Joburg Expat

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: 
AFRICA ON DECK

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.

Right?

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.

May 8, 2017

How to Survive Your First Few Months as an Expat in South Africa, Part II

If you enjoyed last week's post by Phil Maloney -  who blogs at A Canadian in South Africa - then you might enjoy some more of his tips in Part II of his advice column for new expats in South Africa.

...You’ve just arrived in South Africa, and you’re filled with bright-eyed wonder. You’re adorable. If you’re managing to read this, great news: you managed to find an internet connection. That’s your first win. Now what?



5. Explore.


I promise you one thing: after a night of indulging in burritos and beer, it may seem like a good idea to pass gas in a hot, relaxing shower, but it’s not. Something about the way the smell sticks to the steam and then attacks your olfactory system is truly horrific. That has nothing to do with this post, but it seemed like good advice anyway, and I have nowhere else to put it. So I promise you TWO things: farting in hot showers is a terrible, terrible idea, and you’ll find more to do in South Africa than you ever thought imaginable.

Just imagine this in a hot shower.

You could do no greater disservice to yourself and your family to stay at home and within the confines of your safe neighbourhood. There are beaches, wildlife, amusement parks, museums, scenic drives, and countless other mind-blowing activities all within driving distance of wherever you happen to live in South Africa. Get out there as often as you can.

6. Get Good at Waiting


I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you have ANY type A tendencies whatsoever, if you like things to run on time, and if you have any affinity for efficiency, you’re going to get very, very angry here. At least to start. Nothing here runs smoothly. I’m not exaggerating. Once in a while, despite South Africans’ best efforts, everything may fall into place and something will take exactly as long as it should. But that’s the exception, not the rule. [Editor's note: This is where a discussion about Just Now vs Now Now might be in order.]

Everything here runs on South African time, which is really rather fluid. Something that should take 30 minutes may take exactly 30 minutes. Or several hours. Or days/weeks/months. If you try to make South Africa fit YOUR expectations, you’re in for a world of hurt. Things don’t run efficiently here, and you need to get used to it. In fact, toss out that previous sentence, because I’m doing exactly what I said not to do at the beginning of this list. Efficient is a relative term. Things run South Africanly here, and people just accept it. You will too.

Even the traffic is brutal here.

I’ve learned to bring a book everywhere I go. It helps numb the pain a little. Just be careful to double check the queue you’ve hopped into is actually the right queue for what you need. Or, for that matter, that it’s a queue for anything at all. Waiting in line has become so ingrained into South African culture that there will be long lines that exist solely because somebody decided to stop behind somebody else that was stationary for whatever reason, and BOOM. Next thing you know, a queue forms. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for 1-3 hours in a line and then discovering you were in the wrong one. Not that I know from experience or anything…

7. Try New Things


Let’s be honest here. You didn’t decide to become an expat because you have zero sense of adventure. So make the most of it. If somebody puts a hunk of giraffe on your plate, chow down (unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you’re going to be incredibly unpopular at social gatherings here). If you’re offered a chunk of lamb innards wrapped in its own stomach lining, go for it (it’s surprisingly good). You’re not here to continue about your life the way you lived back home. Zip line over crocodiles. Put impala poop in your mouth and see how far you can spit it (I’m not even making that one up). Milk an elephant (OK, maybe I made that one up).

Actually, just fire your kids over the crocodiles. You can always make more.

You get my point. Live a little. Because before you know it, you’ll be off to your next assignment and you’ll truly regret not riding that crocodile when you had the chance.

8. Eat, Drink, and be Lekker.


After waiting in queues, South Africans’ favourite thing to do is braai, which is pretty much just like a BBQ turned up to 11. Remember when I said you’d be unpopular at parties if you’re a vegetarian? You should. It was literally one paragraph ago. Anyway, that’s because they serve meat as an appetizer here. Then the main course is meat. And they top it off with meat as a dessert. And in between each course is more meat. If you’ve never been fortunate enough to have an entire barnyard perish in your belly all at once, well, you’re in luck!

If you’re at a proper braai, they’ll cook with wood. One reason is the smoke gives the meat a flavour like you’ve never experienced in your life. The closest thing I can compare it to is an angel standing in your mouth, pissing all over your tonsils. You know what I mean. But from what I can determine, the primary reason they cook over wood is that it takes a long time. And that time is devoted to drinking insane amounts of alcohol. So when you inevitably get invited to your first braai, make sure you take an Uber. Cause you’ll be in no shape to drive home.

You’ll often hear people describe something as lekker, which is pretty much a catch all phrase that describes something good. Once you’ve hosted a braai for South Africans and they say they had a lekker time, you know you’ve arrived.

8. Breathe.


When you first get to South Africa, you’re probably going to be excited, nervous, and out of your element. That’s normal. Things are insane here. Taxi drivers will actively try to run you off the road on a daily basis. Everything can kill you (snakes, hippos, lions, spiders, people, mosquitos, bad nachos, etc). But you know what? Chances are very likely that nothing bad will happen. Your frustration tolerance will be tested. You’ll hit a wall where you’re done with everything and just want to go back home (I hit my breaking about 4 months in).

Remember to breathe. Watch a sunset. Think about why you came here in the first place. I’ve never experienced such raw beauty, such stunning nature, such friendly people, and such vibrant cultures in my life. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and appreciate that while this may not be home, it’s home for now.

And know this: Once South Africa gets into your blood, you’re done for, because you’ll never want to leave.



Thanks so much to Phil for the helpful tips disguised in his trademark humor. We look forward to hearing from you again! In the meantime, if you're an expat in South Africa with a story to tell, contact me here or on the Joburg Expat Facebook page.


"Phil is very clever, handsome, and talented. He is very good at colouring and picking out fancy cheese. He smells good at least 64% of the time." -Phil's mom

Phil has been many things- a musician, a university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, and a sales guy. He moved his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016 and is still wondering how that happened. Phil's blog is www.acanadianinsouthafrica.blogspot.com, and he agrees with everything his mom said. 

April 28, 2017

How to Survive Your First Few Months as an Expat in South Africa, Part I

Some of you may have already had the privilege of reading some of Phil Maloney's writing at A Canadian in South Africa, as I've posted links to some of his hilarious stories before. If not, visit his blog - but preferably AFTER you've read Phil's guest post here on Joburg Expat. 

It's another good one, full of useful advice for the future SA-bound expat. But more importantly, it'll make you laugh. And who can't use a good dose of that? 

Without further ado, I give you Phil Maloney, from A Canadian in South Africa:

So you’ve taken the plunge. Someone has convinced you that you’re special and talented. Your company could really use someone with your specific skillset at the branch in South Africa. And you bought it hook, line, and sinker. The reality is, you probably just pissed someone off at your home branch, and now you’re going to be someone else’s problem. Whatever the case may be, you’ve just arrived in South Africa, and you’re filled with bright-eyed wonder.

You’re adorable. If you’re managing to read this, great news: you managed to find an internet connection. That’s your first win. Now what?

While I don’t claim to be an expert by any means, I arrived in Pretoria from Vancouver, Canada in September 2016, and I have managed to discover a few things. I don’t mean tangible things. Any travel guide can point you to the best restaurants, the most thrilling amusement parks, and the sexiest statues (if sexy statues is your thing; I’m not here to judge). What I’m talking about is how to survive your first few months without wanting to off yourself in a spectacular fashion.


1. You’re not in Kansas Anymore. Act Like it.



I’ve been to Kansas. I know why you left.


But whether you’re from the US, Canada, Ireland, wherever, you have certain expectations. For instance, you might expect your internet to work. You might expect contractors to show up on time. Or at all. You might expect everything to function in South Africa the same as it did back home. Knock it off.

One of the absolute worst things you can do is to try to put South Africa into your home country’s box. Trust me. I tried. No matter how hard you scream, beg and plead, you’re not going to change the way South Africa works. You’ll have ideas about how things should be (stores should be open when people want to shop, hooking up cable/internet should be a one-step process, roads should be maintained- the list goes on and on), but in the end, your opinion doesn’t matter. Things will operate differently, and that’s ok.

The worst thing for your own mental health you can do (and the most obnoxious) is to try to make your new home your old home. Along those lines, don’t expect to find all the same brands and products here that you did back home. Instead, expect shopping to be an adventure. You’re not going to get groceries like you think you will. Get used to stopping at several stores to get everything on your list. And make sure you try the local stuff. While I do miss some comforts of home, the new food and household items more than compensate for what I thought I was going to miss.

My point here is, don’t compare here to there. You’re not there anymore. You’re here. And the sooner you act like, the happier you’ll be. [Editor's note: But, if you insist, here is a shopping list for stuff you should buy before moving to South Africa-)]

2. Make Friends with the Locals


No matter how adventurous expats claim to be, people crave familiarity. You’ve probably already made contact with some people from your home country in hopes of having a sense of belonging in South Africa. Look, I’m not saying DON’T do that. But don’t EXCLUSIVELY do that. You may think you have something in common with people just because you were born in the same general area. But a lot of people are terrible. I know if I ran into someone from Vancouver here, their incessant prattling on about hot yoga and the vegan diet they feed their dog would drive me bananas. I’ve met a boatload of South Africans who I’d much rather spend time with, and the bonus is they are a wealth of information and advice. Speaking of which…

3. Listen to Expats and Locals


Unless you speak fluent Afrikaans with no accent (not likely) or one of the other 10 official languages in South Africa (even less likely), people will know you’re a foreigner. And EVERYBODY here loves to give advice, from places to avoid and where to buy the best boerewors, to favourite vacation getaways. Pay attention! You don’t want to find yourself getting carjacked in your first week. Or worse yet, buying boerewors from the SECOND best butcher.

If several people tell you to stay out of certain areas, they might be on to something. You’ll have lots of time to make your own decisions as you go, but to start with, play it safe.

This is one of the best spots to stop and count your money.


There are also plenty of places to explore with your family, and you’ll hear all about them in the first few conversations with people you have here. Go wherever they tell you. Most of the areas will probably be pretty touristy, but that’s OK. They’re good places to start.

Other expats will remember when they first got here, and they generally want to make the most of their time in South Africa, so they’re pretty good resources when it comes to where to eat, visit, explore, etc. But also make sure you ask local South Africans where THEY like to go. Oftentimes, you’ll end up finding hole in the wall restaurants or day trips that you won’t find in any travel guide.

4. Don’t Listen to Expats and Locals.


Ignore everything I just said. OK, maybe not everything. For the first few months, definitely listen to what other people tell you. But you’ll soon get a sense of your surroundings. Once you’re a little more comfortable, start exploring. Do things you’ve been told not to. I’m not condoning running around Hillbrow naked at 2 AM with 200 rand notes wedged in your butt crack. But there ARE things to do in Hillbrow. Join a walking or photography tour. Be smart, but not paranoid. [Editor's note: Check out The Eight Best Johannesburg Sightseeing Tours for guidance.]

Also, people here will tell you to tip wait staff 10%, and no more. In Canada, we generally tip 18-20%, and I see no reason why I should do things differently here, much to the horror of locals I dine with. In fact, tipping will become a way of life for you. You’ll tip car guards, gas station attendants, and a host of other people who rely on these small donations to get by. Tip what YOU feel is appropriate. Keep in mind that you probably make more money than most people here. 10 rand instead of 2 rand will be minimal for you, but it will make someone else’s day.

They will also tell you not to trust anybody, even your domestic help (oh, you WILL end up hiring domestic help. And you’ll start to enjoy having your underwear ironed and folded. Trust me on that one). But people are people- if you treat them with respect, you’ll form relationships that many South Africans didn’t think possible.

Before anybody jumps on me in the comments, yes, I know the crime rate here is relatively high. I know horrific things happen. I know people have been robbed by their maids. I’m not saying that DOESN’T happen. What I AM saying is it’s not as bad as you’ll probably be led to believe. If you’re an expat, you’ll likely be living in an area where you’re in a bit of a bubble. Do some real statistical research on crime in South Africa, and you’ll see that you’re by no means in one of the most vulnerable groups. Take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Within a few months, you’ll feel quite at home and be able to take or leave all the sage wisdom thrust your way.

The editorial team is taking a break at this point, so this is the end of Part I. Keep posted for Part II next week!

"Phil is very clever, handsome, and talented. He is very good at colouring and picking out fancy cheese. He smells good at least 64% of the time." -Phil's mom

Phil has been many things- a musician, a university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, and a sales guy. He moved his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016 and is still wondering how that happened. Phil's blog is www.acanadianinsouthafrica.blogspot.com, and he agrees with everything his mom said. 

April 11, 2017

What Americans (and United Airlines) Might Learn from South African Craftiness

Americans are known to like the head-on approach to solving problems and to vanquish an opponent. Not so much subtlety as a show of overwhelming force, even if a lot of resources are needed that might be more wisely used with a more thoughtful approach.

The latest brouhaha at United Airlines just underscores that point. If you live in a bubble and somehow haven't heard about it, read a quick recap:

A flight is overbooked, the airline offers 4 free tickets if 4 passengers step forward to relinquish their seat, no one feels like it because a) they've got important places to be, and/or b) the value of the free tickets is laughably low, especially if - like it has happened to us in the past - they come with all sorts of blackout dates and other cumbersome strings attached. Bottom line: Instead of doing what the market dictates, i.e. upping the offer until you hit that sweet spot where supply meets demand, the airline does what a spiteful and overtired parent might do after unsuccessfully trying to bribe their kids to agree on who gets the window seat: They come down with the heavy diktat that 4 random people will be chosen who will have to leave the plane.

Except a wrinkle: The last of the 4 chosen ones refuses to leave, and starts screaming bloody murder when told to do so. Then the ultimate idiocy: The pilot - I assume it had to be the pilot - calls in law enforcement or security, and they proceed to drag the offending gentleman by his feat and through the aisle out of the plane.

My question: What rock do these people live under? Have they not heard about social media and the fact that people have, lo and behold, cameras on them at all times, and are very happy to film such an affront to a person's dignity? Let alone the fact that it is just plain wrong to drag a paying passenger, or even any human being, by his feet, no matter how uncooperative he might be.

I can't imagine what the fallout will be for United Airlines, and perhaps the entire airline industry by extension. I hope it is harsh. Double booking seats is common practice, but just imagine any other business doing the same. Like, selling concert tickets for Beyonce and somehow thinking, oh, we'll just sell more than we have because surely some people won't show up, and we will have made us some extra money! Yes, not quite the same, but I'm sure there are more comparable examples. I just find it satisfying that in this case, the bullies of the world are getting tremendous pushback.

The incident serves as a classic example of hard power versus soft power, and the benefits of stepping back from the brink to think about how using the latter might be so much easier and satisfying. Here is how Wikipedia defines the two:

"Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by coercion (hard power), using force or giving money as a means of persuasion. Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction."

What would a soft power approach have looked like, you ask? I came across a great answer that a reader posted on Facebook:

"Another way to do this, without so much heartburn, was done by SAA a few years ago on a flight from JFK to Johannesburg. A woman passenger was found to not have a ticket/boarding pass and was asked to leave the plane while the matter was investigated. She refused; flight attendants then quietly spoke with other passengers about the situation, saying that they would make an announcement that the flight was cancelled, and that passengers should leave the plane. Not to worry, though, re-boarding would be quick once the offending passenger had deplaned. They made this announcement, passengers quietly filed out, the offending passenger was led quietly off the plane. We all then got back on the plane, a delay of maybe 30 minutes, with no major incident. United, learn some more subtle ways to deal with passengers...."

All I could think was "of course a South African airline would come up with a more subtle approach." And not just subtle, but creative. An out-of-the box mind at work. It's probably taking this too far to speculate if there are cultural differences at work, though I don't doubt there are. I'll let others chime in for that.

But I would venture a guess that a people who don't take themselves so seriously, and aren't historically the strongest ones on the block, have an easier time using the soft power approach.

I bet you that SAA pilot, or the chairman for that matter, didn't have any fallout from the episode he handled so smoothly. United Airlines on the other side might find itself having to send their chairman to the sacrificial block - mostly for his tone-deaf comments after the event.

Raising my glass to the soft power approach to conflict resolution, and to South Africa.

Having a sense of humor often helps with the ability to use soft power. People love to laugh!

March 28, 2017

Culture Shock: This Ancient Invention Baffled my Teenager

A few weeks back, my daughter and I were sitting in the counselor's office at the high school. Sunshine, at 14 years old the youngest of our four children, was signing up for her freshman classes in the fall.

We sat at a desk with the course selection sheet between us while discussing the options for various tracks and electives. When the form was completed, Mrs. C., the counselor, pulled it over to her side, did a little flip and a tug, and voila - there was a yellow copy of the form for Sunshine to take home, all the classes neatly filled in.

Sunshine stared. "Wow! How did you do that?" she marveled.

"How did I do what?" said Mrs. C.

"How did you get a copy of this so fast?" 

Mrs. C., nice as she is, went on to patiently explain and demonstrate, in slow motion, the ancient invention of carbon paper.

"That is so amazing," marveled Sunshine. "It's like magic."

I'm not one to rant against the curse of Smartphones and social media and the general shortcomings of millennials - I'll leave that to my husband. In fact, I quite like living in this connected world. But the incident did trigger a tiny alarm bell in my brain. Are we at risk of turning into another Ancient Rome, where the greatest inventions of mankind to date get forgotten, buried under a wave of barbarism lasting centuries? What if we somehow "lose" the Internet, the place we all turn to in search of facts we can't possibly seem to remember? It's not such an outlandish thought if you think that without electricity the internet goes up in a cloud - ha! - of nothingness. Not much a future archaeologist could find there.

Perhaps our civilization doesn't hinge on such a small thing as carbon paper. And perhaps enough people will remember the magic workings of carbon paper to prevent its slide into obscurity. Except don't look among the ranks of 8th grade teenagers for such people.

Here is what happened a few days later: Sunshine invited several of her friends to a sleepover, and over a breakfast of waffles we chatted about school. My daughter remembered  her rather embarrassing carbon copy incident and relayed it to the group. She needn't be embarrassed.

"OMG," was the answer from all sides. "I thought the exact same thing!" None of the girls had ever seen carbon paper in action. One of the girls admitted she had been convinced the counselor had a copy machine hidden away in her desk drawer and used it to make a quick copy of the sheet.
Another looked thoughtful, and then her face lit up. "I suppose that's why they call it a carbon copy!"

"Yes," I said, delighted that I could teach a small lesson. "That's the origin of the 'cc' field on emails. Carbon Copy."

They all smacked their heads in recognition. They had never stopped to wonder what 'cc' meant.

If you think about it, it's amazing carbon paper has made it this far. It has outlasted the turntable, the cassette player, and the floppy disk, none of which my kids could describe to you. They also don't remember strolling through Blockbuster or buying actual film for a camera or the noise of a dial-up connection. And they stare in horror when Noisette and I describe how we shared one house telephone that was wired into the wall with the entire family - all of whom seemed to perennially lurk in the background listening in. The only good news was you didn't need a mobile phone or iPad to pass the time while sitting on the toilet because - it being the only toilet in the house - there was always someone knocking at the door urging you to be done already.

And this is a good place to end, since we've now come to the one brilliant invention that I believe is here to stay for all eternity. No need to explain to my teenagers how to use one. Although how to clean one is another matter...