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Given the country's complex society and eclectic nature, it is entirely natural for expats to feel a degree of culture shock in South Africa. With its sweeping geographic variations, 11 official languages and various cultures living in close proximity, 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 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, high walls and, in some cases, guarded by private security firms. Walking around alone at night is discouraged. 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, daytime walks around the streets, beaches and parks in Cape Town are 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 takes some getting used to for expats settling into their new life. South Africans often measure moments in 'now', 'just now' and 'now now'. If expats find themselves struggling to grasp the difference, they needn't be concerned – 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 business 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.
Braais often take place around sporting events – the country is passionate about rugby, cricket and soccer (football). While support for local rugby and cricket teams is high, especially on national level, soccer can probably be considered the favourite national pastime, even if the national team hardly ever performs well on the international stage.
►Accommodation in South Africa provides info about finding housing in the country
►For an overview of day-to-day expenses, see Cost of Living in South Africa
"Locals are really warm and welcoming. South Africa is quite a melting pot of cultures and the locals are very used to having foreigners in their midst." Indian expat Namrata shares her thoughts about life in South Africa in her expat interview.
Are you an expat living in South Africa?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to South Africa. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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