May 28, 2011

The South African Food Shop in the USA

Imagine this! I was just conducting some more research to write about grocery shopping for expats in South Africa, and what should I find but the opposite, so to speak - a South African Food Shop in the US? Featuring Boerewors, Biltong, rusks, Peri Peri sauce, Rooibos tea... even Mrs. Ball's Chutney!

The South African Food Shop

And what's more, it's located in Matthews, NC - practically home! But for those of you not near Matthews, never fear, you can order from then online. To all  my American friends, you should really try this. It's worth it just for the South African wines, which are excellent. I don't know that I'll ever want to go back to any other Chardonnay (unfortunately, the wines can only be shipped within North Carolina, at least according to their website).


May 27, 2011

From the Slums of Alexandra to the Corporate Glitz of Sandton

I would love to tell a rags-to-riches story here, but sadly it is not quite that. It's just that I recently spent a day trying to solicit much-needed corporate sponsors for our Alexandra baseball team. I started out on a street corner in Alex where I picked up Tedius and Cedric, the two coaches/managers/owners - whatever you may call them - who I've been working with, and I ended up in the lobby of SAB (South African Breweries, who not only have the South African beer market pretty much cornered but also own ABI, one of the largest Coca-Cola distributors in the Southern hemisphere). See the contrast for yourself:

Makeshift sports field in Alexandra

SAB lobby in Sandton, just minutes from Alexandra
You just wonder: How many of those huts above could you build for the cost of that one wooden piece of art I was staring at in the SAB lobby?

Such was the contrast between rags and riches, all in the space of one morning. Only we didn't actually secure any riches. Instead, we dropped off proposals with secretaries who promised they'd show them to their bosses. I'm a bit dubious if this will lead to anything and didn't quite like the inefficiency of it, but Tedius and Cedric insisted a personal appearance was preferable and I can't claim that I've made any more progress via phone and email. At first I didn't actually see the need for me to tag along, but this soon became apparent. When you come from Alexandra and have no appointment, no one wants to talk to you. My purpose was to lend some white-skinned and eloquent respectability to the team. Though I'm not sure that I made much of an impression, I might have gotten us past the doorman.

What I learned is that things move slow in Africa, but even slooooooower when you're asking anybody for money. The task is daunting: Large corporations like SAB have tons of money they already spend on outreach and community development (Tedius tells me they're South Africa's largest taxpayer and I don't doubt it) so you'd think they'd be quite willing to spend some of it on us, but they're already very entrenched with their existing programs and not all that interested in starting something new. Small companies, on the other hand, don't have that kind of money in the first place and therefore are even  harder to convince. What you need is good connections, and as a newbie here in South Africa I'm a bit short on those.

I read the other day that some U.S. billionaire bough a ragtag soccer club in England which is now flush in money and the envy of their league. So, if you have any extra cash for this type of thing or know anyone who does, we've got a baseball club here for sale! Tedius and Cedric have worked out a detailed proposal with different levels of sponsorship and what kind of advertising that buys you. I can guarantee you that they're open to negotiations for your very own customized package, and I a can also guarantee you that you don't even have to be a billionaire. We are one very affordable baseball club!

Alexandra Baseball Team

Seriously, let me just explain again why we're looking for sponsors. When a kid in a "normal" middle-class place becomes a member of a sports club, his membership comes with a lot of basics that we've all learned to take for granted. His parents buy him whatever equipment is needed, he gets the use of a more or less nice field, a dedicated coach, and unlimited transport. He also shows up at a game well-fed. Oh, and the league he plays in has probably already been set up and running for years. In Alexandra, the whole baseball project hinges on a handful of dedicated guys who work odd jobs to have a bit spare cash which they then funnel back to their kids to keep the team going from week to week. They try to get their hands on used equipment (even with enough money not an easy thing here in South Africa where no sports store carries baseball stuff) so that they can entice new kids into their club. They spend their spare time rounding up kids who will walk many kilometers (you don't see many overweight people in Alexandra!) just to attend practice. What cash they've scraped together by pooling their own funds with what a few parents are able to contribute usually goes into transport for their weekend games. You see, no one owns a car, and the only mode of transport is to pile into a minibus taxi, way over the legal passenger limit, and hope that this particular one won't be one of the many involved in an accident that day. If they had their own field with a backstop, maybe at least some games could be played at home, cutting down on this transport expense, if in fact the other clubs could be enticed to brave a visit to Alexandra. On top of all that, Tedius and Cedric and some others have the vision of growing baseball so that it is played in the local schools, which means an entirely new league has to be created and administered.

Field at Alexandra Sports Grounds without backstop, infield, or pitcher's mound

Nevertheless, Alexandra Baseball has survived and thrived for three years and, as someone here recently put it, will continue to do so "by the grace of God." Thank you to all of you who've donated to our cause.  The shipment of equipment is sailing to Durban as I'm writing this, and we got an unexpected gift of baseball pants, which I'll be writing about next.

And by the way, my friends in Alexandra will probably be offended that I called it a "slum." So let me just say here that there is plenty to love about Alexandra. There is a lot of poverty but also a lot of cheerfulness. There is also a sense of community you won't find in our spread-out suburban estates. The streets are full of life, you have to veer around the occasional goat, and the hustle and bustle on every given day is mind-boggling. I'm very glad I've discovered it.

Previous Alexandra Posts:

Baseball in the Heart of a Vibrant Township
Getting Closer on Alexandra Boys' Dream
An Update on the Alexandra Baseball Project

May 25, 2011

Cape Town with Kids: Day Two

The breakfast spread at the Westin (there is even sushi! I told you we are a family of snobs) is just as exciting the second day. Noisette and I opt to just plow ahead with our own plan for a change, instead of opening the floor to debate. He wants to stand on the Cape of Good Hope, like I already did on my last trip, and we have a feeling that prospect won't be so appealing to the kids. But we have at least one trump up our sleeves, in that our drive around the Cape Peninsula will take us past the penguins at The Boulders.

Our gut feeling was right: The kids are not very much on board with our plan. We have barely left the hotel when the first whiny "how much longer" issues from the backseat. Things don't get better when we decide to stop in Kalk Bay, a picturesque fishing village on the Eastern coast of the Cape Peninsula. We drift into the same antique store my sister in law bought me the coffee mill last time, and true to form Zax and Impatience immediately want to know when we're leaving again and why we're here in the first place, while Jabulani and Sunshine are intently studying antique tools, books, and dolls as if that is precisely what they were longing to do all day. You wonder why I assigned those names!

At the harbor, where admittedly the smell isn't overly pleasant, Impatience pointedly holds her nose the entire time. I'm actually with her on this one, because it is extremely windy. I HATE wind. There is nothing good about it. It's cold, it's noisy, and it messes up your hair. So I'm not unhappy when Noisette has finally soaked up enough harbor and boat vistas so that we can get on the road again.

Kalk Bay
It isn't very far to The Boulders, where a colony of African penguins resides. Most people don't  know that there even are penguins in Africa. It certainly sounds like an oxymoron. Although, if you feel the temperature of the Atlantic in Cape Town, you are not going to be surprised that Penguins are at home there. We walk around and take plenty of penguin pictures, but this time it is Noisette who isn't eager to linger. It's like watching monkeys at the zoo. Drives him crazy. Surprisingly, the kids also aren't taken as much by the penguins as I thought, so after some more posing we move on.

This is how close we got to the penguins


Would you mind getting out of the way so I can pass?

Speaking of monkeys, we see those a short way down the road. Where else but in Africa can you see penguins and monkeys in their natural habitats just minutes apart? These are baboons, who never cease to amaze me, but I don't get a good picture of the cute baby because Noisette, annoyed at the slow traffic they cause, overtakes some cars and we speed off.

Finally we arrive at the Cape, and just as last time, it is spectacular. Perhaps even more so because it is still extremely windy and images of olden-day seafarers and their struggles to navigate these treacherous waters aren't hard to conjure. We take the obligatory picture behind the Cape of Good Hope sign. Noisette can't get over the fact that this isn't, in fact, the Southern-most point of the continent, and why would they put the sign here instead of at Cape Agulhas, 170 km to the East, which holds those honors instead?

See how windy it was?

Then we go climbing on the rocks for a wealth of more spectacular views. Cape Town is definitely a paradise for landscape photography. And something about those rocks inspires our kids to pose for the camera.

We couldn't find Jabulani and got a bit panicky; this is how we finally found him

Once again I cannot wait to get out of the wind, spectacular views notwithstanding. Which is why I stay in the car to take pictures of some wind- and kite surfing action on a beach nearby, while Jabulani and Noisette take a walk. Okay, I lied earlier. There is something wind is good for, after all. But only in Hawaii, which in my opinion has the best windsurfing in the world. I do want to try out kite surfing, but somewhere warmer than here!

I am pretty amazed the kids aren't any whinier by now, considering we've stopped about a million times and it is well into the afternoon, all memories of breakfast long faded. I fervently hope there will be a nice restaurant at Cape Point where we're headed next. And yes, we are not disappointed. After some more climbing and posing and shivering in the now howling wind, we manage to prevent Noisette from taking the 1.5 hour trail around Cape Point and head for Two Oceans Restaurant instead. Hallelujah! It is wind-sheltered, with the only drawback that the one sunny spot at our table is directly underneath the overhanging roof, where it is obvious from tell-tale spots on the floor that birds like to sit and poop. But I'm so cold and craving sunshine that I volunteer for the poop-danger-spot.

Cape Point

After we've all had our fill, it is a long drive back to Cape Town. Since there is a little bit of the day left and lunch, even though very late, already a few hours past, we head for Kloof Road to have desserts at Cafe Paradiso, another gem in our Cape Town restaurants collection. The sun is just setting, there is a cozy fire going next to our table, and we even get blankets. The chocolate fondant is as delicious as promised. So delicious that a frenzied fight breaks out over everybody's plates. We linger a bit more as the sun goes down and agree that it is another perfect ending to an almost-perfect day.

Previously: Cape Town with Kids: Day One
Next: Our Trip to Robben Island

May 23, 2011

Cape Town with Kids: Day One

What a relief to arrive in Cape Town coming from Mozambique. It feels a bit like the time when Noisette and I came back to West Berlin from East Berlin in the 1980s and almost felt like kissing the ground. Okay, I'm exaggerating just a wee bit, but nonetheless I make a wow to be much more patient with South African inefficiencies in the future. They are nothing compared to those of Mozambique.

The kids sense the difference as well. They each receive a goodie bag when we check into our rooms at the Westin without delay, the sheets are crisp and fresh, the view of  the Waterfront is stunning, there is plenty of shampoo and no smell whatsoever. Our only complaint is that the picture we saw on the webpage looked as if the Westin was right on the water's edge at the V&A Waterfront, and that is not the case. It's about a ten minute walk. But everything else about this hotel is perfect. We take long showers (without flooding anything), spend a serene night after an entire day of flying and waiting around in airports, and then dig in at the most awesome breakfast buffet we've seen in a long time. Your tea arrives before you even sit down, dirty plates vanish miraculously, the croissant basket keeps getting replenished, and about 3 waiters hover a short distance away, ready to anticipate our slightest desire. We all agree it is good we are here after Pemba Beach Hotel and not the other way around, or the disappointment would be huge. Yes, you've guessed it, we're a family of snobs!

View from Westin Hotel in Cape Town

Green Point Stadium

The V&A Waterfront in all its night time glory

Sunset over the foothills of Table Mountain

The one drawback about going to Cape Town with a family of six is that there will be six different opinions as to what should be done next, resulting in a lot of arguing. Our family seems to be especially skilled in that department. I read in Outliers (great book by the way, everyone should read it) that kids from middle class and educated families have a huge advantage over underprivileged kids in that they grow up with a sense of entitlement. Not so much for material things, but a right to be taken for full and to be heard and listened to, giving them a huge edge in terms of future success.They hone this skill by - yes, you guessed it - arguing on their own behalf throughout their childhood. If that is true, then our four kids will all be very successful one day.

So, after a lot of arguing over breakfast, it is determined that we should go up Table Mountain, notwithstanding the fact that we can't see it under its thick layer of clouds or its "Tafeltuch." But, as so often in Cape Town, things change completely by the time we've taken the cable car up to the top and the sun is coming through. I have to endure a lot of ribbing concerning my fluffy down coat, but I was so cold the last time around, I don't care. The views are stunning. We take lots and lots of pictures. Of clouds, of dassies, of Cape Town through the clouds, and of every conceivable pose on the rocks.

Great fun for kids: The rotating gondola on Table Mountain

The views are stunning

Jabulani's "Christo" pose

Lion's Head

After a few minutes, Impatience is, well, impatient. To get to the gift shop. We tell her that if she never mentions the gift shop again, it will be her reward in a little while. This is very hard for her, but she succeeds. It makes me think back to my childhood. If my brothers are reading this, they will attest to the fact that I was an absolute pest during our summer vacations, whining from gift shop to gift shop. My recollection is that I whined because I never got anything, but the truth is probably that as soon as I got one thing, I'd start whining for the next. So I'm a little bit more forgiving when Impatience does exactly that, though it is very tough as a parent. We haven't even made it down the mountain again, after shopping for bookmarks and earrings at the Table Mountain gift shop, when an increasingly whiny debate ensues that we must, absolutely must, go to the aquarium as our next stop. Noisette and I aren't keen on that, of all things, as we've seen many aquariums around the world, and they are not all that different from each other. But our suggestion that the kids go on their own while he and I stroll through shops and have coffee on the waterfront only results in more debate ("after all, we HAD to go to Table Mountain with you, so you HAVE to go to the aquarium with us." The fact that all four kids have voted for Table Mountain as our first activity this very morning at breakfast is completely forgotten. I swear to you, that is how it goes in our family).

We delay a final decision and head to the V&A Waterfront (where the Two Oceans Aquarium is located) to look around. But our Garmin bails us out by insisting (it did the exact same thing to me on my last trip to Cape Town) that we turn left at the traffic circle instead of right, which makes us end up in Camp's Bay. Noisette and I find that it looks really nice, reminding us of La Jolla, and so we park the car and wander up the beach and back down the promenade. True to character, Sunshine and Jabulani take off their shoes and go play in the (freezing cold) waters of the Atlantic, while Impatience and Zax give us an earful as to their suffering on this horrible and boring beach. We are almost convinced that we are practically torturing them. For Impatience, all memory of the gift shop and the earrings seems to be wiped out. I have her repeat "I shall be grateful for the earrings I got at the gift shop" for the next 5 minutes to buy myself some peace and an opportunity to consult with Noisette about lunch plans, since the other truth in our family is that the best answer to whining is food. We settle for a nice late lunch at Zenzero on the Promenade in Camp's Bay, where the kids are somewhat mollified with Virgin Daiquiris and Spaghetti Bolognaise.

That's how cold the Atlantic is in Camp's Bay
More spectacular views along Chapman's Peak Drive

There isn't that much of the day left, so from Camp's Bay we continue down the coast a bit and drive along Chapman's Peak Drive, a winding and very scenic road on top of the cliffs to the South of Cape Town. The views are spectacular, but we expect a bit of a longer drive for all the hype we've heard about it. It seems to be just a few curves before we're done and heading back towards the city. There are more winding roads and we feel as if we're racing against time, because we have decided to watch the sunset from Signal Hill. But we make it there just in time and are rewarded with a spectacular ending of our day.

More posing on Signal Hill

A beautiful Cape Town sunset as seen from Signal Hill

All in all a great day in Cape Town with our family. All the driving and picture taking can be a bit tiring for kids, but there was enough for everybody to keep it fun. Table Mountain got everyone's vote for biggest hit of the day.

Stay tuned for Cape Town with Kids: Day Two and Cape Town with Kids: Robben Island.

May 21, 2011

Expat Joys - The Neighborhood Shopping Center

Valley Shopping Centre in Dainfern, Johannesburg
Shopping doesn't typically come to mind as a particular joy, if you ask the average expat. On the contrary, having to find your new go-to places, hunting for certain foods your host country doesn't seem to manufacture, and in general spending way too  much time on errands you had down pat in your previous life - all these are the more stressful parts of becoming an expat. Plus, I admit, I am not a shopping aficionado in any way, shape, or form. That is why until now you haven't yet seen a post on shopping on this blog.

But once you've gotten to know your new home you will discover shopping joys previously unknown to you. For me, that joy is the presence of little neighborhood shopping centers (I am torn whether to spell it "center" or "centre" as my audience seems to be divided just about evenly between South Africa/UK English readers versus American ones) all over Johannesburg. Just about every neighborhood comes with its own shopping center. They're typically not very big yet include all the necessities from grocery store to cafe, dry cleaning, pet store, hairdresser, post office, gym, video rental, and restaurant.

I've come to love our own Valley Shopping Centre, right at the confluence of Dainfern College and a number of different neighborhoods. It's so close that people go shopping there with their golf carts. At the beginning it was a life saver for me, when buying a car took a little longer than anticipated and I could walk up there and buy food, toting my bags like my grandma did in the olden days in Germany. There is something special about buying food on foot that I can't quite explain. Makes you feel more alive and less rushed - of course, because it's impossible to rush with two heavy bags on either side!

Having to get your mail at a PO Box admittedly can't be called an actual joy, but at
 least they are conveniently located in almost every neighborhood shopping center

After moving here, I had the ambition of replicating my U.S.-based lifestyle and getting back into the same routine as quickly as possible. I had plans of making a Macro (the South African equivalent to Walmart or Sam's Club) run every few weeks to stock up on big bulk items and hit a large grocery store once a week for the rest. But our rather small refrigerator and the fact that South African milk only lasts a few days (probably due to it being spiked with less preservatives) quickly made me reconsider. Also, why subject yourself to Joburg Traffic if you can avoid it? Any savings the big discount stores might offer (as a matter of fact, Macro doesn't even offer them) are easily countered by not having to crawl through traffic for hours to realize them.

In fact, that is one lesson most expats learn (or should learn): embrace the luxuries of expat life, because you will surely miss them later and regret not taking advantage of them more. I vividly remember Richard from our life in Singapore 1998-2000. Richard showed up the very day after we had moved into our townhouse in Holland Grove View. Did we want to order any groceries? He had come with a little delivery truck and an order pad, and we soon learned that this kind of service was very common in Singapore. Suspicious as I was, I only haltingly came to use his services, and only when I couldn't get to Cold Storage that day. In my mind, Richard's service was so convenient that it was bound to be way too expensive, his only marginally higher prices notwithstanding. Instead, I'd wedge Jabulani's infant carrier into the car and thread my way around three stories worth of winding ramp in the supermarket's garage, where tell-tale paint marks on the walls bore witness of prior unsuccessful attempts to get through unscathed, only to find out that the long-promised container shipment of Nutella was still somewhere on the high seas. Richard, on the other hand, always found everything. And delivered it right to our door. Why didn't I outsource all my shopping to Richard? I have no idea.

Here in South Africa I now happily do most of my grocery shopping at Woolworths one minute from our house in the Valley Shopping Centre. (Click here for a review of grocery shopping in Joburg). I meet my friends for coffee at Cafe Frappe, the kids get movies at Chaplin's Video, we get our mail at the PO box there (if indeed we DO get our mail, but that's another story), we have the occasional dinner at Johnny's, and I get my hair styled at Fashion Squared. There is also a gym offering shadow boxing, two ATMs, a spa, a toy store, and even a sushi restaurant (though I have to admit that one looks a bit suspicious).

Fashion Squared

I love being able to get almost everything I need so close to home. It saves me time and money, and the environment gets spared just a tiny bit too.

Entire Expat Joys series:

May 20, 2011

Grocery Shopping in Johannesburg

Woolworths is probably South Africa's most expensive supermarket chain, but also its best, by far. I have never found such good and consistent food quality anywhere in the world. The other (in my opinion inferior) nationwide grocery chains are Spar (where they have the best German-style bread, which admittedly can't be found at Woolie's, and a more international selection), Pick 'n Pay and Checkers (the latter two the cheapest and lowest quality, but good for your cleaning supplies and some packaged foods).

What I miss from the U.S. in terms of one-stop shopping is made up by the existence of many smaller specialty stores. You just have to get used to the idea of having several stops on your grocery route, and perhaps never quite checking everything off your list. Some people swear by the Fruit and Veg store at Fourways, but I have to admit I haven't tried it yet (mainly because fruits and vegetables at Woolworth are of such good quality). Fournos Bakery has excellent breads and pastries and a nice terrace to sip your cappuccino. If you struggle, like me, to find things like muffin liners and chocolate chips, check out Kadies, a bakery supply store in Kingfisher Shopping Centre. There also used to be a good seafood market at Fourways, but unfortunately it has closed.

There are also a number of butcheries and I highly recommend getting your meat at one of those. I always struggle with the names of the various cuts of meats in a new country (for instance, you won't find a chuck roast in your regular supermarket, and a tenderloin is called "fillet," rhyming with "millet"). In those cases, it's best to go to a butcher and explain what you need. Star Butchery next to the Indaba Hotel (very convenient if you're living in Dainfern or Fourways Gardens) doesn't look like much but I've found the meat there very well priced and good. When I had to find large amounts of Bratwurst, Bockwurst and Brezeln last year for our traditional Oktoberfest, I did all my shopping at the Schwaben Butchery in Edenvale. It was a bit out of the way for me but a virtual paradise for any German or Austrian expat, and I snatched every last Laugenbrötchen they had while conversing with the employees in my native Swabian.  Berliner Butchery in Deco Park caters to a similar market and has won numerous awards for its food offerings. It is on my list to check out next.

Making a German Zwetschgenkuchen is always a challenge but I found several jars of
Sauerkirschen at the Schwaben Butchery to make this Kirschkuchen for our Oktoberfest

If you're looking for big U.S.-style discount stores, Makro is your best approximation. It's similar to Sam's Club (and currently in negotiations to be acquired by Wal-Mart), but not anywhere close to the quality found at Costco. I've also found that their prices are not much discounted at all, leaving you with large quantities of food you won't have any room to store. Unless you're on a very tight budget, it's not worth the trip.

If you're an expat newly arrived in South Africa, I recommend finding your closest Woolworths and perhaps Spar and stick to those. You won't be disappointed, and it will be the  most convenient. You might pay slightly higher prices than elsewhere, but in a country with an exchange rate where you have to multiply everything by seven or worse, who can really keep track?

Also see my grocery shopping post on Expat Arrivals.

May 14, 2011

Moving Checklist

(Also see this NEWER blog post regarding a moving checklist).

Moving to South Africa? If you've been an expat before, you might already have a moving checklist. It’s a good thing to keep around, because you tend to forget those things and then you start from scratch the next time. Even if you already have plenty of expat experience, you might find my list useful, as some of the items on it are unique to South Africa.

  • Passports – how much longer are they valid? You’ll be best served if your family’s passports have a few years left on them. Some countries allow you to renew your passport even if it’s not expiring soon, and I think it’s worth doing that even at the extra expense, if only to get your entire family on the same renewal schedule. It’s not a problem renewing them from within South Africa, as all major embassies have offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but once you have a new passport you will have to travel with both the old and the new one, because your visa will be in the old one. Not a big hassle, but if you’re like our family with dual German/American citizenship and a couple of renewed  passports, you might find yourself toting 14 passports with you any time you travel!
  • Visas – Visas are issued by the Department of Home Affairs. They are classified into Temporary Residence Permits (with many different categories whether you’re visiting, studying, working, or retiring) and Permanent Residence Permits. Most expats will enter on a temporary permit, as those are easier to get, and have it transferred to a permanent permit later on. Make sure your company’s legal department (or whoever is in charge of it) will start the visa process very early, as the Department of Home Affairs has been known to move very slowly. And settling in will be much easier if you have that permanent visa stamp in your passport.
  • Passport pictures – have several recent passport pictures available for the whole family, as you will need them for school applications, car registration, etc.
  • Driver’s license – your existing driver’s license will be valid in South Africa as long as it is valid in your home country, so make sure you have a few years left on it. You really don’t need an international license on top of that, though I’ve heard it recommended, so save yourself that errand. It’s only valid for one year anyway, and only together with your home country license, and my experience with police checks thus far (and trust me, I’ve had several!) has shown that it is not asked for. Also see Should I Get an International Driver's License for more detail.
  • Garmin – if you don’t already own a Garmin, buy one, and get the South Africa software for it. It will be well worth it, for your comfort and safety.
  • Doctor’s records – make the rounds with your doctors, dentists, orthodontists, what have you, to collect as much information they will give you, such as x-rays and immunization schedules. Some of them might charge you for it, but it is worth it. For your South African visa application, you will also need a form signed by your doctor that you have no psychological problems, as well as a chest x-ray for any family members over 12 years old (tuberculosis is a big and growing problem in South Africa). So while you see your doctor for that, make sure you collect your records as well.
  • Immunizations – if you’re up to date on your recommended shots, you will need nothing else. If you’re not, make sure you get boosters for MMR, DPT, HepB, and HepA (that last one is not strictly necessary but recommended). South Africa is NOT a Yellow Fever area, and Malaria is only present in a few areas far from the urban centers.
  • Expat Health insurance – this might be set up by your employer, but if not, you will have to research options on your own, either with a provider in your home country offering international plans, or a local one. (Health insurance in South Africa is called Medical Aid; one nice benefit of South African medical aid is that you usually get a discount at fitness studios.)
  • Taxes - find a tax consultant. Again, many companies provide this service as part of an expat contract, but if not, you will need some professional advice. Taxation in South Africa depends on whether you are a resident or non-resident, and I’m not sure what type of double-taxation agreements there are with various other countries. Knowing South African bureaucracy in other areas, it’s bound to be messy!
  • Housing – if you rent, make sure you keep a copy of your rental agreement, as you will need that many times over in the months to come when applying for various services; some expat contracts will only allow you to rent versus buying a house, so this may be your only option. I have no inside knowledge of buying a house in South Africa. The selection of rental homes is large, and most likely you’ll be steered towards a security estate, walled in and guarded around the clock, which has the advantage of you and your kids being able to roam freely without safety concerns.
  • School – some schools (both international and private) have wait lists, so it’s best to get this started early. You will need: Copies of latest reports, copies of the children’s passports including their visas (if they are only temporary you can furnish the permanent ones later). Think about what type of school experience you’d prefer for your kids. South African schools are a good (and more affordable) alternative to international schools. Check out Private Schools in Johannesburg.
  • Bank account - every company handles expat salaries differently, and some expats continue to use their home bank, but here in South Africa I would strongly recommend a local bank account. International credit cards are very fraud-prone and therefore not always accepted here, and most transactions are handled via online banking and Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). I don’t recall whether we needed a permanent visa to open the bank account or if the temporary visa was sufficient, but getting that permanent visa as early as possible will make your life much easier. You will need: Lease agreement or utility bill for proof of residence, passport including visa, draft in Rand for initial balance, and maybe a letter from your home bank listing your bona fides.
  • Insurance – you’ll need to get insurance for your car and your household goods, and it’s a good idea to browse some websites ahead of time to see what kind of price ranges there are. It also helps if you assess your belongings (something you will likely have done for the shipment valuation) so that you know which overall value you should insure your belongings for.
  • Utilities – it is recommended to open an electricity account in your own name with Eskom, rather than taking over your landlord’s account, if you are renting. You won’t know what kind of unpaid charges are on it and might be stuck with previous liabilities or ongoing interest payments. As soon as you are in South Africa, take note of the initial meter reading and pay a visit at the nearest Eskom office, armed – as always – with your passport (it has to be the person with the permanent visa, I suspect) and a copy of your lease agreement to set up your account. Once you have an account, inquire about the billing cycle to find out when they do the monthly meter readings, take note of that date, and call in your own meter readings. It will keep you from encountering many headaches later on (for a good dose of some of those headaches, click here). It’s next to impossible getting a refund from Eskom for anything that’s already paid, and withholding payment is also no option, because then your power will be turned off. In Johannesburg, water and trash service (PikiTup) is provided by the City of Joburg. In some neighborhoods, they also provide the electricity instead of Eskom, so you’ll have to find out how it is set up where you live.
  • Mobile phone – mobile phones are ubiquitous in South Africa and getting one should be your first order of business once you get here. Landlines can take time to install and are not always reliable, plus you need to have a phone so that security can call you to authorize access to the estate for all the contractors who will no doubt come visiting the first few weeks. There are hundreds of contract options which will probably confuse you, so your best bet most likely is to buy a cheap prepaid phone to start with, and research contracts later. Vodacom, MTN, and Cell C are the three main providers and pricing as well as coverage does not vary too much, in my opinion. If you have an existing phone, you just have to get a new SIM card (remember once again to bring your passport and lease agreement to buy one), but it won’t work for certain phones (like iPhones and Blackberries – read Will my iPhone Work in South Africa.
  • Home phone/internet – the phone company is Telkom, but if you’re not going to make any international calls, or if you’re going to use Skype for that, don’t get a landline. Just have Telkom install your internet connection (which can easily take a few weeks). I strongly recommend, however, getting your actual internet package through a third party such as mweb or Afrihost, and not Telkom. Telkom only offers capped internet service, and 9 gigabytes will be used up very quickly, trust me.
  • Buying a car – in order to buy a car in South Africa, you will need a so-called Traffic Register Number, to be obtained from your nearest Licensing Department. Make sure you go there armed with plenty of time, passport pictures, your passport (including permanent visa) and drivers’ license, and your lease agreement as proof of residence.
  • Tracker – most insurance plans will require you to have a tracking service like Altech Netstar for your vehicle. It helps with the recovery of stolen vehicles and includes other benefits, like the installation of a panic button. It’s a good idea to get this even if it’s not required, as the cost of around R160 per month is fairly low.
  • TV/Cable – South African law requires every household to obtain a TV License, to be applied for and renewed annually at the Post Office. If you want cable, visit the closest Multichoice office where you can buy a PVR (your cable box) and, possibly, an extra-view decoder (a second cable box). The monthly service will cost you around R500. It is recommended to get a Multichoice-certified installer for initial setup.

    I hope I've about covered everything here. If anything else comes to mind, please let me know! Also see My Top Expat Tips for more information. If you're in the process of moving to South Africa, I wish you all the best! If you come prepared and get through the initial hassles quickly, it will be a wonderful country you’ll no doubt come to love.


    May 11, 2011

    Giving Hope at New Jerusalem

    "There is a career path and there is a sacred path."

    I cannot get these words out of my mind. They were spoken to me by Anna Mojapelo, founder and director of New Jerusalem Children's Home, when I visited the facilities of her orphanage and adjacent Montessori preschool a few weeks ago. A friend who volunteers there had introduced me to Anna, and I was busy poking my head into the nooks and crannies of the home - as many such places, it has grown by adding on a bit willy-nilly, so there are indeed a lot of nooks and crannies - and taking pictures while chatting with her about what she describes as her life's calling.

    The entrance to New Jerusalem Children's Home

    You see, Anna used to work as a successful lawyer and businesswoman. As is often the case here in South Africa, her success brought with it a certain responsibility. Employees would come with their troubles and ask for help, and one day she found herself with a baby to care for. As word spread about her taking in this child, more of them appeared. She was soon juggling her day job with single-handedly taking care of close to a dozen babies - all of them troubled or sick. I cannot imagine how she managed this, and she herself admits that those were some dark and trying times.

    Most kids were at school during my visit so I was happy to find one to pose for me

    Five of the older girls share their own room

    But somehow she managed to struggle through many long nights, sustained by her unshakable belief, gave up her day job along the way, and decided to dedicate her life to these children and the many more to come. She bought some land and started building, recruited an impressive group of board members and donors, and continued to tend to the kids in her care. In the span of just ten years, she and her sister Phina have built New Jerusalem into what it is today: a sprawling home for almost 100 children with an adjacent Montessori preschool and a host of programs to strengthen the surrounding community. Thanks to partnering with medical providers and receiving anti-retroviral treatment - in a country whose government only fairly recently acknowledged the existence of an Aids epidemic - eighteen of their children who were born HIV positive are now HIV negative (note - this is just based on what Anna told me and not officially confirmed).

    "It's like a miracle," says Anna. "It shows me that I've chosen the right course."

    Anna Mojapelo

    What impressed me most on my visit to New Jerusalem was how neat and clean everything was. I got to peek into classrooms and watch as the Montessori children ate their snack. You could have eaten off the floor, and everything looked so inviting that, if I had preschool aged children, I would have asked for the enrollment papers. Anna tells me that in the early days nobody from the surrounding community wanted anything to do with her home, but this has all changed. New Jerusalem is now seen as a good place, something to be proud of. Children from all around flock to the preschool and space is running out, but Anna already has plans to build a new addition. She never quite stops, brimming with ideas to further integrate and strengthen the surrounding community through outreach programs and expand their international visibility to secure new funding.

    Snack time at Orange Babies Montessori Preschool

    One of the two spacious classrooms

    While it all started with Anna's dedication and hard work, the preschool is now a separate entity and run and funded by Orange Babies, a non-profit organization in the Netherlands. I was shown around by the principal, Marius van Dorp, who impressed me with his commitment to not only provide a loving environment for these kids, but to use the most effective teaching and learning methods to give them the best possible start in life. However, the need for new supplies is still great, and he would not let me leave without a long wish list, which I've added to the bottom of this post. Orange Babies has also been instrumental in reducing the HIV infection rate in the surrounding community by providing much-needed prenatal care and medication. Abandoned and abused children continue to find shelter at New Jerusalem, but the incidence of Aids has been greatly reduced.

    Posing in front of the "I am special" mirror

    Most striking, perhaps, is the image of 10-year old Aurora, the first born child of New Jerusalem. More than anybody, she embodies the hope Anna has been able to inspire in the downtrodden and abandoned.

    "When I grow up I want to be a doctor," says Aurora, "because they have saved my life and I also want to help and save other children." Somehow, I'm sure that she will achieve her dream, because she was given that tiny seed of hope and opportunity ten years ago. And she will in turn work hard at building a better country and giving hope to others.

    One person may not be able to change the world, but Anna Mojapelo has made the world a better place for the children of New Jerusalem. It makes you wonder: Which sacred path is each and every one of us meant to pursue?

    New Jerusalem Contact Details:
    New Jerusalem Website
    Phone: 010 224 0460

    Orange Babies Montessori Pre-School Wish List

    • Stationary (pencils, colored pencils, pens, markers, paint, paint brushes, glue, tape, 0paper, colored paper, scissors, staplers, paper clips, notebooks, plastic filing pockets)
    • Office supplies (printer/copier, wall heaters, laptops for teachers)
    • Sponsors (for school bags, shoes, uniforms, and fees)
    • Entertainment (play dough, children's books ages 2-6, DVDs, birthday gifts, TV and DVD player)
    • Montessori materials (hundred board, touch tablets, weigh box, letter boxes, botanic cabinet, geographic puzzle  maps, bead stairs)
    • Cleaning supplies (Sunlight washing powder, Vanish carpet cleaner, Sunlight liquid dish detergent, Jeyes disinfectant, soap, liquid soap, Jik bleach, Handy Andy, trash bags, Aqua cream, Savlon, wash cloths, toilet paper, paper towels, mops, brooms, kitchen and bath towels)
    • Kitchen supplies (cutlery, plastic forks, spoons, knives, cups, bowls, pots and pans, plates, glasses, small baking oven) 

    Contact Orange Babies at directly if you wish to help or become involved.