Joburg Expat: 19 Things to Put on Your Shopping List for South Africa

November 23, 2015

19 Things to Put on Your Shopping List for South Africa

So you've gotten the job offer in South Africa. You've gotten scared by and then gotten over the crime statistics. You've researched schools and neighborhoods. Your visa is in the works, and you've scheduled to have your household goods packed and shipped. The container arrives a month from now.

One month, you say? Then it's high time you went (online) shopping! (Bearing in mind that I've timed this blog post with Black Friday coming up this week, you need to definitely get online ASAP and click that mouse like there is no tomorrow).

You might now argue that South Africa is a civilized country. They have perfectly fine stores there, and they probably carry most everything you typically shop for in your everyday life.

And while yes, that is generally true - and I'm the first one to promote buying local and adapting your shopping list - I will also tell you that there are some things that you will want to stock up on or invest in while you have Amazon at your fingertips. Moving is stressful enough, and it's nice to be surrounded by the comforts of home those first few months without stressing out about where to find stuff.

To make it easier, I've put together a shopping list for you, based on my own experience as well as input from my readers. All items are either picked because I've used them before or based on favorable reviews.

Top Nineteen items for your South Africa shopping basket:

  1. Ziploc bags. They are just not quite the same over there. While you're at it, throw in some saran wrap (the kind with the super-cool glider) and Reynolds wrap. You will save yourself a lot of cursing over the local substitute ripping in all the wrong places, or not at all.
  2. Sneakers/tennis shoes for the whole family. Shoes are expensive in South Africa, so you'll want to buy these ahead. Think how much fun this will be. If you have kids, consider buying extra pairs a size up, and also think about specialty athletic footwear like soccer cleats.
  3. Travel plug adapters. You'll need a good number of these, because power outlets in South Africa will not only not fit your appliances brought from abroad, they will also not fit the appliances you buy in South Africa. I'd get at least 10, if not 20 of these universal outlet adapters which served us well during our Joburg Expat years. You'll want enough to have a few for each room.
  4. A step-down/step-up transformer. That's what you'll need for those appliances I just mentioned that you are bringing from home (if that home is the U.S. or Japan - if you're coming from Europe or most parts of Asia you are in luck, your appliances already run on 220V).
  5. Starbucks coffee beans. I know I know, there are some wonderful coffee shops in Johannesburg and beyond, but these will go a long way for you. Just think of what a great gift the occasional bag of Starbucks beans will make for when you're invited over to another expat's house and want to impress them with something special. If you're really feeling in a shopping mood, get yourself a DeLonghi espresso and cappuccino maker. Which will work nicely with the step-down transformer you just purchased!
  6. Motrin, Advil, or other Ibuprofen. I know they have Ibuprofen in South Africa, but I always struggled with finding it, especially getting it in the same kind of discounted volume packs as you can buy in the U.S.
  7. Mexican chili powder. South Africans, when asked about chili powder, will tell you all day long that yes, it's available everywhere. But just bear in mind that South Africans don't know much about Mexican food. Chili powder is not chili powder! It's going to be hard enough not going out for Mexican food while living in South Africa due to a serious lack of Mexican restaurants, so do yourself a favor and at least bring the right spices so you can cook it yourself!
  8. A Kindle. A country with the trifecta of a) books being unusually expensive, b) the library system being seriously lacking, and c) your spending inordinate amounts of time in various queues lining up for utility or government services where you'll be well advised to carry a reading device with you at all times - such a country creates the perfect storm for a Kindle. Trust me on this one. Don't leave home without it, and if you don't have one, order one. Order one for each child. Order one for each member of your household!
  9. Real books. All my praise for the Kindle notwithstanding, there is something to be said about real books, in the flesh. Do yourself a favor and stock up on some of the best. They will come in handy for reading in a lounge chair by the pool while Eskom is load-shedding and your internet is down.
  10. Pepperoni. Okay, a bit dodgy to wedge a few pack of pepperoni between your underwear, but my kids lamented the fact that you could not find a pepperoni pizza in all of South Africa. Domino's Pizza has since arrived, but pepperoni still isn't sold there in supermarkets should you want to make your own pizza. Salami yes, and good variety too, but pepperoni no. 
  11. Battery-operated alarm clocks. If you're an American, one of your first errands will be buying an alarm clock, because none of your old ones will work due to the difference in voltage (even if you bought the above transformer, you won't have one of those for every room). Instead of buying an electronic alarm to plug into an outlet, given the more frequent power interruptions you might face in South Africa, buy small battery-run alarms for the entire family. 
  12. Plastic clothes hangers.  I remember from my early SA days that I struggled finding these. I eventually bought them off a street vendor, which started a long tradition of buying hard-to-find things off street vendors, but if I were you I'd buy them cheaply in the U.S. or wherever you live and pack them in your container.
  13. Viva paper towels. You have no idea how bad paper towels are in South Africa. You might as well use toilet paper to wipe your counter. If you've ever used Viva before, there is no turning back. 
  14. Skittles. As per my friend Karen, a Skittles addict, the Skittles landscape in South Africa is barren indeed. While you're at it, might as well also load up on jelly beans
  15. Picture-hanging strips. Have I ever told you about the Insurmountable Picture Hanging Project involving South Africa's concrete walls? Power tools here we come! Much easier to use the powerful 3M stuff you can get at Amazon.
  16. Barbara's Bakery Shredded Oats Cereal. While this may sound weird to you (it does to me), my friend Heather swears by this as a must-have staple to import from the U.S. It's ironic, because the thing I miss most IN the U.S. is Woolworth's Luxury Muesli Cereal, but to each their own. I thought I should mention the shredded oats here on Heather's behalf. If not Shredded Oats, perhaps you have another favorite cereal you might order in bulk from Amazon to pack into your container.
  17. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Again, I can't say I missed this in South Africa, but one of my readers, Lauren, is quite sure that this was the staple she most ardently missed while in South Africa. If you're a Kraft Dinner fan too, then what are you waiting for? Put it in your shopping basket now. Your kids will be thankful.
  18. Swiffer duster refills. Reader Lisa swears that these are must-haves. Funny story: I arrived in South Africa with a Costco's supply of Swiffer wet refills in our container. Having a live-in maid there, I never really used any of them. So they moved back to the States with us 3 years later. And you know what? They were still wet. After three years in one of the driest climates on Earth. Talk about good packaging!
  19. O.B. Tampons. Male readers: Will you please cover your ears for a second while we discuss Female Stuff ? I spent the first half of our stay in South Africa chasing my favorite tampon brand, O.B. They came in the tiniest packs, if at all, so I always stocked up on them at home. Until one day I was completely out and had to make do with the local brand, Lil-Lets, and guess what? They were pretty awesome.

Haven't had enough yet? Check out 11 More Things to Put on your Shopping List for South Africa. The best of luck for your big move, and don't worry if you didn't get to buy any of these supplies. You just might survive even without them!