perceived to be taking a job (or wife!) away from a South African.
The effects of apartheid are readily visible today - racial prejudice and separation still defines Cape Town in economic power, spacial planning, and social equality. You need to be prepared to confront racism.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We love camping and there are hundreds of farm cottages and campsites within a few hours' drive of Cape Town that rival the best outdoor experiences anywhere in the world. The rest of South Africa is a jewel with more to experience than you'll ever have time for. We would not want to miss the Cederberg Mountains if coming here!
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
With Cape Town routinely topping the list of travel destinations, there is little that is hidden anymore. If you enjoy wine, seek out the very small family-owned wineries in the region and go there for tastings instead of the big Disney-esque farms. You might wind up having lunch with the winemaker!
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Cape Town is rapidly becoming known for its design - skip the "craft markets" with junk imported from other neighboring countries and seek out some of the really interesting modern textiles, woodwork, etc., that is being created today.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
The weather is perfect, the food is amazing, the wine is cheap, and you can go for a surf ten minutes after you descend from your mountain-topping hike!
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
I don't want to leave.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Racism and negative attitude.
3. But don't forget your:
Surfboard, hiking boots, tent, wine glasses!
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
There are tons of books about South Africa, so you should read Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu to get you started. I prefer South African fiction - start with Zakes Mda and move on from there!