Johannesburg, South Africa Report of what it's like to live there - 06/11/22
Personal Experiences from Johannesburg, South Africa
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Second posting; first was Brasilia, Brazil.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Canada. Connections varied over the years, but bank on 2 overnight flights.
3. What years did you live here?
2018 - 2022
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Families can expect a large home in a secure neighbourhood.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are about 75% the cost of back home, but restaurant prices are not much higher than the grocery store, making eating out about half the price of back home.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Crunchy peanut butter, all-purpose flour (flour here is sold according to its purpose e.g., cake), maple syrup, unsweetened / less sweet tomato sauce / paste / pasta sauce.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
A number of chain stores are everywhere and excellent: KFC and McDonalds are popular, as are local Nando's, Steers, and Chicken Licken. Uber Eats delivers everywhere, MrD is also popular. Mid-range restaurant chains are also a popular option: Tasha's, Hussar Grill, Ocean Basket, Pizza e Vino, Rocomama's. Fine dining is very accessible.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
We've had a few problems with silverfish, roaches, and once rats. Spiders suddenly appear indoors every year once the rains start in the summer (they're called 'rain spiders', but I think 'wolf spiders' would describe them better). No overwhelmingly problematic experiences with infestations.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We rely exclusively on the diplomatic mail. We've had friends send us packages from different places in the world by regular post, and all had problems: one never showed up, and one came with an outrageous 'duty' charge that we simply didn't pay. Often takes months via regular post.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Live-in nanny/domestic worker is very common. Houses will often have domestic quarters attached. Expect to pay R4000 - R6000 per month for live-in domestic help. Prices actually go up if not live in, though you're usually also responsible for transport costs and meals, though you can negotiate around those. Once/twice per week services are also common, usually by arrangement among a group of households, or through apps like SweepSouth. Be careful to document carefully any domestic worker arrangement: once workers have an established relationship, they can appeal to a number of rights/courts, which tend to favor the worker.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Clubs are widely available: Virgin Active in particular is everywhere around town, expect to pay about R600 per month. Social clubs and golf clubs also have amazingly beautiful facilities for reasonable annual membership fees.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are widely accepted at shops. Online purchases with my Canada-based credit cards have often been problematic. Local bank accounts are available, and you can get a credit card that way, though retail banking is super expensive (I can't figure out how to pay less than R200 per month just to keep my bank account active).
ATMs are a known target for robberies as you would expect, so get to know a few and learn which ones in your neighbourhood you can trust.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English is spoken everywhere except outside the cities, where any number of the other 11 official languages might be prevalent. I have had many encounters with people who only spoke Afrikaans / Zulu / Xhosa, but still managed to communicate. Classes are available in any of these languages at language centres in the city, especially at Wits.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
My guess would be no. No-one walks anywhere anyway, so if your lifestyle is already adapted to driving, you're good. And most of your activities outside the home and office are in accessible malls - or at least you can find everything you'd need in an accessible mall.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Absolutely not. The only safe transit option is the Gautrain, and even there not all stations are safe (I have never seen Park Station). And it's not cheap, as a ride to the airport is something like R200.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Common cars are VW Polo, though it's also the most stolen, and anything by Toyota (Forerunner, Prado, etc). Toyota makes all the taxis (15-seaters) on the road, so parts are everywhere. Avoid American made: no matter what model it is it'll be seen as a luxury car (even the Opels) and parts and servicing will cost more than the purchase price. I made the mistake of buying a 2012 Jeep Patriot for about $10,000 and so far I've sunk more than that into maintaining it.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Internet is widely available and reliable, as long as the power is on (yes, there are rolling brownouts called load-shedding that interrupt the power supply regularly). Costs between R500 - R1000 per month for good speeds, so likely a bit cheaper than Canada. The installation time is long: first in order to sign the contract you need to have all your Dip ID sorted out, which takes time, then the service provider outsources the installation, and each one has a 30-day service standard, so it can take a few months.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Go with a local provider. Easiest to get a pre-paid/pay as you go plan when you first arrive (also prepaid data that you can use with a mifi while you're waiting or internet), and then once you have all your documentation in order, any of the major carriers offers good plans - Tellkom, Vodacom. Cell C tends to offer great deals. Avoid Rain: coverage is horrible and customer service doesn't exist in my opinion.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
We brought an 8-year-old Golden Retriever with us. Getting her in required help from Mooikloof Kennels, and they were fantastic. There was lots of prior work to do (including a blood test for a disease that only a few labs in the world can test for) - so start early, and plan. Vets here have been excellent but expensive. Likewise pet food, there are really cheap options available, but since we love our pet, we go with healthy options for a premium. Kennels are also widely available and excellent - look for one that is also a stable, they tend to have oodles of space.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Most spouses work at the mission when they can.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
"Gift of the Givers" is one of the best-run volunteer organizations in the world. It has a better reputation than the government, so when things are urgently needed (like a hospital loses access to water - yes, that happened), they spring into action and it's solved within days. They were the primary care provider during a number of crises (riots in 2021, floods in 2022), again trusted before the government. For anyone looking to volunteer, look no further.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
This is a generally conservative and classist society, so there are many occasions where suit and tie will be required.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Where to start? This is the most unequal place on the planet, and society is only barely keeping itself from imploding. Safety concerns are everywhere: at the street corner, as you approach your house, even when you sleep. Expect to live behind high walls and electrified fences, CCTV cameras, burglar bars on windows. But once that's all set up, the place is magical.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Medical care is top notch, some of the best in the world, as long as you're paying for it.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Be careful of the air quality: while it doesn't get the same bad press as India or China, air quality reports aren't looking for the types of things that make Joburg's air some of the worst in the world. Like arsenic in the air, for example, brought up from all those mines that are kilometers deep and now whose tailings get picked up by the breeze.
In winter, it's unbelievably common practice to conduct 'controlled burns' meaning that there are bush fires everywhere and smoke fills the world.
4. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Mental health issues are exceedingly common. Communities here tend to be insular, so it's my understanding all have higher rates of inbreeding than you would expect from larger populations, and congenital diseases are common, including those affecting mental health. On the plus side, mental health issues are widely and openly discussed as a result.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Summers are warm and wet: nighttime lows in the high teens / low 20s, daytime highs in the high 20s / low 30s. There is supposed to be rain almost every day, in dramatic fashion - clouds close in around 2pm, it rains for half an hour (sometimes famously hail the size of basketballs), and then the skies open for 4pm and a dramatic sunset. In recent years, lots of days have simply rained all day.
Winters are generally clear - as in no rain for 4 months - but cold. Nighttime lows are always below 10, and sometimes (like 4 times in 4 years) dip below 0. Daytime highs can touch 20, but don't expect it to be warm - everywhere inside will still be below 10, so you'll need to wear a jacket indoors, or keep the heat on if you're lucky enough to have any.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The American school is very good, but very large (I think around 1600 students?) and also not near either Joburg or Pretoria, but rather sits in between. There are 2 Lycees: the main campus in Bryanston in Joburg is superb and goes to terminale; the campus in Pretoria is likewise fantastic but only goes to 6eme.
2. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Preschools are everywhere and are generally inexpensive. We looked at several options including several Montessoris, but finally sent our toddler to an Opti-Baby near our house for about $6000 a month. Essentially it's day care with a bit of an academic structure. Child care is cheap and generally good.
3. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes. The local culture values athletics, and families start their kids in everything as soon as they can.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The ex-pat community in Joburg isn't that big for likemindeds. Expect to make friends with locals, or within the larger ex-pat communities from Brazil, India and China.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
We joined the Country Club Johannesburg for R20,000 a year for the family to access their golf courses and facilities. Best decision of my life. Never again will I have access to such comfort and community (wine tasting nights, Friday evening bouncy castles, camp-outs) in an entirely safe environment.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Great for families, as soon as you can get past the security concerns. Kids here grow up with access to all kinds of things we wouldn't be able to afford back home. Would also be good for couples, there's lots of romantic stuff to do. I wouldn't want to be single and dating here, there are too many risks! Or maybe I'm just old.
4. Is it easy to make friends with locals here? Are there any prejudices or any ethnic groups who might feel uncomfortable here?
Super easy to make friends with the locals, but that friendship is usually superficial. Social circles are still very dominated by race and community, so if you belong to one of the larger communities here (English, Indian, Jewish, Muslim) then expect to be welcomed - but if not, you may need to push a bit harder to get invited to a braai.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
There is LGBT friendliness at least on the surface, but I've found much more resistance to the concept of gender fluidity than I would have expected.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Gender inequality is massive. GBV is an enormous issue that everyone is talking about but still seems to accept. Race dominates every discussion.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
The weather here is one of the highlights - plenty of sun, golf year round. Access to travel within South Africa is unparalleled. There's the known (game drives to see mythical animals; hundreds of wine farms) but then there's the lesser known (insanely amazing geology in mountain passes and gorges; extreme biodiversity in the proteas and fynbos). We are in love with this place, and we have explored a lot.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Near the city - about 3 hours away - is one of my favourite places to go on a game drive: Pilanesberg. It's formed out of an extinct volcano, so the drives are just as spectacular as the scenery. Next door is Sun City with its own problematic history if you're keen on that type of thing (I'm not) but Pilanesberg alone makes the trip once a month worth it.
North of Pretoria is the Cradle of Humankind, worth several visits.
I'm also a fan of Gold Reef City and their amusement park built on top of the remains of a working gold mine until the 1970's - complete with the community's original buildings. Next door to that is the Apartheid Museum, brace for impact.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
The thing that I'm taking home the most of is wine.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Easy access to a huge variety of very high quality food. I love exploring the restaurants, and I've rarely been disappointed.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
I was scared by the preparations given the security situation. I may have become complacent, but as long as you're vigilant, the security concerns are surmountable.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heartbeat. I hope to be posted here again!
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Barbeque: your home will likely have one built in.
4. But don't forget your:
Sports equipment of any kind is expensive here.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
I have watched District 9 and Invictus several times since arriving.