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Interview with Kate S – an American in Cape Town

Updated 9 Jun 2010

kate snyderKate Snyder came south bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to colour Cape Town red; little did she know just how much the Mother City would mould her own personal priorities and ambitions. Now, nearly four years later, she's upward and onward to London, but little will mar her experience down on the edge of Africa.

For more information about expat life in Cape Town, visit the Expat Arrivals city guide to Cape Town or read more expat experiences in South Africa.

About you

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Q: Where are you living now?
A: Cape Town, SA 

Q: How long you have you lived here?
A: Four years

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I had just finished college and was looking for a new, challenging experience and to hopefully find work in the development sector.

About Cape Town

Q: What do you enjoy most about Cape Town, how’s the quality of life?
A: Its breathtaking beauty. For those able to afford it, the quality of life in Cape Town is considerably high – resting on easy working hours, long evenings in cafés, strolls across the ocean promenade, and great food and wine. There’s never a shortage of weekend or day trips to take within a quick journey from the city centre, either.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Public transportation. Not having your own car is a major setback to living in Cape Town, albeit one that can be overcome with some patience, fortitude and perseverance. Taking minibus taxis around town can be an adventure, and even one of the best ways to learn about Cape Town realities, but can also be stressful, time-consuming, and unpleasant. That being said, the taxis tend to be far more efficient than city buses and will drop you as close to your intersecting street as the Main Road allows.

Q: Is Cape Town safe?
A: Safe is a relative term here. Car break-ins and muggings are not at all uncommon, and pickpocketing is less of the norm crime-wise. As in all major cities, one should always be vigilant, aware of your surroundings and the people near you. Thieves around bar areas will target people who are drunk and unsuspecting. Walking around the city at night should be generally avoided unless travelling very short distances (i.e. car to restaurant) or walking through crowded and/or well-lit areas like Cape Town’s primary nightlife artery, Long Street. This advice, of course, pertains to the city area and not outlying communities like Langa, Mitchells Plain or Khayelitsha – where the rules change.

About living in Cape Town

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Cape Town as an expat?
A: The Atlantic Seaboard, for anybody, and Tamboerskloof for its quiet, hillside neighbourhoods and corner cafés.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?
A: Diverse. Generally on the older side, no central air, but not hard to find good views!

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: It is still relatively cheaper to live in a comfortable, sizable space in Cape Town than many western hemisphere big cities, but rental rates are rising quickly as a result of a growing global spotlight. At the moment, the cheapest accommodation seems to be renting a room (furnished or unfurnished) in a flat or house. A two-bedroom unfurnished flat on the Atlantic Seaboard is usually on the higher side, but all around the city expect to pay around R6,000 to R10,000 per month for a two-bedroom space.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: Cape Town is rumoured to be ‘clique-y’ – probably because so few people manage to move permanently from the Mother City’s charm and comfort. But it also has the proven reputation of being friendly and open, and so long as you are open and interested in meeting new people, Capetonians overall will be too. On the other hand, there are so many foreigners living here and other travellers that like-minded friends are never hard to find.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: Yes. There are many different ways of growing and diversifying social circles, whether through work, outdoor clubs like hiking groups, book lounges, or the usual bars and restaurants. You’re likely to run into people you first meet around town within weeks.

Working in Cape Town

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/ permit?
A: It is not an easy feat, although one can facilitate it through a matter of means: hiring an immigration consultant/ lawyer who will help you process the paperwork and toil in the home affairs queues for you, having the requisite qualifications for an ‘exceptional skills’ work visa, and time, lots of time.

I obtained a ‘general skills’ work permit after receiving a job offer from an NGO, but this circumstance is usually a catch-22 if you are already within South African borders. Most companies or organisations won’t grant a job offer without a work visa, and you cannot get a general skills visa without a contract and requisite sponsorship. I volunteered for about four or five months while my work permit was being processed.

That being said, most people shoot for the ‘exceptional skills’ type, which can usually be obtained with plenty of supporting documents as proof of your skill set; such as publications in your field, extensive experience abroad, or having a unique, relevant skill to your industry in SA (such as a German person coming to work for a tourist agency that deals primarily with German-speaking visitors to SA).

Overall, obtaining a work permit is feasible but requires some persistence and patience, and savings to live off of in the meantime. If you can organise this document beforehand through a potential employer/sponsor it is highly recommended to do so.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Cape Town, is there plenty of work?
A: There’s quite a large disparity here in unemployment. The most historically disenfranchised people, who live in poor townships outside the city centre and likely received an inadequate education and opportunities, still struggle greatly for sustainable work. Foreigners coming here with world-class education (which is usually how an American or European bachelors degree is perceived) can have a unique angle and expertise that is favourable to employers. Be prepared for the fact that many, if not most, companies and organisations are required by law to fill a diversity quotient, and will opt to hire a South African before a foreigner if the credentials closely equate.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: The term ‘work ethic’ has a very different meaning in Cape Town than it does in a place like Johannesburg or the US. Capetonians are known for enjoying life outside of work and tend to emphasize the values of enjoying your surroundings, your family, and social life more than climbing to the top of a company or breaking your back to have the latest model BMW. To generalise, again, usually people who have BMWs already had money.

This non-competitive work atmosphere can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your own sense of motivation and ambition. It should also be noted that, because the country and its industries are still developing, there is PLENTY of work to be done and some foreigners may find it overwhelming to balance these aspects of work life.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: No. I settled into my life in Cape Town over the four years I lived here.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
A: Healthcare personnel are top-notch. South Africa has a history and reputation of producing world-class medical research and is competitive with worldwide standards of practice. However, the public health system facilities can be shocking, with day-long queues and dingy exam rooms. For this reason, those who can afford to will almost always pay for private.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you'd like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Embrace Cape Town like a lover. You’ll swoon over its imposing mountains and sparkling seas, get drunk on its romantic vineyards and excellent wines. You’ll be upset by its dark history, its shadows still infecting crime rates and proportions of poverty. And you’ll see its new directions, its progress and potential, and you’ll probably wonder all along the way – is this the one?

►Check out the full South Africa country guide

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