Joburg Expat

September 19, 2017

Moving to South Africa? Attend Our First Ever Webinar!

It was late 2009 when I started my research leading up to a possible move to South Africa. I opened a web browser and expectantly typed "expats in South Africa" into the search bar.

I shouldn't have. Boy did my skin crawl after just a few minutes in. But I also couldn't tear myself away. One particular horror story has stayed with me to this day. An unsuspecting arrival drove home from O.R. Tambo airport, was followed by a gang of robbers all the way to his house, and was assaulted at gun point after he had opened but not yet closed the gate to his driveway again. It sounded so believable. It did a good job of scaring me.

But not quite good enough. In early 2010 we found ourselves in South Africa, making it to our house and into the garage without incident. As soon as I got my internet connection installed (which, if you'll remember, wasn't very soon at all), I created a blog and called it Joburg Expat, in hopes of attracting people like me who were typing words into Google hoping to find some useful information about South Africa.

Seven years later, I have helped many such people. I answer their questions on a daily basis, about where to live in Johannesburg, which school to enroll their children in, how to renew their visa, and, occasionally, how to source Nespresso coffee capsules for their son in England "soonest."

When I recently got introduced to Hannah Pirnie, another long-time expat in Johannesburg who herself is a great resource for newbie expats, we came up with a new idea neither of us had tackled before: Why not hold a Webinar for people who have questions about moving to South Africa?

Why not, indeed! So...

I'm excited to announce the kick-off Moving To South Africa Webinar, a collaborative effort between Translating Me and Joburg Expat on Tuesday, October 3rd, time TBD. This month's topic is "5 Mistakes To Avoid Your First Month in South Africa." Click Here to sign up.

Those who sign up will receive an email link to a website where we will host what is essentially a video meeting. Hannah and I will both do a short presentation about the topic, and then we will move on to questions from participants, which can be submitted via live chat. Participants who don't want to be seen can turn off their video feed and still participate just the same. We will also be taping the session to make it available to those who can't make the date.

If you have any questions or suggestions about our webinar series, please leave a comment below. This is very much an evolving project and we'll be learning along the way with everyone else.

To participate, sign up now for our Moving to South Africa Webinar on October 3rd, 2017. If you know anyone you think might benefit from it, please spread the word!

August 14, 2017

I'm an Expat New to Johannesburg. Which Group Should I Join?

As one of the "veteran" Johannesburg bloggers, I am contacted often by people eager to find out more about the city they are in the process of moving to. Where should we live, how dangerous is it, how can we get our kids in the school of our choice? Those are among the most common questions, and I'm quite proficient at answering them.

The question that has stumped me in the past is the one about expat groups. I admit I never started one, and never belonged to one either, though I did meet plenty of expats. We were quite happy in our own little world around Dainfern Valley and Dainfern College, and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

But I realize that for many newly arrived expats, finding a group to join is a big deal - especially if you have young children and won't necessarily meet people through school. When you find yourself on a new continent without much of a clue of where to start, being able to make friends from around the world who've undergone a similar move and can help you with valuable tips and introductions is worth pure gold.

Trust me, the gatherings of Johannesburg expats I've attended were much more diverse-looking than
this stock photo, but I was a bit pressed for time to find a better one:-)

One such group is Trailing Spouses Johannesburg, I've written about them before. It's definitely worth joining and I'd encourage everyone to contact their Facebook group. However, it seems to be quite the busy group, and sometimes requests can go unanswered for quite some time. There is a reason for this, as they want to make sure it stays to its true mission of serving expat spouses instead of getting flooded by people simply trying to sell trinkets to expats. But when you're eager to make connections, having to wait for weeks at a time can be trying.

This is why I was delighted when I discovered a new expat group in a recent discussion on the Joburg Expat Facebook page. It's called Translating Me, and Hannah Pirnie, its founder, agreed to write a guest post about it. Enjoy!

Translating Me: A Platform for Expats to Explore and Experience Joburg

by Hannah Pirnie

When you tell people you are moving to Johannesburg, the response is rarely positive. And this is nothing in comparison to searching it out on the internet, where you will find plenty of admonishments like these:

Don't stop at red traffic lights, don't walk anywhere, and here are some tips on how not to get high-jacked... 

We are here to show you the other side of Joburg: The reasons why many expats never want to leave at the end of their assignments, the hidden gems of daily life, and the inspirational people you will find living here in the City of Gold. 

I set up Translating Me because I was fed up with sitting at home without anything to do. I had unwittingly become a 1950s housewife, with anybody I met asking me ‘what does your husband do?’  This wasn't enough for me. I wanted to explore and to learn more about this place I had come to call home. The problem, however, was that I was never too sure which activities were safe to do. So I found some likeminded friends and together we started exploring, creating amazing experiences within this dangerous” city we had found ourselves in. I finally had things to talk about at dinner parties other than what my husband does for a living. 

Translating Me is an online platform that showcases the best of Johannesburg's local life, culture, travel and style. Our aim is to inspire adventure and curiosity, and to help individuals make an impact during their time here, both personally and professionally. We also run an online personal branding course, the Identity Project, which has helped hundreds of expats all over the world. 

If you are in Joburg as an expat, you may only have two to three years of time, so don’t waste any day of it! There is so much to see, explore, and experience.  Come and join us at our next event and we can help create your bucket list for you.

Every month we run two events:

  1. Welcome to Joburg - Particularly for those who have just arrived, this is an opportunity to meet other people and ask all those important questions like "Where do I get my Traffic Register Number," "When is Just Now," and most importantly "What is Impala Poop Spitting."
  2. Unique Jozi Experiences -   We organize events such as photography tours, cooking lessons, gumboot dancing, a Soweto art tour, career talks, or interior design evenings, just to name a few.

For more information on dates, check out the website here: Aside from that, I love connecting and meeting new people, so if you find yourself in Joburg, please do get in touch - I would love to show you around this wonderful city!

Hannah moved from Great Britain to Joburg in 2010, leaving her dream job working for the London 2012 Olympic Games to follow her husband to Africa. Since then two boys, one girl, and a Ridgeback dog (in reverse order) have filled her heart and time with love and noise. She strives to balance this busy new life with her passion of providing useful strategies and training programmes for other expats to help them reinvent their personal brand and maximize their experience abroad.

July 25, 2017

Expat Special: The Best Way Transfer Money Internationally

When you become an expat and are sent overseas, your first three questions to the company sending you there most likely are these: How much will I be paid, which currency will that be in, and how do I get the money to where I need it?

In our case, these questions turned out to have simple answers that worked well for us. A smaller portion of the salary went to our home bank in the U.S. where we could use it for house-related expenses and to pay into our savings accounts. The larger portion went into our newly-opened Standard Bank account in South African rand (ZAR). For a large Fortune 500 corporation this was no issue and saved us from having to transfer money ourselves. We only made one large transfer at the beginning of our assignment to buy our cars, and henceforth we didn't have to deal with currency transfers.

(Actually, I lied. Once, we needed U.S. $ for a vacation in Zimbabwe, and getting our hands on them became a multi-day errand involving enough ink to fingerprint the entire prison population of a small country, but that is another story.)

South African Rand bills

Exchange Rates vs Fees, and Banks vs Currency Brokers

Before we talk currency transfer methods, let's talk timing. Quite frankly, the timing of your money transfer is much more crucial than the method. Why? Because of the exchange rate. Here is where you should not try to emulate Noisette and me. We are the kind of people who move to America to spend a lot of money on a graduate school degree at the precise moment the first Gulf War breaks out and makes the dollar twice as expensive as it was a few days earlier. And the same people who move to South Africa for the few years the rand is fairly strong at 7-1 before it slides back to something like 13-1 the minute we have left.

If your situation is similar to ours and your company pays you in the local currency, I wouldn't worry too much about the best way to transfer money internationally. If you just do a transfer here and there, the easiest option is to go through your bank and pay their fee for money transfers, which is annoying but won't be a major expense. Consider it a convenience fee, similar to paying a charge for booking tickets online. 

It's when you get paid in your home country and have to make the transfers yourself when you have to seriously research the best option. The larger the transfer, the higher generally the cost, so a small difference in fees can turn into a big number. Why?

Let's look at what the cost of an international money transfer is typically based on:

  1. The exchange rate
  2. The fee

The former works to be a percentage of the total amount, and the latter is typically fixed. Don't be fooled by banks that advertise "low fees" or "0% commission." This often means that they disguise their fees in the exchange rate, since they need to make money somehow. Banks sell currency at the interbank exchange rate with an added mark-up, so it is this exchange rate you'll have to look at closely. It's easy to Google any exchange rate in an instant at the time of making your transfer. See how far it is off the rate you're quoted, then calculate the actual cost by multiplying the spread with the dollar amount, and adding the quoted fee, if any.

Can you get a better deal for your currency transfer by choosing another option than a bank? Most likely, yes.

One such option is a currency broker, such as Transferwise, HiFx, or Xoom. Even though they also use the exchange rate spread to make money off transfers, online brokers update their rates continually, versus banks who tend to set their rates only once at the start of each day. When you transfer large amounts of money, this variation in rate depending on your timing can amount to quite a large savings. When choosing a currency broker for your transfer, you should shop around and get several quotes before settling on one.

South African currency

Besides Banks and Brokers, Which Other Money Transfer Options do I Have?

One simple option is to use your credit or debit card to withdraw money from a local ATM. It won't be the cheapest option, but certainly an easy and safe one. When I needed cash in Moshi, Tanzania, because - not surprisingly - I had not even come close to calculating the correct amount of money I would need to pay for our Kilimanjaro post-summit beer orgy and porter tips, I was very grateful for the ATM we found in the dusty city center that was willing to spit out a nice sum of shillings thousands of miles away from my actual bank. I did not care very much about any hidden fees at that moment, trust me.

But what about apps like PayPal, Venmo, Popmoney, etc? Aren't they perfect ways to transfer money without any fees?

Well. Remember what I said earlier. There is always a fee as long as you have to transfer money from one currency into another. If there isn't an outright fee, it's hidden in the exchange rate.

Some of these apps won't even work for South Africa. I could find nothing about South Africa on the websites for Venmo and Popmoney, so make sure you research that first. PayPal, from my own experience as well as from interviewing a large number of friends for this article, is the most trusted in money transfer, and it actually has a page detailing transfers to South Africa. As long as I have used it, PayPal has been secure and reliable, if not always user friendly. Make sure you use the "Friends and Family" option when transferring funds to avoid the fee charged to sellers of goods and services. You can't request money that way, rather the person doing the transferring has to initiate it or PayPal slaps a fee on the transaction (I learned this lesson by doing it the wrong way).

And remember, just because you don't pay a fee doesn't mean there isn't one. The PayPal hidden fee in the exchange rate spread is actually quite high.

How About the Security of My Transaction?

And there are other hidden costs besides the ones disguised in the exchange rate. Consider the risk you're taking on. I have now heard from two good friends whose bank accounts were hacked through Venmo, with consequences that were both costly and annoying. It just doesn't have the same level of security as other e-payment systems. To use Venmo, you have to enter your bank login details, and it's not hard for hackers to get to them and make off with your money. It could be as simple as you using Venmo while using an unsecured wifi connection. I'm considering shutting down my Venmo app because of this. To be fair, many of my friends are using it daily without any problems. To protect yourself, you can link it to a credit card (which protects your from fraud) instead of your bank account, but then, wouldn't you know it, there is a fee for that!

One thing is for sure: When you move to South Africa, you may be pleasantly surprised as to the user friendliness of money transfer methods WITHIN the country. Everyone uses EFT (electronic funds transfer) so you can say goodbye to your tiresome old checkbook, and you can even use methods such as sending money to someone's cellphone number via your phone, which the recipient can turn into easy cash. Fraud, of course, is always a possibility in South Africa, but I have found the fraud protections generally to be very good.

I hope this article has given you an idea about money transfer options as well as the risks and red flags to look out for. Please let me know if I've forgotten anything or if you have any other valuable information to add.

July 18, 2017

The Best Story About Baseball That's Not Just About Baseball (Part 2): The Alexandra Fundraising Challenge

This is Part 2 of a 2-post series about baseball in an African township. Click here for Part 1. What wonderful timing to get this published on Mandela Day!

But to say this is a story just about baseball does not do it justice. It's about much more than that. It's about giving young people opportunities to build self-esteem and teamwork and make something of themselves in an environment where few such opportunities exist.

Has anyone read Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson? The idea was to build schools in Afghanistan. But you might remember that the story was about much more than just building schools. That is sort of how it has been for those of us who have gotten involved with Alexandra Baseball.

In Part 1 of this series I told you about the challenges we face. I sometimes think it's a miracle that baseball continues to happen - and at a very high level no less - in Alexandra. But in reality it's less a miracle than the determination of those involved to make it work. And a big part of this determination is the willingness to ask people for money, as uncomfortable as this can be.

That's what this blog post is about (to skip directly to our fundraising page, click here). The following is a brief overview of our financial challenge to keep the club afloat:

  1. TRANSPORT: The baseball season in South Africa goes from October-April. No one currently on the Alexandra Baseball roster has any transportation. We use minibus taxis to get the teams to their games. Our hope is to have a U12, U15 and U18 team in October, and a Senior team in the winter (summer in the U.S.). The cost for a minibus taxi averages ZAR700 ($54) per game day. We need to cover about 15 weeks of games for four different teams totaling $3,240. This is one of the largest expenses Alexandra Baseball has to deal with.

    Alexandra Baseball players getting into minibus taxi on their way to a game

  2. LEAGUE FEES: A team averages ZAR1,500 ($115) in fees. For our four teams this would total $460. Gauteng Baseball uses these fees to run its baseball operations for the province.

  3. PROVINCIAL PLAYERS: Across all teams, Alexandra Baseball will typically have 20-25 players and coaches named to the A and B Provincial teams. This is a huge honor for the players, but they have very little ability to pay for the uniforms, transportation and lodging expenses associated with traveling to the National Baseball Championships. Typically, the cost per player or coach is close to ZAR4,000 ($308). Our total cost to take 20 players is around $6,000. Gauteng Baseball tries to help with fundraisers like an annual Golf Tournament, and the Alex players do try to raise money, but it is very difficult to raise that much money in a township.

  4. Provincial players heading to the SA National Baseball Championships 2017

  5. NATIONAL PLAYERS: Alexandra Baseball has had three National South African players. Michael Lepebe was named to the South African U21 National team a few years ago, but was unable to participate in any of the tournaments outside of South Africa due to the costs. This year Mohamed Alaoui was selected as a pitcher for the U18 National team to play in the World Cup in Thunder Bay, Canada in September 2017. Gauteng Province is working to help Mohamed (Mo) make it to the tournament, but the cost is ZAR29,000 ($2,230). Mohamed led the Gauteng Province to the U18 South African National Championship as the winning pitcher. In addition, Tsekiso Rapuleng is a non-traveling reserve with the possibility of joining the team in Canada.

    SA National Player Michael Lepebe

    SA National Player Mohamed Alaoui

    SA National Player reserve Tsekiso Rapuleng

  6. EQUIPMENT: 100% of the equipment for Alexandra Baseball comes from donations from the U.S. Little leagues, high schools, travel teams, and generous donors outfit approximately 75 players every year.

    Used equipment donated in the USA, getting put into suitcases to make the trip to SA

  7. SHIPPING: It is simply too expensive to ship equipment to Johannesburg from overseas, and it has only been done on rare occasions. The more common method is having friends traveling to South Africa take extra bags with them on their trips and taking the equipment to Alexandra through people on the ground in South Africa. A typical extra bag fee can range from $50-$100 per bag.

  8. COACHES: Our ultimate goal is to have small monthly stipends for the coaches at every age group. Currently the coaches all volunteer their time every afternoon after school and every weekend. Our goal is ZAR1,000 ($77) per coach per month and ZAR1,500 ($115) for the Club Chairman. The coaches themselves struggle with regular jobs, as discussed. Paid coaches are the only way to ensure that the program survives long-term.

  9. FOOD: Many of the players go without many things. We try on the weekends to prepare lunches or create a deal with the local tuck shop (concession stand) to both support the league and get the players and coaches a solid meal. It costs about $75 a weekend to feed every player and all of the coaches.

    Making lunches for the players

This is the reality of what it takes to keep 75-100 players involved in a positive activity that builds their self-esteem, fosters teamwork, and gives them hope for a brighter future.

Our goal for this fundraising season is $5,000. To date, we have collected $1,300 towards that goal, which is pretty awesome.  

Obviously, the above added all together totals much more than that. But $5,000 would cover the most pressing needs for the next few months. The team has also been fortunate to have other generous sponsors like the Milwaukee Brewers Community Foundation, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, and the University of San Fransisco Sports Management Program in the United States, and Standard Bank in South Africa, as well as friends of the program that often step in to make up the shortfalls to make sure the kids get what they need.

Standard Bank supports Alexandra Baseball

Students from the University of San Francisco Sports Management Program visiting Alex 

Whether you have a passion for baseball like we do, or whether you simply want to help out those in need, we would be thrilled about any small donation you can spare. To make it as easy as possible, Natalie has created a Go Fund Me page at the link below:

As an additional options, we also accept good old checks sent to us in the mail. Since we are an official 501(c)(3) organization, all donations are tax-deductible:

Make check out to: 

Mail to:
Africa On Deck
Attn: Sine Thieme, Treasurer
9 Carmel Ln
Brentwood, TN 37027 

Also, if you haven't yet, please LIKE us on FACEBOOK!

We hope that you are as excited as we are about what's in store for this new phase of developing baseball in Africa. As Africa On Deck gets off the ground, we will share with you the best stories about baseball that are not just about baseball.

And perhaps you will see why it was so hard to say good-bye.

July 13, 2017

The Best Story About Baseball That's Not Just About Baseball (Part 1): Africa On Deck

In the South African winter of 2010, almost exactly seven years ago, I made a phone call that changed my outlook on life.

We had moved from the U.S. to Johannesburg earlier that year. After the initial frenzy of buying a car, securing the elusive Traffic Register Number for foreigners, and getting the Internet connected, I was ready to tackle the American mother's oh so important task: finding new sports teams for my kids.

This is how I stumbled upon Alexandra Baseball. The rest, as they say, is history.

Alexandra Baseball players warming up on a frigid winter's day with the township as backdrop

Throughout our family's stay in South Africa, Alexandra Baseball gave me a glimpse into a world entirely different from my own. I ventured into places I was warned never to set foot in. I became a fundraiser, a first for me. I became an importer of shoes and clothing - sometimes legit, and more often clandestine. I gave tours in places I myself regularly got lost in. I became a hustler of sorts, connecting goods with people in ever more elaborate schemes.

More often than not I had no idea what I was doing. Miraculously, the Alexandra Baseball Club hung on through all of my bumbling efforts, continuing to turn out talented African baseball players in the footsteps of Gift Ngoepe of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When it was time to leave Africa, I was lucky to find competent successors to carry the torch. The Irwin Family of Atlanta and the van Zyl Family of Johannesburg, with the support of Tyler Barnes of the Milwaukee Brewers and Rich Campbell of the Dilworth Little League in Charlotte, have worked and continue to work tirelessly on behalf of the players and coaches in Alexandra.

Today, the five of us - Natalie Irwin, Louis van Zyl, Tyler, Rich, and myself - are happy to announce the founding of Africa on Deck, a newly formed 501(c)(3) organization that will allow us to continue to support baseball in South Africa from the United States. We will raise funds, collect equipment, and continue to share the story of America's pastime in the most unlikely of places... the township of Alexandra in Johannesburg, South Africa. Click here to like our Facebook page for Africa On Deck.

Logo for Africa On Deck, a non-profit organization to help youth baseball in Alexandra, South Africa

For Natalie and myself in particular, saying goodbye to Alexandra Baseball when our families moved back to the United States was hard. We felt like we were dropping the (base-)ball. To help you understand why, let me share a few facts about Alexandra:

Life is hard in a township.  

In 2017, it is difficult to wrap your head around the fact that people can live without electricity and running water. Only one player's family in the entire Alexandra Baseball Club has a car. Most of our players sleep in the same bed with a brother, sister, nephew... or on a mat on the floor. Right now it is winter in South Africa and it is cold. Most of our players only have paraffin to heat at night, and that is very dangerous. The average household income in Alexandra is ZAR (South African Rand) 3,000 or $230 a month. Half of it goes to transportation, the rest towards rent, school fees, and food. No family has extra money for their child to play baseball. Also, many of our players' families do not make close to the average.

Alexandra Baseball is always just holding on by the bootstraps

This is not like your normal Little League in the United States. The players struggle with having enough to eat. It is hard to play a baseball game when you are hungry. Through donations from the U.S. over the years we have been able to give players one pair of baseball pants, one pair of cleats, and one pair of socks. But no one has their own helmet or bat or monogrammed baseball bag or glove. And what happens when your players grow?

To help Alexandra Baseball, you have to help ALL of baseball in Johannesburg. 

As Alexandra Baseball got better at baseball, it helped the competition in Gauteng (the province where Johannesburg is located). It was amazing to see the relationships that developed over the years and how we were able to help new clubs like Palm Ridge enter the league. But, all of the clubs have similar needs. They all need baseballs, baseball pants, bats... the basics.

It's not just about baseball. School is difficult, and so is finding a job.  

Our coaching often had to go beyond baseball. Our players often made uninformed subject choices like taking math(s) literacy instead of regular math(s), which  limited them getting into university. Finding a job can be impossible when you have nothing to wear to the interview, have no money and no transportation to the interview, or have to go to an internet cafe to use a computer. The obstacles are endless. The youth unemployment rate in South Africa is shocking.

Founding Africa On Deck is a huge step forward. It allows us to address these needs from afar and hopefully reach a wider audience of baseball lovers in the United States willing to help.

About those needs:  As so often with Alexandra Baseball, events have overtaken our work on the ground, and we have immediate fundraising needs. One - perhaps even a second - of our players has an incredible opportunity to play for the U18 South African National team in the World Cup in Canada this September. As you can imagine, neither player has any funds of his own to pay for the trip.

One of Alexandra's - and South Africa's - most promising young baseball players.
Read our next blog post to learn more!

Stay tuned for more about our fundraising challenge in an upcoming blog post.  In the meantime, please like our new Africa On Deck Facebook page to spread the word!

July 3, 2017

Does Recess Need Coaching? Not in South Africa!

A few months ago, an article titled Does Recess Need Coaching caught my attention. It was about a turnaround of sorts in American schools. After years of shortening recess in favor of more academics, or even doing away with it altogether, recess seems to be on the rise again, no doubt based on a recent study. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) stands behind this newfound emphasis on kids' play as a counterweight to academic rigor. But apparently, free play is out, and structured, supervised play is in.

I have two observations in response.

First, nowhere do you hear the words "studies have shown" as much as in the United States. It seems like we can't make any decisions without first conducting a study. Want to know what makes us fat? Let's conduct a study. How much TV time is good for our children? A study will tell us. Toilet paper over or under? Study please!

Don't get me wrong, I am fully in favor of scientific research and drilling down into the facts to make informed decisions. Conversely, I am not particularly enamored with people who make decisions solely based on gut feel, who scorn facts, and who celebrate ignorance (any resemblance to real people in the American political environment is entirely coincidental).

But enough already with studying every last aspect of our lives. Some things are crystal clear. You want to lose weight? Eating less is a good start. (I'm already bracing for the outraged comments on this one.) TV for kids? I might as well go ahead and offend even more people. As a good friend of mine used to say, show me a child with ADD, and I'll tell you how much TV they are allowed to watch. And the toilet paper? Well, it's absolutely clear that it has to be over and that all people who say otherwise are sorely misguided, not to say morons.

What does any of this have to do with South Africa, you say?

It just seems to me that South Africa as a nation has more common sense in these matters. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I adored our kids' South African school. And as private schools in Johannesburg go, it wasn't anything special. Not only are most of these schools pretty similar the way they foster music, academics, and sports, encourage public speaking, and promote charity work and team building. It also seems to me that they haven't changed all that much since, oh, the discovery of gold and the founding of Johannesburg in 1886. (And yes, I am aware that the South African school system is failing most of its children and that the majority of the population doesn't have access to these fine private schools, but that's another topic.) While the U.S. seems to be a fertile  breeding ground for the testing of new ideas (or, when it comes to schools, just testing, period), South Africa seems to chugging along as it always has without much of a care in the world.

Perhaps this is because South Africa has had bigger problems over the last few decades than conducting mundane studies.  Or perhaps international studies have bypassed South Africa for so long during the apartheid era that it has earned that one doesn't have to pay attention to every fad. Or perhaps there just isn't as much taxpayer money available to pour into studies.

But I think that at the end of the day South Africans just have a healthy common sense when it comes to, well, a lot of things. See my earlier post, Expat Joys: Legal Common Sense in South Africa, for some examples.

Recess at Dainfern College, Johannesburg, South Africa

My other observation about the aforementioned article has to do with the specter of "coaching" recess. When I read that, I wanted to scream "nooooo!' No coaching during recess, please, and not even much supervising.

When our kids attended Dainfern College, we lived so close to the school that we could - and did - walk to and from school on foot. Sometimes multiple times a day. And my favorite time to walk over the leafy campus was recess. There would be hundreds of kids milling about, with no teacher to be seen. No one seemed to care whether the kids used the time to eat their lunch or not. Boys would be running around barefoot, their uniforms disheveled, kicking soccer balls that would frequently hit unsuspecting bystanders. Others would climb the monkey bars, and sometimes fall off of them. One particular child, without naming names, frequently had to run home to fetch the homework he forgot. Others might be sent by their teachers to the tuck shop to buy and deliver lunch - though my daughter says she was assigned this job more often during class than during recess.

My point is, unstructured play is good for kids. You might get more accidents, you might even get more bullying, but what you gain is kids learning how to find their social standing, blow off steam, and hone their skills at something they want to do of their own accord. South African kids seemed to lead a much less structured life than what we see here, and in my opinion they are better for it.

Recess at Diepsloot Combined School, Johannesburg, South Africa

June 27, 2017

Do I Need a Road Test when Converting a Foreign License?

Oh, the driver's license topic can never be exhausted in a blog about South Africa, or so it seems. Remember my post How to Convert Your Foreign Driver's License to a South African Driver's License? I thought I had it all covered there. I talked about what to do if

  • you are a temporary resident
  • your foreign license is not issued in English
  • you are a permanent residence
  • your foreign license expires while you are in South Africa
  • none of all this matters because your licensing office has decided to make its own rules.

However, through continued reader questions and a lively exchange of comments, I have gleaned a little bit more information, which I wanted to share here.

Perhaps a road test in South Africa doesn't have to be a bad thing, in the right place and the
right car (picture taken in Fraenschhoek, August 2012).

How many years of grace period do I get between becoming a permanent resident and needing a South African license?

In aforementioned post, it was established that you had a ONE YEAR grace period from becoming a permanent resident (PR) to needing to convert to a South African driver's license (if you are only a temporary resident, you do NOT need a SA license, period, no matter how long you live I South Africa - that much we all agree on).

One reader, Kevin, disagreed with the one year timeframe. FIVE (5) YEARS is the correct time period, he says:

I have just spoken to the head of Randburg License Dept. From the time of obtaining permanent residence a person has 5 (five) years to convert the license. They will only convert to the code of license on the foreign license so they have to do an EB. If the person would rather do just code B then the application is as per normal to obtain a learner's license and then do the test for the code B. The conversion requires just a driving test and no theory test. The application for conversion must be done in Sandton if their residence is in Sandton, Randburg if residing in Randburg etc. Hope that clarifies the matter.

Kevin helpfully adds that the time period USED TO BE 12 months or one year, but that this changed "quite some time ago to 5 years."

While I was glad to have this time period question cleared, his comment threw up a host of other questions, namely about the classes of license you can apply for, and the need for a road test.

I looked up the classes for an SA license, and in a nutshell, here they are:

  • Class A refers to motorcycles, smaller and bigger ones
  • Class B and EB refers to light vehicles, with or without trailer. B is for no trailer or small trailer, EB is for a bigger trailer
  • Class C and EC are for buses and trucks and generally vehicles that as an expat you won't have to worry about, unless you are planning to move to South Africa to become a truck driver.

I take Kevin's comment to mean the following: If your foreign license allows you to drive a truck or vehicle pulling a large trailer, then you have to pass all the hurdles that a South African license would require you to pass for that same class. I.e. you can't just switch your license to a lesser class if the foreign license gives you a "better" class. Your best case scenario would be that your foreign license is a very regular license for basically just a car and perhaps a small trailer, and all you have to do is take a road test at the licensing office nearest your local residence, and you'll be on your way.

However, do you actually need a road test?

Debbie, another reader, clarified this further.

Yes you do need to do the road test if it has been MORE THAN 12 MONTHS since getting PR, and because an ID takes so long you probably do need to. I did my license at Randburg. It was a bit of a schlep but it has made my life so much easier.

Aha! So while you get a five year grace period, you get punished by the fact that you now have to do a road test if you go past the original one year period. Seems like the clear advice here is that if you should become a permanent resident in South Africa, and you are lucky enough to get your papers stating such within "only" 12 months of waiting on Home Affairs, then get your butt over to the nearest licensing office pronto to with you new shiny SA ID card to convert your license with the least amount of hassle.


Well, reader Kelly has this word of warning:

My colleague had his PR for less than 1 year and he still had to do the road test.

Okay, I give up. Seems like my conclusion in the last post still holds true:

"But if I've learned anything during three years in South Africa, it is that not all government offices are created equal. Every one of them seems to fly by their own set of rules, and perhaps a yet other sets of rules depending on the day, or the weather."

From what I've gleaned, the Marlboro office seems to be extra tough, Randburg ok but the lines long, Longdale not so strict about having to show your SA ID, and Edenvale has no clue. At least one reader describes Cape Town to actually know what they're doing. Not that you have a choice as to where to go. Perhaps when house shopping you should factor the location of the "easiest" driver's license office into the decision making process!

Does converting my license mean I have to give up my home country license?

This is another question worth considering. Debbie claims she got to keep hers because she took the road test (because her PR didn't come through within the 12 month timeframe), so that's a bit of a bonus. But Stephanie, who I quoted in the previous blog post, says that she didn't have to give up her American license either, even though she also didn't have to perform a road test. She got off easy, you'll say - but in turn she had a host of other issues dealing with Home Affairs.

Obtaining a driver's licenses seems to be one of the lesser ordeals of South African bureaucracy, all things considered. But if you think your can apply a simple set of rules to how it's done, you are sadly mistaken.

A German saying I heard often in my childhood seems to sum it up quite nicely:

"Warum einfach, wenn's auch kompliziert geht?" (why easy when it can be complicated?)

I'm sure this is not the definitive word on foreign vs SA licenses and road tests. I welcome all your comments and shared experiences!

June 21, 2017

Around Joburg: An Outing to Rietvlei Nature Reserve

Hi there - I'm back from a little bit of a break.

So it's only fitting that I'm posting about a place where you can take a little bit of a break yourself. The thing I always found astounding about living in Johannesburg was the abundance of new places to discover, right under my nose for years but their existence unbeknownst to me. It was my going-away present from friends that sent me hiking in the Cradle Nature Reserve for the first time, and it was a lovely place. Just a 20 minute drive away, and I'd never even heard of it.

Today's place is similar to that. Or at least I am thinking it's similar to that, having never been there myself. It comes recommended, photos and all, by your fellow blog follower and wildlife aficionado Lorenda Beumont.

Rietvlei Nature Reserve has several things going for it. First off, it's right next to Pretoria, so within easy reach for anyone living in Gauteng. Second, it's got a dam, which for my American friends means lake. While motor boating is not allowed, Lorenda assures me you can windsurf on the dam, which is something I never would have thought to do on the Highveld. It's kinda nice to know it's there, in case you get tired of the artificial ski slope in Fourways. And third, due to the water, it's a bird watcher's paradise.

Don't get me wrong, even the city of Johannesburg is not a bad place to watch birds. Which makes sense, given that it boasts the world's largest man-made forest*.  I'm not a birder, but apparently Joburg offers quite the outings for people with binoculars around their neck and an Audubon Field Guide in hand. Or rather the South African equivalent of it. The Lone Hill Koppies, a stone's throw from where we used to live, have been mentioned to me as a good birding spot.

But back to Rietvlei. Its almost 4000 ha area forms the habitat for many bird species. Just take a look at Lorenda's beautiful pictures:

Rietvlei, which has been around since 1948 but flies somewhat under the radar like so many Joburg sights, is a great place to take your visitors or go for a family outing if you don't have time or the resources to go on an actual safari. Aside form the birds there are plenty of zebra, buck, ostriches, wildebeest, some rhinos, hippos, jackals, and a herd of 70 buffalo. There is also a coffee shop (yay!) and a picnic area, all for just R50 per person.

There are even lions at Rietvlei, but they are in an enclosure in which you cannot drive yourself.  Tours on a game viewing vehicle are available for booking and cost somewhere around R75 per person. The lions seem to be well looked after and live in a large enclosure.

In the words of Lorenda: "Yes, it's not Kruger or Pilanesberg or Madikwe, but is nevertheless a lovely place to visit if you want to commune with nature and listen to the birds. I find it incredibly relaxing."

I hope you'll check it out and let me know what. you find.

Rietvlei Nature Reserve has a Facebook page with more information. In addition, there is also a Facebook Group where people post pictures of sightings. I just looked at it and couldn't tear myself away!

*Is that actually true? I love repeating that claim but have never really researched it.