Joburg Expat: How Can I Get a Job as an Expat in South Africa?

December 3, 2014

How Can I Get a Job as an Expat in South Africa?

I always get a lot of questions from future expats, i.e. the people sitting in England and Bulgaria and Ghana and China and the Ukraine with a moving date to Johannesburg lined up in 5 months. Or the ones where the company has just broached the possibility of a South African assignment, leaving them in a panic about all the crime there. These people always have tons of questions and I love that they all come to me with them. That's what I started my blog for in the first place.

Most find all their questions answered after carefully reading my blog for a few days. Of course, there are always those lazy ones who shoot me an email with the first question that pops into their heads, not bothering to even search for the topic on my blog where most likely there is a perfectly fine article I've written on that very subject. Needless to say, I don't usually have time to answer those.

But the one glaring hole a diligent researcher will find on my blog is how to find a job. (Still, please don't send me an email, as happens more than you think, with "I need a job, please give me one" - I won't answer those either.)

The reason I haven't written about how to find a job is that I haven't done it. My job was to just get us there, battle with Eskom and Vodacom and the City of Joburg for a few years, and be a travel agent for a family of six. More than full-time employment, let me tell you. But not paid very well.

When just a few days ago I was asked once again how to find a job, I realized that while I can't speak from first-hand experience, I do have some thoughts on the topic worth sharing. Here they are:

  1. South Africa is among the countries with very high unemployment, but skilled workers are scarce and therefore sought after. Finding work as a foreigner is possible, especially in the right professions, but it isn't easy.
  2. South Africa, since 1994, has had an affirmative action policy in place trying to address the glaring inequality. It is called BEE for Black Economic Empowerment and has the goal to give previously disadvantaged groups of South Africans (like Blacks, Coloureds, Indians, and Chinese who arrived before 1994) economic privileges. It is a complicated system awarding companies points in a number of ways, but the gist of it is that it makes finding employment hard for anyone not belonging to these groups. Small businesses are exempted, but they might face pressure from their larger business clients who are intent on improving their own scoring by subcontracting to BEE compliant companies, so in the end it applies across the board. I don't mean to judge this system - others have done that - but wanted to offer a little background on which difficulties expats face when finding a job, beyond the normal difficulties you typicall find as a foreigner in any country. Technically, you are subject to visa regulations that affect everyone coming to South Africa equally without regard to race, but our experience has been that this is not always the case. 
  3. Work visa: In order to work in South Africa you will need a work permit (now also called work visa). I've written extensively about all the various types of residence permits including work permits in Applying for a Visa for South Africa, so check that out first. What makes obtaining a work permit difficult is this requirement: "Work permits are issued only to foreigners where South African citizens with the relevant skills are not available for appointment."  Knowing South African bureaucracy (ha!), this is highly dependent on the person that actually gets to approve your case, and how many humiliating trips you've made to their office. My guess is, if the company you are wanting to work for is interested enough in you, they will help you get it done. But since I didn't know anything about this process, I recently asked someone who's done it, and this is their take: The best way to get a work permit is to find a company who is willing to hire you and sponsor you for a permit, just like I said. The rules are always changing, but in general it's not that difficult. What you do is create a job description that suits you perfectly and that no one else can fulfill. Say you speak Mongolian and Finnish, and are skilled in building yurts out of reindeer hide, and let's say you seek employment with a manufacturer of outdoor goods. What you do is have your employer advertise a job for someone who speaks Mongolian and Finnish to communicate with the suppliers of reindeer pelts in their country of origin (if, indeed, there are such suppliers - you can't totally make it up) and is able to supervise the manufacturing process locally. You collect the resumes that come in after a day of advertising and document why you are more qualified than any of them, which shouldn't be too hard, considering there probably aren't any South Africans who speak Finnish and Mongolian (there probably aren't any people who do, but bear with me and my example). This should get you approved with Home Affairs, and all that remains is collecting all the paperwork such as police reports, health certificates, and so forth. All in all this could be done in 2-3 months.
  4. Critical skills: If you have a skill critical to the Republic of South Africa, you can apply for a critical skills visa. Meaning they'll give you the work visa regardless of whether you have a job offer, because they need you and have trouble finding people doing that job. It's actually a very extensive list. If you have a skill ranging from sheep shearer, millwright, and architect all the way to doctor and geophysicist, if you work in cosmology and dark energy or cosmic magnetism, or if you're an engineer of pretty much any stripe or flavor, you qualify. Also, speaking a foreign language more or less automatically puts you on that list, so many expats will have one leg up in this regard. 
  5. Don't work in South Africa without a valid visa or permanent residence status. Doing so may result in your being placed on the undesirable persons list, which means you can be denied entry in the future. One exception: teachers at international schools are apparently allowed to work on visitor visas. But I'd still make sure this is the case before you begin any employment.
  6. Finding a job in South Africa, if you're not being transferred there, will entail hard work, just like anywhere else. You'll have to research companies, send resumes, call, cajole, beg, and generally be a total pain in someone's ass, if you want to get ahead. But my take on it is this: Expats are expensive, and more and more global companies are moving away from expat employment towards local contracts. If you are already a local and a company won't have to pay for your relocation and your kids' schooling, you are much more attractive to them than someone in the home country. So in my mind your best bet is to start with multinational companies with headquarters in your home country and offices in South Africa (of course your spouse's company being the first option), like banks and insurance etc. It's hard to find people with good skills in South Africa, since education is still so far behind, and a lot of companies want people with special skills or even general office skills, which you likely possess. It's just a matter of them wanting you badly enough that they jump through the visa hoops for you.
  7. One option is to check with the embassy of your home country. They often have jobs available that go to their own citizens. I'm not sure if you'd still need a South African work visa to work there but it can't be quite so difficult to obtain one, given that you're not taking a potential job from a local. If your embassy doesn't have job openings, it might still be able to provide information for your job search or be of assistance in some way.
  8. Another avenue for job opportunities are aid organizations like USAID or the Clinton Global Initiative. You might find an outright job with one of them, or if you're a photographer or writer, they might give out occasional freelance assignments. There are a ton of aid organizations based in South Africa (and again, your embassy might have a list of your particular country's efforts in this regard).
  9. Volunteering is always an option, either at one of those aid organizations or the many other charitable institutions, orphanages, schools, sports for the underprivileged - the list is endless. Of course this may not be what you're looking for since you're probably interested in making money, but while you're searching for a job and/or waiting for a visa, this may be a good way to stay occupied and connect with people. Read Volunteer Opportunities in  South Africa for more info. 
  10. If all else fails, retiring in South Africa is also an option. Of course it won't be cheap, but neither is it cheap anywhere in the world, so you might as well consider South Africa when that time comes. It's got some great things going for it - great weather, affordable domestic help, reasonable cost of living - and obtaining a retired persons' permit/visa is doable. The reason I list it here in this blog post about jobs is that if you apply for permanent resident status on the basis of a retired persons' permit, you are allowed to work.
That's all I have, please share your own experiences!