Culture Shock in South Africa

It is entirely natural for expats to feel a degree of culture shock in South Africa given the country's complex society and eclectic nature. With its sweeping geographic variations, 11 official languages and various cultures in close co-existence, the Rainbow Nation can be an easy place to blend in, but also presents expats with unique challenges.

Those expats who have been told horror stories will be relieved to know that there is no wildlife roaming the streets; that while crime is a reality, it is often sensationalised by the media; and that public infrastructure is generally good. 


Inequality in South Africa

Expats moving to South Africa from the West are often the most taken aback by the country's glaring wealth disparity. It’s not uncommon to see the newest Mercedes Benz model parked next to someone rummaging through a garbage bin. Guilt can overwhelm new arrivals, but expats should be careful about indulging beggars or opening their home to those in need. The best way to make a positive difference is to donate to registered charities. 


Safety in South Africa

Expats moving to Johannesburg, in particular, will encounter an obsession with personal safety. Homes are surrounded by electrified fences, walls and guarded by private security firms, and walking around alone at night is a no-no. The role that crime plays in many people's lives may be the most unfamiliar and disconcerting feature of integrating into South African society.

The good news is that there has been a push towards urban renewal, with an increased emphasis on reducing crime. More and more people are enjoying Johannesburg's outdoor spaces and trendy inner-city areas. At the same time, walking around the streets, beaches and parks in Cape Town is much more common, though it's still necessary to remain aware of one's surroundings and keep personal belongings out of sight.


Time in South Africa

The concept of time in South Africa can be an adjustment for expats settling into their new life. South Africans often measure moments in "now", "just now" and "now now" – even among South Africans, the relative lengths of time that these phrases indicate is debated. The point that remains is that, for many South Africans, there is no rush if it can be done later.

However, this is not true in the South African corporate world which upholds very Western standards of punctuality and decorum. It functions relatively efficiently, although social engagements and government enterprise often function with a lot more flexibility. Expats should not take problems with punctuality or light-hearted rescheduling personally – this is a cultural norm.


Social life in South Africa

South Africans of all cultures enjoy a "braai", a kind of barbecue which entails cooking meat over hot coals, often accompanied by various salads and sides. Because the hot coals need to cool to the right temperature before the food can be cooked, braais are often an all-day event with attendees relaxing and chatting over a few beers as the fire slowly dwindles.

Braais often take place around sporting events – the country is passionate about rugby, cricket and football (soccer). While support for local rugby and cricket teams is high, especially on national level, many locals would rather watch the English Premier League than local coverage.

Shopping malls, which many South Africans are devoted to, are similar in their range of products and services to Western malls, although the scope of clothing and haute couture is limited compared to London, New York and Singapore. Those looking for high-end boutiques should stick to Cape Town and Johannesburg.