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

April 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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


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

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

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

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

2. Make Friends with the Locals


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

3. Listen to Expats and Locals


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

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

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


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

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

4. Don’t Listen to Expats and Locals.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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