Cape Town, South Africa, through the eyes of an expat

  • Expat in South Africa
    © David Winch
Published last week

After having spent many years living in London, Cambodia, and Singapore, Mei now calls Cape Town home. Coming from a mixed background herself, Mei has always had a deep interest in exploring other cultures, and loves to discover new places. She tells about her life in the Mother City, her observations of South Africa, and the abundance of leisure activities at her doorstep.

Hi Mei, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, what are you doing in South Africa, and how did you end up in Cape Town?

I'm half-Chinese/half-English, and was brought up in London, but my mum is second generation Malaysian so when I was younger, we would travel to Malaysia at least once a year to visit her family. I've always appreciated and been influenced by different cultures, and languages and cuisines. I studied French and German at university, which further heightened my desire to leave England and experience different ways of life. So after university, I went travelling then moved to Cambodia in 2008, before heading to work in Singapore a few years later where I met my now-husband. He's South African (from Durban), and was keen to return to South Africa after having lived abroad for a decade, so at the start of 2013 we travelled from Singapore up to Mongolia, before flying back to Europe to spend time with family and friends, then down to Cape Town, where my sister was living at the time with her Zimbabwean boyfriend.

My sister was loving life here, so we opted to try living in Cape Town instead of Durban. We were obsessed with permaculture at the time, so we initially intended to buy a smallholding and live off the land at the tip of the peninsular with the penguins. However, life is what happens while you're making other plans, and we ended up working and living near the city centre. We've been here for almost five years and are still really enjoying it.

What is the process of moving to South Africa?

The general inefficiency of bureaucractic procedures in South Africa can make you want to tear your hair out and, as far as I can tell, it's all a bit of luck of the draw. I have a German friend who received her visa after 2 weeks, but I have also heard a lot of horror stories and it seems unfortunately quite common to wait up to a year for a visa to be processed.

My first visa here took 13 months to receive, but my most recent visa came through in less than two months. Since VFS (Visa and Permit Facilitation Centre) took over the process a few years ago, everything seems to have improved and become more streamlined. It's quite simply a question of going on to the VFS website or to their office to find out what is required, then submitting it. Just be prepared to potentially wait longer than you're told it should take, so allow ample time for it to be processed. One month can mean two years here.

What is your favourite thing about Cape Town and South Africa, and what is your least favourite thing?

The restaurant scene and coffee culture in Cape Town is my favourite thing. The extent of crime and poverty is my least favourite thing and breaks my heart.

How would you describe South Africa in one sentence?

A rollercoaster ride of extremes.

How is today’s expat job market in Cape Town, and South Africa in general?

I've never met an expat who has had any problems finding a job in Cape Town. However, I do know many people who have had to adjust their job or salary expectations, as there are certain restrictions and you often need special skills for a company to justify hiring a foreigner over a local. Salaries are also often much lower in Cape Town than in other popular expat destinations, especially if you don't have technical qualifications or work in a professional sector. It's worth noting that wages and opportunities are considerably higher in Johannesburg (and it is also cheaper to live there too), so that can be a better place to work if making money is a priority. However, if you are flexible and willing to do any job to stay in the Mother City, there are always options out there. And if you have language skills, those are particularly valuable as many European languages aren't spoken by South Africans.

How easy or difficult it is to find accommodation in Cape Town, and what type of accommodation is available for expats?

I've heard that it can be a bit difficult to find affordable, quality options in the City Bowl or Atlantic Seaboard neighbourhoods, especially during peak season, which is from November to February. Many people live in apartments or rent a room in these areas, as it can be quite pricey (be aware that most places will also require at least a one-month deposit, sometimes two months). Demand is also high, so it's good to have reliable references to encourage a landlord to choose you over someone else.

However, if you have money and a good record, it's ultimately not that hard. It's only really tough if you're looking for something specific with a limited budget. And if you're willing to move away from the city centre, like say to the southern or northern suburbs, it's a lot easier to find more spacious accommodation at a cheaper price. If you wish to rent a room in a shared space, it's worth joining a Facebook group, such as Huis Huis, or putting the word out on social media for direct recommendations/availability.

What are the biggest destinations in South Africa?

The Kruger National Park and the Panorama Route are apparently fantastic, although I'm yet to have been. The Garden Route is also a popular destination, but I personally love the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape!

South Africa
© David Winch

What is some essential etiquette in South Africa?

Tip your waiters, petrol attendants, and carguards generously, and throw any concept of time or urgency out of the window, then you'll be happy here. Even the word 'now' doesn't mean 'now' here. The word has a confusing amount of variants, such as 'just now' and 'now now', but none of them actually mean 'right now' or in the next few seconds. Everything happens in South Africa time. T.I.A., bruh. A bit of patience and kindness will save you lots of grey hairs.

How do you find the lifestyle in Cape Town?

Very laidback and I love that (although I know the slow pace drives some people crazy). There's a wide range of things to do, from different sports and outdoor activities, to just lazing on the beach or soaking up the vibes at a concert or open air cinema event. I also love food, and Cape Town is fantastic for fine dining experiences, and there are new restaurants that are always popping up!

How is the transportation system in Cape Town? How do you move around?

This is probably one of the city's bigger problems. The population is growing rapidly, but there isn't really an efficient, reliable, or safe public transport option if you live in certain areas. My husband and I used to catch the train into work, but the delays were so ridiculous – sometimes up to 4 hours a day and no one knew what was happening to properly inform commuters – that we gave up and have joined the masses of drivers on the road. I find this a shame, as it means you spend a lot of money on buying and running a car, which isn't great for the environment or your budget. It also means that there are massive traffic jams at peak periods, so leaving work at certain times can be a nightmare. However, if you live quite centrally – or in the northern suburbs -- the MyCiti bus network is apparently very good! As is the Jammie bus service if you are a student!

How is everyday life for you in Cape Town?

My everyday life in Cape Town is rather normal, to be honest. In many ways, Cape Town is probably the least 'expat-like' place I've lived in. In countries like Cambodia and Singapore, my experience very much involved hanging out with other foreigners in places that were popular among expats (in terms of accommodation and entertainment). But here, it's very integrated in that sense. There are still massive racial and economic divides, which are very saddening, but there doesn't seem to be as much of a pronounced expat community as I have experienced in other cities. However, my perception could be skewed because my husband is South African and has South African friends, and we both have worked for South African companies so we met the locals.

What do you do in your free time?

I LOVE hiking and there are so many trails and beautiful places to explore – the nature and outdoor life is remarkable here. I also really enjoy shopping at farmers' markets or drinking at wine farms on the weekend; and I love going away on mini-breaks to nearby towns, such as Greyton, Stanford, Swellendam, and Tulbagh.

Hiking in South Africa
© David Winch

Are there activities for people who enjoy nightlife?

Yes, heaps. First Thursdays is a popular monthly event, and there are all sorts of concerts, parties, and events going on all over the city every day, on top of the standard bar/club scene.

What new habits have you developed in South Africa?

I vowed I would never ever say the words 'shame' and 'ja', but now I say them all the time. I also love running now. Park Run is a fantastic event that takes place every Saturday morning all over the city, and there are heaps of other races happening all the time.

And what old habits have you quit in South Africa?

I'm still trying to break my habit of walking fast everywhere (it seems a bit entrenched in me since my days of growing up in London). I'm still learning to chill out.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Cape Town? For instance, how much does a bus ticket, a beer, and a loaf of bread cost?

Unfortunately, living in Cape Town is rather more expensive than in other parts of the country and, as it is a big foodie and tourist hub, some stuff can get overhyped along with the pricetag. It's one of the downsides of living in an area of such beauty – restaurants, events, and accommodation can be pricey, especially relative to salaries. But personally I think it's worth it! And there are ways to live on the cheap and still enjoy life here. For example, The Entertainer app offers 2for1 vouchers on many meals, attractions, and experiences; there are often restaurant deals on weeknights, and you can choose to drink a Castle Light for R12 rather than a craft beer for R48 etc.

What is something that you would like to do in South Africa but haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

Kruger National Park, the Panorama Route, the Drakensberg, and Addo Elephant Park are at the top of my list. There are still so many places I want to go and things to see! I also really want to go to a festival called Up the Creek, and to AfrikaBurn.

Share your most memorable experience in South Africa.

It's a toss up between paragliding in Sedgefield in the Garden Route or shark cage diving in Gansbaai. The latter was part of a work assignment and I kept thinking how strange human beings are – choosing to dress up like a seal (in a full black wetsuit) and enter freezing cold water to gawp at an apex predator in its habitat – but it was still very interesting.

Shark cage diving South Africa
© Maximilian Lloyd

If you could do the move to South Africa all over, what would you do differently?

I would make sure we had both found jobs before we moved, or come with more savings. It was a tough start financially while we were getting on our feet, as Cape Town isn't particularly cheap if you want to socialise or travel to other places nearby. It took quite a long time to sort out my visa, find jobs we enjoyed and good friends, decide where we wanted to live, and generally feel settled. Whereas these things seemed to be a lot easier in other countries where I have lived.

What do you think of the local cuisine? What are your favourite dishes?

I love a Durban bunnychow – it's very comforting and tasty. I also love biltong! And bacon and banana on pizza. And melktert, peppermint crisp tart, and malva pudding are three amazing desserts if you have a sweet tooth. I also can't get enough of muesli rusks. Who would have thought stale bread could be so appealing?

What do you miss the most about your home country?

The sense of humour. I think the English have quite a unique sense of humour. And Asian food – I really miss Chinatown in London (and good dim sum). And I never thought I'd say it, but at the moment with the drought, I really miss the rain in London and not having to worry about water!

Have you had a moment where you almost felt like leaving South Africa? How did you overcome that? What kept you there?

I have so much love for Cape Town but it can also be a very frustrating place. The political situation has been in dire straits since we arrived, and compiled with many other big issues that haven't been well addressed, such as the massive divide between rich and poor, there is consequently crime and I have found it quite stressful to live behind beams, burglar bars and alarms. When we (or our friends) experience any crime, or when you read of a particularly violent incident, it's easy to have a flight response and want to jump on the first plane out of here.

However, although I've found that there is a lot of fear and anger in South Africa, there's also a lot of hope and love. Poverty and crime sadly exist everywhere in the world, but here you can't turn a blind eye to it. Rather than claim ignorance, you have the capacity to help people and improve the situation, even if it's just in a small way. I think it's quite easy to get on a high horse when in a more developed country where you don't see the effects of extreme poverty on a day-to-day basis. It's easy to pretend it doesn't exist. But it does. Everywhere. And it needs to be addressed properly so that more can be done to resolve it – on a community, as well as political, level.

Can you give some useful tips that soon-to-be expatriates in South Africa might benefit from.

Budget for a car as this makes getting around a lot easier on a day-to-day basis and on weekends if you like to explore.

If you had to advise an expat on items to bring with them to South Africa, what would they be?

1. Flip-flops (there's no reason to wear anything else on your feet for nine months of the year.
2. A really warm jacket and electric blanket for the winter, which is surprisingly cold – especially inside, as many buildings aren't well insulated or don't have central heating.
3. A tent. One of the best parts of living in Cape Town is the surrounding nature and enjoying the great outdoors – camping is a great, and having a tent is a cheap way to do this!

You can buy most things here though!

What are your plans for the future?

As much as I love South Africa and feel this is more my home than anywhere else in the world, I am ready for a new adventure. I would love to move back to Europe or Asia for a stint. I'm open to new opportunities at this stage, but I think that I would like to eventually return to Cape Town after I've got another adventure out of my system.

What is one thing that you will take with you from South Africa?

A love of braais! I never really appreciated the art of barbecuing food before, but now I love a good braai with friends – nothing beats mielies (corn on the cob), halloumi, and marshmallows on a braai, with a side of curried beans and a Greek salad.

If you wish to share your expat story, please contact us.

Thank you!

The Editorial Team