Do They Speak English in South Africa?

June 27, 2016

The short answer to the question, Do they speak English in South Africa, is yes. Check. You can breathe easier now - one of the things not to be afraid of when moving to South Africa as opposed to, I don't know, Uzbekistan.

But the long answer makes for some interesting insights.

For instance, did you know that English, though the language most widely used and understood in South Africa, is the mother tongue for only 8% of South Africa's population? And that Zulu tops that list with 24%, and that altogether there are 11 official languages recognized by the South African government? (Which comes in handy if, say, your driver's license is issued in Tsonga, meaning you won't have to get another one when moving to South Africa.) All of this, and more, I've explained in one of the very first Joburg Expat blog posts in May 2010, The Language(s).

Zulu is a wonderfully poetic language, but a complicated one. The grammar isn't intuitive, but some words are. Often, you just use the prefix "i" or "isi" followed by the sound a thing makes, and voila, you have yourself a word, like isithuthuthu (motorcycle). Xhosa, a close relative to Zulu, uses many of the same words but with a good helping of three distinct click sounds that seem impossible to emulate by a non-native. See Zulu Potty Talk for more on both Zulu and Xhosa, including a lesson on how to click your tongue the right way.

But back to English. You can't just assume that English is English and that's that. Don't be fooled. There is a lot  you need to learn when stepping onto South African shores, if you want to catch on to what's being talked about. It's not only that the accent is different - a lovely accent, make no mistake - but that there are a ton of words you'll have never heard of, from Babbalas to Yebo and at least another 43 South Africanisms. You will have to learn that We Will Give You a Tinkle probably doesn't mean what you think, that Being Pissed can be totally misconstrued, and that a Ballbox is literally a box that holds a guy's balls.

About that accent: The most to the point description of South African English can be found in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux, a keen observer of people and African travel writer par excellence. 

"After a few days I became attuned to the accent, which in its twanging and swallowed way seemed both assertive and friendly. Johannesburg was "Janiceburg", busy was "buzzy," congested "congisted," West 'Waist,' and said 'sid'. There was no shortage of glottal stops, and a distinct Scottishness crept into some expressions; for example, a military buildup was a "mulatree buldup" Nearly everyone had a tendency to use Afrikaans words in ordinary speech, such as dorp, bakkie, takkies, naartjes, and dagga. These words had percolated throughout Central Africa long ago, and I knew from having lived in Malawi that they meant town, pickup truck, sneakers, tangerines, and marijuana. If there was a pronunciation problem, it was that for dagga or Gauteng you needed to use the soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g of Hollanders."

We love FaceTiming our South African friends every once in a while, just to hear precisely that lovely twang again. During school assemblies, the headmaster used to speak about the "yurr," and it took me the longest time to figure out that it meant "year." He'd also talk about "shedules" and "diarizing" things on our calendars.

Oh, and about that "soft deep, throat-clearing gargled g." Bill Bryson, in one of his books, used a less kind description of that sound, but I can't recall now exactly where. It is the same "ch" sound that you associate with a movie about evil Nazis, in which, say, a regiment is called to attention with a bellowed Achtung! by a sadistic Obersturmbannführer.

It has always struck me as funny how South Africans insist on applying that sound to any stray G that comes across their path, whether it's of Afrikaans origin or not. For some months, it seemed like I couldn't drive anywhere without having to listen to a particular Volkswagen advertisement on the radio that ran around the clock, and each time the "g" in Volkswagen was pronounced the Dutch way. Volkswagen is German, you people, and as a German I like my g's plain and simple, thank you very much! is what I always wanted to yell at the radio on those occasions.

But if you live in South Africa, you'll have to get a hang for that G sooner or later, particularly when living in Johannesburg, nestled in the province of Gauteng. If you want to practice it, try saying the year 1999 in Afrikaans: Negentienhonderd nege en negentig - every one of those "g's" a guttural one. You can read more on Afrikaans in An Ode to Lekker and Kak.

To end on a beautiful note, here you can hear five of South Africa's official languages by listening to its National Anthem.

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You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green

June 20, 2016

A common affliction of mankind is to pine for what one cannot have at the moment, to want to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.

Surely the grass must be greener on the other side!

One would think this sentiment is particularly true for expats, especially repeat or serial expats. People who are constantly yanked from their surroundings and have to rebuild their lives elsewhere might be excused for not embracing each new place equally well. It would be understandable if they thought the pastures "on the other side" were indeed greener - because, after all, they might have already seen the other side - and to put all their efforts into getting there.

But interestingly enough, I've observed the opposite. The more seasoned an expat you'll meet, the more they seem to be happy wherever they are at that moment.

Part of this is attitude. I've written about how a positive attitude is a key ingredient for How to Be a Successful Expat. And, if you don't start out with it, how a positive attitude can be learned through, you guessed it, expat life itself. It's a bit like a chicken and the egg thing: You need a positive attitude to make it as an expat, but you often only learn to affect a positive attitude through the experiences you gain as an expat.

In other words, happiness and success don't just happen on their own. It's not, it turns out, the color of the grass that determines whether you're going to be happy in a place or not. Or, rather, it IS the color - we all know grass looks the best when it's green - but WE are the only ones who can make it that way.

You Have to Water the Grass For it to Be Green.

A fellow expat full of wisdom once uttered that phrase, and I loved it enough to go in search of a blog post to fit around it. There is so much of life's beauty in that one sentence. If one lived by no other mantra, one could become a good and content person by making it one's guiding principle. Buddhism in its entirety might be distilled into that single observation. It's both an appeal to your diligence, so that you might not sit on your haunches and expect things to happen without hard work, and to your autonomy, meaning you have control over your own happiness if you do the right things.

What are the right things? How do you best water the grass?

Much like watering grass, watering the figurative expat grass works best in small but frequent doses. It's not scoring one giant coup, like negotiating an awesome deal with the company that's sending you abroad. It's not finding the perfect country, the perfect house, or the perfect school. All these play a role, no doubt, but you can take little steps every day that ensure your overall happiness in a new country.

In the Wall Street Journal's The Good Expat: 5 Steps to a Successful Expat Experience, I've gone into more detail what kinds of step these are, like making sure you get out and about as soon as you've arrived in a new place, participating in the local life whenever possible, keeping an open mind about things, laughing about the things that are awful in spite of your open mind, and perhaps even writing about your experience.

All of these are best accomplished by setting small goals for yourself and your family: Explore one new store each month; plan a family outing to a place you haven't yet seen every other month; volunteer at a charity once a week; host a dinner or organize a joint activity each time a new family arrives at your school, pick up at least one new hobby in your new country, have your kids try out at least one new sport. The possibilities are endless.

By no means do I advocate for an overscheduled calendar with all these new activities. Chances are, your life may actually slow down because the pace has changed by moving continents. What seemed so urgent before is now perhaps something people don't care about as much, so you adapt. Nothing cures you of your Western-style Type A obsessive-compulsive workaholic tendencies as well as life in a slower-paced (perhaps but not necessarily 3rd World) country.

What I'm saying is that you have to work at your happiness. What you put into your expat assignment (or, really, life in general) in terms of time, outreach, curiosity, and friendliness will be returned to you many times over, I can promise you that.

You water the grass wherever you are, and it will turn green.

Some expats are happier than others, and it's often the ones who seem to cling to their habits and activities from home that struggle the most. Going on home leave every opportunity you get, enrolling your kids in the school that's the closest replica of the one at home, driving them for hours so they can keep playing the sport they already know versus the one that's played five minutes from your house - these are all akin to straining your hose so you can spray the yard five houses down from you. The precious water will be spread too thin, and you will end up on a dry patch of land.

Most expats have learned the art of watering the patch of grass they're endowed with - maybe not the first time, but surely the second and third times. They've learned that most everything in life is temporary, and that it's important to start living right away rather than later.

I'd venture to guess it's almost harder for non-expats. If you've stayed in a place all your life, you might get awfully tired of all that watering. It just never ends! If that's true for you, perhaps it's time to move to greener pastures. Sometimes that's a chance to Remake, Refurbish, and Improve yourself. But if you do, don't simply arrive and expect a lush oasis, just because you've heard good things about a place. The drudgery of daily life is going to catch up with you no matter where you are, and you might wake up one day in a parched and dusty landscape.

Wherever you are in life, don't forget to water the grass around you.

Yes, this expat child is watering the pool, not the grass, but it's the closest picture I could find
in my vast archives to approximate the situation. And it has a bit of grass in it too. Green, even.

If you liked this article, you might also like:

The Balanced (Expat) Family
Welcome to Type A Remedial School

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Why Would People Want to Move to South Africa? Let Me Count the Reasons...

June 13, 2016

Some time ago I received the following reader comment:

I am astonished to read that people want to move to SA.
Are they blind on both ears?

Anatomical issues aside, I was bothered by this comment. It is the typical reaction of people who know nothing about South Africa and yet feel compelled to make some kind of judgment about its fitness as a place to live.

Perhaps the best answer is to just shrug and say, "suit yourself." One less grouchy person to contend with. Let them miss out on what could be a beautiful life experience.

But I've never been one to just shrug it off. And the thing is, the other side of the coin needs to be represented, as a counterweight to the doomsday-sayers crowding the expat forums. These are the people who perpetuate the myth that South Africa is a cesspool of crime and corruption. They want to tell you that you're better off living somewhere in Europe where you're always safe and where governments are beyond reproach.

I hope you caught the sarcasm in that last sentence. The point is, no place is completely safe, and no government beyond reproach. Some places are safer than others, I grant you that, but they might have other factors counting against them, such as the weather. Or the gloomy faces put on display by the majority of the population. Or any number of other things that play a role in making you happy, day to day and also in the long term.

So why would you want to move to South Africa? Here are three reasons:

1. South Africa is a beautiful country

Perhaps it's the coastline along two oceans you'll fall in love with. Or the bush teeming with wildlife. The rugged peaks of the Drakensberg, the view down from Table Mountain, or the exotic vibe of Durban's beachfront. Here is a small taste of the scenery awaiting you in South Africa:

Sodwana Bay, just south of the Mozambique border

Franschhoek, South Africa's fabled wine region

Johannesburg street with blooming jacarandas

Sunset near Kruger Park

Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Joburg

Giraffes in Madikwe Game Reserve

The Southern tip of Africa near Cape Town

Elephants near the border to Botswana

Cape Town waterfront with Table Mountain in the background

Aerial view of the Magaliesberg near the Cradle of Humankind

2. South Africa offers an incredible lifestyle

Perhaps I'm a simple mind, but for me, lifestyle starts with the weather. When the sun is shining, I'm happy. And by God the sun shines in South Africa, particularly in Johannesburg and the surrounding highveld. It shines in the summer and it shines in the winter, and yet temperatures almost never get oppressively hot. This fosters a lifestyle full of outdoors activities. The kids run around outside, and half their school day seems to take place out of doors. Shopping and infrastructure are there when you need them, but the wildest Africa is always within easy reach if you want to get away. The quality of fresh food is amazing, eating out and evening entertainment is very affordable, and you can indulge the luxury of live-in domestic help. To top it all off, South Africans are some of the friendliest people on Earth. If you're not invited to a braai at someone's home for some Boerewors and a glass of Chardonnay within a few weeks after arrival, I'd say you accidentally stepped into a wormhole and have landed in some faraway galaxy instead of South Africa.

3. People who HAVE moved to South Africa don't want to leave

There is no better way to judge what people think of a place than to see how they're voting with their feet. I don't claim to have done a double-blind study on this, so if you're now opening your mouth to accuse me of anecdotal writing, you are absolutely right; I have nothing but anecdotes. However, as the founder of one of the most-read expat blogs about South Africa - 1.6 million pageviews strong as of this month - I have many such anecdotes. Very few expats end up in Joburg without first having read my blog, and many of those end up contacting me personally to ask questions. And between all these people as well as my extensive network of friends, I haven't met a single one who has voiced unhappiness about their life in South Africa.

Yes, we all know that blogs and Twitter and Facebook pages are echo chambers. Perhaps only those of us who share the same views are talking to each other. I'm sure there are expats who've tried South Africa, didn't like it or had a bad experience, and have returned home. But I do know that there is a huge number of expats living a happy life in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and many places in between, who have their eyes (and ears) wide open and see a beautiful country. Their biggest fear? That the day they'll be transferred back home is coming too soon.

Granted, expats are not locals. Many South Africans do vote with their feet and leave the country. They fear financial insecurity, a job market with few opportunities for them or their children, a government that might take over private enterprises, and yes, crime. Leaving their home and building a new life elsewhere is often their ticket to what they crave most, a second passport, their security blanket, just in case. As an expat moving TO South Africa, you already carry that passport with you, meaning the problems driving South Africans away aren't necessarily your problems. You get the upside of weather and lifestyle without much of a downside.

Still not convinced?

Several years ago I wrote Top 10 Reasons You Should Move to Johannesburg Despite the Crime Rate for ExpatsBlog, an article that was somewhat tongue in cheek but touched the same points. It received many wonderful comments from people who shared more reasons why they thought life in Johannesburg was or had been a wonderful experience. Be sure to check it out if you're still on the fence on whether you should move to South Africa or not.
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What it Feels Like to Be an Expat: Compartmentalized

June 6, 2016

The following is as good a summary of what serial expats, and particularly their children, often feel like:

"That is the very nature of the expat's life: It is divided, compartmentalized across geographic boundaries and into cultural and linguistic spheres. There is the crowd that you belong to in your place of expatriation, in which the people you enter into relationships with will likely never visit your specific place of origin, and then there are all the people from your specific place of origin who will never know the places you make home."
This excerpt is from Five Flights Up by Kristin Louise Duncombe, author of Trailing: A Memoir, which I've previously reviewed here.

Compartmentalized. I've often wondered how it might feel if our life wasn't so compartmentalized. If, like so many people do, I'd stayed in my home town and grown older surrounded by the same set of friends I met in first grade. It's almost impossible to imagine, but it does have a certain appeal: no need to communicate so much to keep everyone informed of the goings-on in my life, no need to reinvent myself all the time, no need to constantly reach out to make new friends. And, maybe most alluringly, no need to always explain where I'm from.

In a previous blog post I've described why that is so annoying:

"One of those little inconveniences of expat life is having to answer the question of where I'm from. Because there is never just a simple answer.

Somehow "I-was-born-and-raised-in-Germany-then-moved-to-Raleigh-North-Carolina-to-attend-business-school-in-1991-with-my-then-boyfriend-after-having-been-an-exchange-student-in-the-US-at-age-16-and-really-loving-it-there-then-got-married-and-had-kids-then-lived-in-Singapore-for-a-few-years-then-moved-back-to-North-Carolina-then-to-Wisconsin-then-to-Kansas-then-to-South-Africa-after-becoming-American-citizens-right-before-leaving-America" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue easily.

I'd love to be able to unequivocally say "from California" or something equally short and simple. Period, end of story." (Read more in Where is Home?)

Well, wouldn't you know it, the very next paragraph in Five Flights Up, following the one I quoted above, brings up California in precisely that way!

"My mind flashes to the story of my sister Steph, who, her first year of college, couldn't find a comfortable way to keep re-explaining her complicated geographic trajectory when she landed in a dorm of people who had grown up together in eastern Maryland.

So she finally started telling everyone she was from California."

Not sure why it has to be California, but it seems a popular place for those of us wishing for a simpler identity. I'm now wondering if the people I know who are from California are truly from California?

It's a bit like when I'm at Starbucks. I'm cursed - or blessed, I guess - with a name no one can spell. Without fail, when asked my name and I give it, the barista shoots me a look, sharpie poised, and says: "How do you spell that?" And without fail, I tell him to spell it however the hell he wants. What's the use in spelling it if then they have no idea how to say it 2 minutes later when your coffee is ready? And yet, I have this huge reluctance to just make up any damn name I please. It's like this big hurdle inside of me that I can't lie about my name, even if it would be so much more convenient for everyone.

My kids know a thing or two about compartments. And compartmentalization.

By the way, keeping your own story straight is not the only hazard of expat wanderings across different locales and cultures. It's the stories of a higher order that are even harder to keep straight. Like the one you tell your kids about where certain presents doled out in December come from. Read A Man With a Sack, Some Old Boots, and a Naked Baby: Merry Crazy Christmas! and your head will spin.

On the other hand, perhaps having to explain a few things along the way is a small price to pay for the upsides you get from a globetrotting existence. Like the aforementioned opportunities to reinvent yourself.

"Because nobody knows you there, nobody has pegged you to be anything other than what they see as they're getting to know you. As scary as it seems, as inconvenient as it appears, getting a chance to remake yourself into something new and better should be appreciated for the incredible gift it truly is." (from my blog post entitled Expat 2.0: Remake, Refurbish, Improve.)  

As long as you don't unwittingly reinvent yourself into a Nazi.

Circling back to the beginning of this blog post, I'd like to close with an excerpt from my review of Five Flights Up, a book I can thoroughly recommend for anyone who has ever dealt with the struggles of balancing career, identity, and family - in short, almost everyone:

"Moving households is one thing when you’re just responsible for yourself and a suitcase, but entirely different when older children are part of the equation, children who have their own opinions and worries and friendships.... As a parent, I felt [the author's] heartbreak when her daughter revealed her frustration at feeling neither French nor American. I felt her despair when her son clung to her before school every day, not wanting to go because “I’m just not good at making friends.” And then I also felt her non-plussed “huh” when she started her weekly routine of commuting as a compromise between her husband’s and her own career and realized, counter to all her most dire predictions, that the world did not come crashing down, her children were fine and even having fun without her, and life went on."

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Top Five Scary Things About Living in South Africa

May 30, 2016

I know what you're now thinking after reading this blog post title. Smash-n-grab, carjacking, hacked off limbs... The list of scary things you're led to believe will happen to you in South Africa is long and grisly.

But I'm here to tell you that danger lurks in more unexpected quarters.

And I'm going to do this in the style of David Letterman - God bless his retired (and unrecognizable because bearded) soul - via a countdown.

5. THE 5th SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
................being asked to put animal feces into your mouth when your safari group is conducting an Impala Poop Spitting Contest. It's a close relative to the much-loved cherry pit spitting contest you find in other regions of the world, except, you know, the part about the poop. Which does, in all fairness, resemble cherry pits. As long as you make sure it truly is dried.

4. THE 4th SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
...............being yanked out of your dreams abruptly at 4:30 am when a pig is being slaughtered right outside your bedroom. Or something that sounds exactly like a pig being slaughtered right outside your bedroom but turns out to be a bird called hadeda that, so the rumor goes, is deathly afraid of flying and therefore erupts in unearthly shrieks every time it takes to flight. Preferably at 4:30 in the morning.

3. THE 3rd SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
...............being told by the clerk at the clothing store that he will "give you a tinkle when the new beanies arrive." No thank you, I'll just check back in a week, is what you say with a shudder before fleeing, only later learning from a friend that giving a tinkle, for a South African, involves a telephone, not a toilet.

2. THE 2nd SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa is....
................when you're driving along the countryside minding your own business and this happens:

(Full disclosure: You might also be eaten by a lion or rammed by a hippo
without ever having received an indemnity form to sign.)

1. THE NUMBER 1 SCARIEST THING that can happen to you in South Africa.... drumroll.... coming across this creature:

It's called a Parktown Prawn and it is beyond scary - hairy legs and all. The only good news is that scary thing number 4 apparently eats scary thing number 1.

There you have it, it's what you've always been told - the bad guys all murder each other in South Africa. You might actually be quite safe. Just beware of tinkling store clerks, pooping gazelles, and squatting elephants.

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Everything You Need to Know About South African Schools

May 23, 2016

Which school to pick for their children in South Africa, and how to get into the one they've picked, is by far the most discussed topic among prospective expats on my blog and Facebook page. Second to that are questions about bureaucracy, especially the dreaded Traffic Register Number and vehicle license disk renewal, and the always-pressing quest to find the perfect house in the right suburb.

Which just goes to show that at the end of the day, fear of crime - the one thing South Africa is infamous for - is not at the top of people's minds. Day-to-day practical considerations and our children's education take precedence.

At any rate, I spend quite a bit of time every day fielding questions about schools, having evolved as somewhat of an authority on the topic - not so much by virtue of my own knowledge, but because of the vast network of friends and acquaintances I've built, and my ability to ask any of them to chime in on a particular school. Still, quite often I will go hunt on my own blog to dig up the appropriate blog post on a given school-related topic so I can forward it in response to an inquiry, and that can be quite time-consuming. 

In order to make my readers' life - and mine! - a little bit easier, I thought I'd gather all my blog posts discussing South African schools in any way, shape, or form, into one tidy list to hand out henceforth. Bear in mind that I wrote these over the course of 4-5 years, and that my knowledge of the topic evolved over that time period, so it's a good idea to read the more recent posts in addition to the older ones. (Even though I've grouped them by topic, you can see the date under the heading of each.)

Without further ado, voila!

Joburg Expat's Recommended Reading
on South African Schools

School Listings

St. John's College, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Johannesburg

South African Schools: An International Comparison

Dainfern College

Language Education in South African Schools

Sports at South African Schools

8th Grade South African rugby players

Other Extracurriculars at South African Schools

Grade 0 ("nought"), the incoming pupils, together with Grade 7, the outgoing Senior Prep
class, Dainfern College, South Africa

Transitioning from a South African School Back to the United States

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What is the Best Month to Travel to South Africa?

May 16, 2016

Over the years of authoring Joburg Expat, I've answered many questions about expat life in South Africa. And often it's not just future expats asking away, but friends and acquaintances who are intrigued by my love for a country they haven't given much thought to in the past.

"I want to come visit; what is the best time of year?" is the most frequently asked question by these prospective travelers.

I'm always tempted to say, it doesn't matter. There really isn't a bad time to visit South Africa.

However, that's not what they pay me the big blogger bucks for (ha! Who knew, right?), so I'll try to be more specific. Meaning, it depends.

It depends on where you go

What time of year you should visit depends on where in South Africa you plan on going. If your most important destination is Cape Town and all you want to do in South Africa is stand at the Cape of Good Hope, have some wonderful wine in Stellenbosch, and scale the slopes of Table Mountain, I'd say go either in spring or fall. Bearing in mind that spring is in October/November and fall (or autumn) is in March/April.

Franschhoek near Cape Town, the heart of the South African wine region, in October

Cape Town, and also Kruger Park, tend to get very crowded during the South African school holidays from beginning of December until mid-January when everybody floods to the beaches. Incidentally, this is the most quiet time in Johannesburg and therefore a good time to visit and have less traffic to contend with.

I personally prefer South African summers (which really are one long stretch from October all the way to May), just because I love the heat, and you will be nice and warm on morning game drives. December and January are the hottest (but also rainiest) months. We've been on safaris year round and always enjoyed them and always saw plenty of animals. Winters (June through early August), on the other hand, can get very cold in Southern Africa, particularly on the Highveld around Johannesburg, and especially at night, so if you do go in winter, you have to bring enough layers of warm clothing.

Winters are great for safari holidays

Winter is a good time for a South African safari (photo taken in Pilanesberg National Park in June)

However, there is something to be said for going in winter as well: First off, it is the dry season, giving you several advantages. Because it's dry, the animals tend to congregate around water holes, so it's a tad easier to find them. Also, the bush is less dense as there is less foliage, so again, it's easier to see the animals. If you are planning to go to Kruger Park, winter is also a better option because there won't be any threat of malaria (it's not a very high-risk malaria area, but you do have to reckon with it in summer). Also, it might be cheaper to travel than during the Christmas holidays, which is high season and also school holiday break for South African schools.

If you're interested in any other locations besides South Africa, also consider this: The great migration in Tanzania (Serengeti) occurs in June and July. Those are also the best months for the Okavango Delta as it is at its highest flooding then, stretching from June and July all the way to October.

Flooding of the Okavango Delta (this picture taken in April before the peak of the flooding)

Some other factors to consider

There are other months that have a lot going for them in terms of visiting South Africa: March is the best month to view the Cosmos flowering in Mpumalanga province, September is great for Kruger Park (not too hot, no malaria, no crowds) as well as the Namaqualand wildflower bloom, October marks the beginning of jacaranda season in Johannesburg and Pretoria (once you've see the purple explosion of jacaranda season, you'll be pining for your very own jacaranda tree, trust me) as well as prime time for whale watching in Hermanus.

Jacarandas in Rosebank, a Johannesburg suburb, in October/November

As you can see, any time of year has its attractions for South Africa-bound visitors.  Your best bet is probably to go look for some good deals on flights. December/January is high season and therefore the most expensive. I think March is generally a very cheap month to fly, as is November before the start of summer break.

I can promise you this: You will fall in love with Africa, no matter when you come to visit, and your first time most likely won't be the last.

A more in-depth version of this article, including a handy chart listing pros and cons for every month of the year, can be found on SA People.

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Happy Mother's Day!

May 8, 2016

Aaaah, Mother's Day. It's such a great idea, but it always has the potential to break your heart.

In theory, this is the day of paying tribute to all that we've done for our offspring over the course of an entire year. Like held back their hair when they vomited into the toilet, driven to school to drop off their calculator for an important exam (which we've reminded them the night before they should pack their calculator for RIGHT NOW), or - the ultimate sacrifice - helped them with their science cell project made from a styrofoam ball that had to be purchased at Michaels.

In truth, we should all know not to expect all that much from Mother's Day.

The nicest thing that can be said for Mother's Day is that it's the one day we're not in charge. We're not supposed to be planning anything. The bliss!

But that's exactly it. Leave the planning to other people, and it's bound to go wrong. Planning anything is usually the realm of the mother, and when she isn't doing it, no one is.

I can't tell you how many years, come 5 pm on Mother's Day, we have all looked at each other expectantly, wanting to know what our dinner plans are. There never are any. No one has thought to cook a meal, and no one has thought to make a reservation at a restaurant.

In all fairness, it typically starts out with much more promise. In years past, I was the recipient of many breakfast trays laden with lukewarm tea and toast and jam, carried to my bed by eager little hands. Nowadays, this doesn't happen anymore. Mainly because years of motherhood have resulted in a wake-up time for me that is closer to the time my kids go to bed than when they wake up in the early afternoon. I've had people ask me at 4 p.m., in all earnestness, if they could have breakfast now.

But I don't mind. In fact, I relish the quiet morning with the paper and my cup of tea, even if I have to make it myself. Eventually, people wake up and come up to me and bring me the cards they labored over for days. Or, in some cases, just minutes. It's the thought that counts.

This one is the kind labored over for days, I could tell.

All I ask, really, is that I don't have to do a lot of cooking or dishwasher unloading on Mother's Day.

An a hot shower would be nice too.

But alas, it wasn't to be, not this year. Our hot water heater is a bit finicky, you see. Every once in a while it just goes off, poof. This leaves a whole bunch of hot water in it for those who have the good fortune of tapping into it first. Not me, since one of my Sunday perks is reading the paper and staying in my pajamas all morning.

So everybody took their shower and also took note that it was mostly a cold one, by the end of it. My husband's shower, so he reported later, was entirely cold. But did anybody think to go to the basement and relight the flame? Nope. Because, you see, that's what Mom usually does.

I went to my Mother's Day dinner unshowered, my unwashed hair in a bun.

But other than that it was a fabulous day.

Happy Mother's Day to all you lovely moms out there!

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Ordering From Amazon in South Africa, Take Two

May 2, 2016

My 2012 blog post Ordering from Amazon in South Africa is in 4th place among most read stories on Joburg Expat. Because so many people seem to rely on it, and because it's already four years old, it needs a makeover to reflect changes since then.

The thing that's not changed, just to get that out of the way: There is still no

However, ordering from (or, for that matter, but for reasons of simplicity I will stick to Amazon USA) is now easier than ever before, even in such far-flung and postal-service-challenged places as South Africa.

How to order from Amazon in South Africa

The way it works is through a service called AmazonGlobal, and here is what Amazon says about it on its own website: " ships products internationally with AmazonGlobal. Available product lines, shipping rates and fees vary depending on the delivery address for your order."

To see a listing of countries under the AmazonGlobal umbrella, click here. As stated, not all items are eligible, but many of them are.

To place your Amazon order from South Africa, simply go to and add the desired items to your shopping cart, then go to checkout and enter your address. At this point you should see if any items in your cart don't qualify. Once you proceed, Amazon adds in all your fees and import duties up front and delivers your package via courier (Aramex), bypassing the slow and wildly unreliable South African Postal Service (SAPO).

How long will it take for my Amazon order to be shipped to South Africa?

I've interviewed several South African readers and they've all confirmed that the average delivery time with AmazonGlobal is 8 days.

8 days, people! This is mind-boggling to anyone who's ever used SAPO for any mail going to South Africa. The standards are so low that you'd be happy to know it arrived there AT ALL. Some of you might remember my experiment with Christmas cards - nothing valuable in them - which confirmed that South Africa is dead last when it comes to international mail delivery.

The fast delivery time is possible because sending the goods via courier and paying the fees and duties upfront ensures that your package will not be held up in customs. Neither will it be held up in one of SAPO's holding centers. I've seen pictures of one of those and it's not a pretty sight, especially at Christmastime. It reminded me of our school's lost-and-found bins, only a few thousand times as big (although, I'll grant them that, perhaps a bit less smelly).

How much does it cost to ship Amazon orders to South Africa?

Given that there was a time when Amazon refused to deliver any packages to South Africa at all, due to the fact that a large number just disappeared, this is a HUGE betterment for South African Amazon customers. The only downside is that of course it isn't free*. If you've been spoiled by years of Amazon Prime will living in the U.S. or Europe and are now moving to South Africa and expecting the same, you better undergo a reality check. It won't be cheap. However, it will be vastly better than having no Amazon at all and having to source all your hard-to-find items from Johannesburg street vendors. And AmazonGlobal prices are actually lower than what I would be willing to pay, given the alternative. For instance, an acquaintance recently ordered a household good for $25 and paid shipping of $14 on it. That's a pretty good bargain for secure and fast delivery.

The other piece of good news about ordering from Amazon in South Africa is that you can use your South African credit card for payment, which wasn't possible in the past. Even if you choose to have your goods delivered to a U.S. address with a friend bringing it over when they visit, you can still use your SA-based credit card instead of having to use dollar-based funds.

All in all, placing your Amazon orders from South Africa is as easy and convenient as it's never been before. If you're moving to South Africa, this is one item not to worry about.

*AmazonGlobal actually does offer free delivery to a few select countries; currently, those are Singapore (orders over $125) and Mexico (orders over $65). South Africa, as of the writing of this article, isn't one of them.


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My son in England - birthday - Please can I order Nespresso coffee capsules for him soonest

April 25, 2016

Please excuse the rather strange headline, but I thought I'd come right out with what this blog post is about: A collection of the most outlandish questions and requests I get through the Contact Me page on Joburg Expat. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit down - this one is going to be fun!
Seriously? THAT is your question?

Don't get me wrong - I get a ton of lovely comments from people all over the world, thanking me for the helpful info and asking more in-depth questions about their pending move, which I'm all too happy to answer. I also get many comments from South Africans who love how I view and write about the country they love. This blog post is not about those. It's about the "other" comments and questions I get, and you wouldn't believe how many of them there are. This is just a small sample.

Let's start with the not so far-fetched. If any readers think I'm a travel agent, I'm actually flattered a little bit. Travel writing is what I take pride in, and I do respond to most travel-related inquiries:
we intend to go to cape town next year as a group of 15.
can qoute us please
But a large number of visitors seem to think that I'm an online store. The fact that my site doesn't list any products and has no buttons to add items to shopping carts doesn't seem to detract them. They figure they can just type up their order and I'll gladly do the rest. What I love about the inquiry from the headline is the insertion of personal details, presumably to make me more sympathetic in my quest to jump to the rescue:

My son in England - birthday - Please can I order Nespresso coffee capsules for him soonest
Of course! I wouldn't have, normally, but knowing it's your SON, and Oh My Gosh it's his BIRTHDAY, of course I'll gladly oblige and get the Nespresso capsules to him posthaste!

Some requests frankly freak me out a little bit, like this one:

How do I go about ordering the following:
Lysine Powder,
L-Proline Powder, 

L-Arginine Powder, 

L-Citruline Powder and 

Pycnogel Powder.

I have no idea what all these powders might do - for all I know they're bomb making ingredients.

Mostly, however, it's books I'm asked to supply:

Please provide quotations for the following books:
1. Microeconomics Theory: Basic Principles & Theory (2008) by Snyder & Nicholson 10th edition
2. Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach (2006) 7th edition by Varian H.R
3. The Structure of Economics: A Mathematical Approach by Silderberg (2000) 3rd edition.
4. Microeconomics (2005) by Pyndyck & Rubinfield 6th edition
5. Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics (2005) 4th by Chiang.
6. Statistics for Business & Economics (2004) 6th edition by Newbold & Carlson

How very thorough a list! I was really torn by this one. I'd hate to kill what promises to be a brilliant corporate career before it even takes off by not providing the requisite reading material to this budding business student. Such potential - the writer certainly has what it takes to reach upper management in terms of his or her ability to delegate tasks to minions!

There seem to be other items of interest on my website:
Swatch Lekker SUOP102
To whom it may concern:

Kindly advice if you have the above watch and how much is it.
Kind regards,

To which I want to respond: Dear Lizzie, I know how important timely delivery must be to you, seeing as you have such a keen eye for a good timepiece. Which is why I'll respond to you with more information JUST NOW!

Some tempt me just because I'd like to figure out what exactly it is people want to purchase:


I picture an ancient lady dictating this, telegram-style, to a hunched-over employee in suspenders and cap tapping away in morse code. All it needs is a few "STOPs" in between sentences, which would also make it more readable. Like, is her last name Coffin, or does she want to purchase a coffin? Or a coffin chair or chair yoga, whatever those might be? I almost responded, just because the curiosity was killing me!

This one is along similar lines:

Hi would like to buy beast/big gaint fist (cooler)from amazin, can you hep me im in SA Cape Town

But my all-time favorite request is this one:

I have a wall deviding my yard from my neighbour and in their side they have a huge tree with diversed roots,which has caused a mess on my side.I would kindly want to know who to contact and which Insurance is liable of such damage.I will greately appreciate your advise as soon as possible if you can.Thanking you Regards Vickey

Holy cow, how in the world did Vickey end up at Joburg Expat and then somehow divine that I could help her on insurance questions regarding a neighbor's dispute? Perhaps I should pair her up with this contractor who thought it important to advise me on his no doubt capable services, which might very well include tree removal:

nkulani management do tennis court repair,painting,electrical,paving,renovation and other related project.for quote contact Willies @ 0827401521
I am helpfully including these phone numbers - who knows, somebody with a cracked tennis court might read this and be grateful not to have to do further research.

If you think the insurance question came from left field, then scratch your head with this one:

I was involved in an accident last night another car road into me and I think my car is a write off , I have no insurance as well as the guy that road into me
I'm still deciding whether this is a plea for help or a very bad attempt at landing a pun - twice. Get it?

Having written about Amazon in South Africa - or, rather, the lack thereof - I get why some people think I'm their extended customer service:

I have 2nd. Generation Kindle Model D00701.
The devise is frozen.I have tried re-booting, no luck!
Can you help?
This next one I actually responded to, because I liked the writing style, I could commiserate with the guy - it IS, in fact, not easy to contact Amazon directly - and I loved the respectful tone. I mean, who doesn't like being called "Mr. Expat?"

Hi Mr Expat. I am an American but have lived and worked here for the past 20 years. Perhap I should have known better, but that's a story for another day.Here's the problem. I signed up for Amazon Prime free trial. Shortly after that I was billed - and paid by my soccer crazy bank - R1000.00! = $99. Horrified, I am now trying to establish if that is for a yearly membership, as I read it, or monthly. It is not easy to contact Amazon directly, then I found you. I sure as hell cannot pay R1000.00 every month! Checking my account i see it appears to be monthly! How do I stop it now?

Something tells me this guy, the coffin lady and the "gaint fist (cooler) from amazin" guy might find common ground:

Hi am john
west Johannesburg 
I wanted to buy greenhouse plastic polyethylene
so please give me information
thank you 
kind regards john

I kind of like John. He deserves bonus points for proper spelling. And he seems to like plants.

This is what I want to do when I get too many stupid questions.

What baffles me is how little time people seem to spend on my blog, yet determine with absolute certainty they know what it is I am offering and hence what I can therefore help with. For example, don't you think you should notice, as a reader, what language the blog is written in? See this Afrikaans lady needing help:

Hi middag ek is rerig dringend opsoek na die CD van Gail Seymour met die die van Just Relax Kan ek dit by julle bestel of kan julle vir my cod aanstuur Laat weet my asseblief Belinda

The funny thing is, I could understand all of what Belinda wants, without the help of Google Translate. I much prefer being addressed in written Afrikaans over spoken Afrikaans. When I go to my "Friends of South Africa" Tannies Teas here in Nashville, invariably I'm accosted by one of the lovely ladies who spills a torrent of Afrikaans on me without taking note of my confused face. I always have to gently tug at their sleeves and let them know I don't speak any Afrikaans. Other than Lekker and Kak. I must somehow look Afrikaans. Good Germanic stock, I suppose.

Martin here sounds kind of sweet:

good morning I will like to be one of your customer but you are far away from south Africa.i wish one day you can think of bringing your business to south Africa.and I will be the first customer or I can even work for you.hope u find this well.

Well, thank you Martin! I hope so too, and you'll be the first person I'll look up when I do return to Africa, my prosperous business in tow.

And here, my pet peeve, people who want to contribute to my blog:

Dear blogger,
I sent you a proposal of collaboration a few days ago, I have no received response from you yet, so I think you have not received the previous mail, that’s why I am contacting you again:
My name is Tatiana Amin and I work for an online marketing company in Spain called SMARTUP, nice to meet you 
I am writing you on behalf of a client who would like to appear in your blog by means of an advertorial. Your task would be to write and publish a post in exchange for an economic reward.
If you are interested, please write me back and I will tell you more about the project.
Best regards,
Tatiana A.
Don't hold your breath, Tatiana, I' not going to respond. You lost me at "Your task would be..." No thank you, I have enough tasks on my plate. At least she's offering an "economic reward," whatever that may be. I can't tell you how many would-be writers offer me free content for my blog, as if I'm sitting around twiddling my thumbs going "Dang, I got this great blog, if only I could think of something to write on it... Oh, goody, here is somebody willing to write something for me! Whew! What would I do without these people?"

I should also add that such offers of "great content" are typically written in really bad English.

Others turn to me for their last-minute homework assignments:

I am in urgent need for input for my Master Thesis research.  I am writing it about successful travel blogs and I tried to focus on german and arabic travel bloggers but I am not getting the response I had hoped for, so I am extending the scope now (very last minute!!) to include all travel bloggers.
If you could just spare 30 mins of your time to answer this questionnaire {link} for me, I will be very very grateful.
Thank you very much in advance, I appreciate it!

Sorry, dude, about your Master Thesis, but honestly: I have enough procrastinators JUST like you in my very own house (read: teenagers). And you have the gall to tell me I'm actually not even your first choice?

I must say, I did help a boy with a similar request the other day, just because he was the same age as my son and asked very nicely. I thought that there must be a mother behind him somewhere who'll be thankful for my cooperation. He was writing about life in South Africa and needed quotes for an interview, which I helpfully supplied. Of course I never heard back, not so much as a thank you. That makes me want to strangle the mother for not teaching better manners.

My blog post about volunteering in Johannesburg also spawns quite a few inquiries from people wanting - or perhaps more accurately "needing" - to volunteer, and can I please fix them up with an outfit:

Hi, I'd like to know if you can contact me on my email or my cell phone number - 076 323 2199. Myself and three other friends age from 16-18 are involved in the presidents award. We want to get involved in volenteering work as soon as possible. So would you please contact me with more detilas on how we go about it and when can we start. Thanks

Ah, the President's Award! (I took the liberty of improving your spelling.) What world-moving work you're about to do! Of course, I'd love to jump in and help you volunteer (there, I did it again) - your, whom I don't know from Adam - to receive this prestigious award! I'm going to list your phone number on my blog so hopefully many other people can call you too and help you on your very important quest! I'm so excited I can't stop with the exclamation points!

Seriously, what irks me abut these requests in particular:

a) my blog post is very clear on what volunteer projects I recommend, why one might like to do them, and WHO TO CONTACT if interested. To then send me a note requesting more details is so strange - didn't I just give you all the details you need, with links to the appropriate websites?

b) volunteering, by definition, means giving your time to a cause. To then turn around and ask someone else to use THEIR time to come up with the perfect package so that you might not have to work too hard yourself flies in the face of any notion of what charitable work should accomplish.

I hope this excursion into the strange workings of some people's minds has been entertaining to you. If you're a fellow blogger, you're probably nodding your head so hard that you're starting to get dizzy.

If you're NOT a blogger but rather a reader who might feel compelled to ask me a question, don't be discouraged by my tirade. I won't rip your head off.

I'm quite tame if you don't ask me lazy questions.
That is, not if you take the few steps I ask you to take before you pen that tempting request to me:

a) Read my blog. And by that I mean not just the latest post. I've put quite a bit of time and effort into designing a menu across the top that features the most popular topics, and there is also a "Browse Joburg Expat" box in the right sidebar. I can spot a lazy reader from a mile away, so if you ask me "My new job will be in Rosebank, where should we look for a school" then I know you haven't done your part yet. If you had, you'd have seen my awesome color-coded map in Private Schools in Johannesburg and figured it out on your own.

b) Use the comments section. It's much quicker for me to answer a comment than draft an email, so I'm more likely to do it. It also shows me that you've already read up on the topic at hand and have an additional question. If there are already comments under a post, you're more likely to get advice from one of the other readers too.

c) Like my Facebook page. I discuss a lot of expat topics with other like-minded people on my Facebook page, and more often than not someone there can answer your question better than I can.

Okay, end of rant. Now ask away:-)
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