Johannesburg, South Africa Report of what it's like to live there - 08/26/22
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?
No. Multiple overseas posts with the US Foreign Service.
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?
Washington DC. There are direct flights from the US to Johannesburg, departing from Newark or Atlanta. Both routes are about 14 hours in the air. Routings through European hubs are also possible, as are departures from Cape Town. Be sure to lock or zip tie your luggage to prevent pilfering.
3. What years did you live here?
4. How long have you lived here?
5. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Diplomatic posting at the US Consulate.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing tends to skew on the small side, at least by AF standards. Most families are dropped into fenced neighborhoods made up of a few free-standing “townhomes”. Where backyards exist, they are small, almost to the point of being unusable. Maintenance is inconsistent, and it’s extremely difficult to get any support to address this.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Even the pickiest of eaters will find something to like here. Grocery stores like Woolworth’s or Pick-and-Pay have a wide selection of fresh meats and vegetables, as well as specialty or gluten-free products. In our experiences, groceries seem slightly cheaper and much higher quality than in the US.
3. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Eating out is generally affordable here. If you look hard enough, you can find a great variety of foods from around the world. Though customer-facing associates are almost always friendly and polite, you can expect a S-L-O-W pace when being served. Budget at least an hour for an average meal out.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
The Consulate uses the diplomatic pouch, and your Amazon packages will get to post… eventually. If you get a South African bank account and use local options for online shopping, motorcycle courier services are generally reliable for package delivery.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Household help is widely available, and generally affordable. Most families will hire at least one housekeeper, nanny or gardener during their tour, depending on their needs. There are a large number of third-country nationals present in South Africa and working in domestic roles, although their ability to legally remain in the country may soon be impacted by pending legislation.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There is no gym at the Consulate. Most fitness-minded employees end up joining a local chain like Planet Fitness or Virgin Active.
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?
Most US credit cards work fine here, although skimming is prevalent, so keep a close eye on your statements. It’s inevitable that your credit card numbers will be compromised at some point during your tour, so it’s a good idea to have a backup card available, since sending a replacement from the States takes several weeks. Opening a local bank account does incur a monthly fee, but it’s by far the most convenient option for making payments here.
5. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
English seems to be the language of getting stuff done, at least in the larger cities, but it’s always appreciated if you take the time to learn a few key phrases in the major dialects.
6. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Broken sidewalks are the norm here. It’d be difficult for a mobility-impaired person to get around the city of Johannesburg, let alone the wilds of South Africa. Local medical care seems to be of a high quality, so Johannesburg is an ideal post for employees with a restricted medical clearance.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Public transportation is off-limits due to crime and safety concerns. Uber is acceptable, but take the usual safety precautions to avoid losing your phone to a snatch-and-grab robbery.
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?
South Africa is a right-hand-drive post. Most vehicles will work out fine in the cities, but a high clearance is necessary for self-drive safaris. It may take several weeks to register a newly-purchased vehicle.
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?
Quality vets are widely available here, as are pet supplies. The only real obstacle is getting your pet to post, which includes a long, expensive quarantine period. Obviously you’ll want to use caution when walking a dog out in public, and stick to safer areas like closed-off parks.
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?
EFM jobs are few and far between at the Consulate, and even when a good fit opens up, it can take up to a year to complete the hiring process. A lot of EFMs who have a financial need to work end up applying for positions at the Embassy instead, and then just embrace the long daily commute. For some reason, the hiring process at the Embassy always seems to go much faster than it does at the Consulate…
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Volunteer opportunities abound in South Africa, although it’s best to do your due diligence (for safety and security reasons) before you join any organization or attend certain events. The Consulate always seems to have a lot of volunteer opportunities available working with CLO, GSO or Consular, although at larger posts these roles would normally be paid EFM positions.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code at the office ranges from business suits for official meetings to jeans and collared shirts for everyday business. Dress will vary widely depending on the job you hold and how close your supervisor is to retirement.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Johannesburg is rated as a critical crime post, and for good reason. Robberies are common, and every few weeks you’ll hear of a colleague who was impacted by crime. You’re most likely to encounter snatch-and-grab robberies, although it varies significantly– some Mission facilities have had cars stolen from the parking lot during business hours. Take as much precaution as you can, and have an emergency plan for times of social unrest.
2. 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?
Air quality is generally decent, although burning coal is common here, so it’s not unusual to see a haze during the winter months.
3. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?
Mental health is definitely a concern here, given the toxic environment and the overall isolation of a high-crime post. Even post-COVID, the curtailment rate seems very high for a post of this size.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The American International School of Johannesburg is really the only option for expat families. AISJ has campuses in both Johannesburg and Pretoria, but only Johannesburg has a high school. The biggest complaint about this school seems to be the commute— coming from either Johannesburg or Pretoria, kids can expect to spend about 45 minutes to an hour on the bus each way.
2. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
At first glance there seems to be a lot of extracurricular activities, sports and other classes available for kids, but most of these will turn out to be based on the local, southern hemisphere school calendar. Taking advantage of these opportunities will always present a scheduling challenge.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
Just how much division and resentment exists between the US Consulate in Johannesburg and the US Embassy in Pretoria. The Consulate is run much more like an Embassy annex than like an actual constituent post with a bit of dysfunction in my opinion. Some offices seem very difficult to work with.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Not a chance. To be fair, South Africa has a ton of things to see and do, so I wouldn’t be opposed to visiting again at some point, but there’s no way I’d ever attempt to get work done in this country again.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Flashy jewelry and valuables. Sense of social justice.
4. But don't forget your:
Patience. Kindness. Sense of humor. SPF 30 sunblock.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Everybody always recommends watching ‘Invictus’ before you come, so you might as well join them. You wouldn’t want to miss out on Matt Damon’s lekker acting.