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Interview with Shantalie – A British expat living in Cape Town

Updated 14 Mar 2020

Shantalie is originally from the UK. She moved to Cape Town in 2010 after falling in love and then grew to love the city too. After living here for almost a decade, this British expat, has enjoyed and experienced all that Cape Town has to offer.

Read more about expat life in Cape Town in our Expat Arrivals Cape Town city guide.

About ShantalieShantalie

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: London, United Kingdom

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Cape Town, South Africa

Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to Cape Town indefinitely in June 2010. I’d also spent long periods of time living and working in the city back in 2007 and 2009. 

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Not really, but this has certainly been my longest expat stint. I first came to Cape Town to do a three-month internship while I was at university in 2007. I then returned for a couple of months in 2009 to do a research project. I also spent six months living in Sri Lanka in 2009/10 where I split my time working in a rural village and the capital city, Colombo. 

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here alone, but my boyfriend was already based in Cape Town. 

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved to Cape Town for love. I met my boyfriend while I was in Cape Town doing research. It was a holiday romance that escalated into a long-distance relationship. Eventually, one of us had to bite the bullet, so I moved from London. I currently work in digital publishing. 

Living in Cape Town

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: I’ve lived here for almost a decade now, so Cape Town is more than just a host city. I would say the quality of life in Cape Town is better than in London, but I know many people would disagree. I love being outdoors, close to the mountain and the sea. The nightlife, museums and art galleries are probably better in London though. I like that there are lots of things you can do in Cape Town without having to spend a fortune – such as going for a hike, enjoying a day at the beach or having a braai with friends. 

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: It might sound odd, but I miss the London Underground. Having a safe and (generally) efficient public transport is something I took for granted. When I first got here, I tried to use public transport but it wasn’t really very practical – train services are often cancelled, and minibus taxis drive erratically. Having a car in Cape Town really makes life much easier. 

Coming from a 24-hour city like London, I’ve always been a bit blasé about crime, but it is a reality here. There are certain places, even in the CBD, where you wouldn’t feel comfortable walking around at night. Most of my friends in Cape Town have been victim to some form of crime such as muggings, house break-ins and pickpocketing. But to be fair, most of it is opportunistic and if you take regular precautions such as keeping valuables out of sight in your car, having an alarm system at home, etc. you can at least mitigate the risks. 

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: Although I had a licence, I rarely drove my car in London. I had to build up my confidence, as driving really gives you greater freedom here. Race is more of an issue in Cape Town than it ever was in London. At the start, being in an interracial relationship was a little tricky. People often stare, especially if you go away for the weekend to one of the little rural spots outside Cape Town. That said, things have noticeably changed for the better over the course of my stay here.

One other thing I had to adjust to was how normal it is to have domestic help in South Africa. No one I know in the UK has a cleaner or gardener, but in Cape Town it is very normal among middle/upper-class households. I still feel a bit conflicted about hiring domestic help because it feels pretty indulgent, but on the other hand it really does free up a lot of time, which you can use to enjoy your life and do something more productive. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in South Africa?
A: The cost of living is significantly cheaper in Cape Town. You can live quite comfortably on an average salary. But wages are much lower too, so when it comes to travelling we feel the pinch. Eating out and entertainment in Cape Town is cheap. Cars are expensive, but they tend to hold their value well. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in your city? What is your most memorable experience of using Cape Town's transport system?
A: Although the infrastructure exists for Cape Town to have an efficient public transport system, it doesn’t. I would use the train all the time if services were reliable, but they aren’t. The MyCiTi bus system is more modern, and certainly an improvement on the more archaic Golden Arrow buses, but they only access certain areas.

Commuting on minibus taxis is always an experience. I came from a city where people won’t even make eye contact with you, so I am always surprised when people just strike up a conversation with me on the minibus. Once a lady even started braiding my hair during a minibus taxi ride. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Cape Town? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I’ve never been accustomed to paying for healthcare, thanks to growing up with the UK’s NHS system. I refused to pay for health insurance, and as such, I’ve experienced both the public and private healthcare systems in South Africa. To be honest, the service I received at a public hospital was much better than in the private sector.

The downsides are that you have to queue for a long time – so you could potentially waste days of your life in hospital waiting rooms. The facilities aren’t as modern either. I probably only have experience of one of the better public hospitals, though. I’ve heard horror stories from other people. It’s probably a good idea to have private health insurance, especially if you are involved in an accident or have any chronic conditions.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in South Africa? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: As I said before, crime is a reality in South Africa. If you haven’t been a victim of crime yourself, you’ll soon hear of someone who has. Still, I don’t think it needs to stop you enjoying your life here. Most places are fine and I generally feel safe. Those who can avoid the Cape Flats, especially at night, best do so.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Cape Town? What different options are available for expats?
A: I think the standard of housing in Cape Town is excellent. Properties tend to be more spacious here. If you want to live in the CBD or along the Atlantic Seaboard, you’ll most likely end up living in an apartment complex. These are modern and come with a range of facilities such as security, gyms and communal swimming pools. Your options become greater the further you move away from the city centre. In the suburbs, you’ll find everything from Victorian cottages to large family homes. 

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A:  When expats first arrive in Cape Town, they tend to live in the city centre or along the coast, but once you get to know the city a bit better people start to venture into the suburbs where you get better value for money. I live in Observatory, which is about 15 minutes from the city centre – it has its own restaurants and bars too, so you don’t have to venture far for entertainment. The Southern Suburbs tend to be pretty popular. But people who like living by the sea could also explore places further afield like Blouberg and Tableview. These areas are well-served by MyCiTi buses, so commuting into town isn’t much of a problem. 

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Cape Town?
A: This is a touchy subject. I think it really depends on where you are from. Being British, I haven’t really had any problems. Generally, I feel the North Americans and Europeans are welcomed here. But the story is very different for people from African countries. I have friends from Zimbabwe and the DRC, who face lots of discrimination on a daily basis. I haven’t experienced any major discrimination here. I’ve had people weirdly ask me if I’m from Durban because of my skin colour, but once they hear my British accent, they suddenly seem much friendlier. 

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: In the first few years, I found making friends really tough. Being in a relationship gave me an automatic group of friends, but I still wanted to find people that I could connect with myself. I went to a lot of group events, joined a running club and a gym. I also accepted every invite I could and tried to network.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: It’s a bit of a mix, but generally I have more expat friends. It’s easy to connect with other expats because you share the same struggles and a common experience of being new to the city. People will often tell you that Capetonians are cliquey, and at first I did find this to be the case. They do tend to stick to themselves a lot of the time. A lot of my South African friends tend to be from Johannesburg and Durban, so they are also outsiders here to some degree. The problem with having too many expat friends is that they often move on after a few years. It’s almost like one moment you have a solid group of friends and the next they’ve all gone. So it’s a constant mission to stay social and make new connections.  

Working in Cape Town

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: This is another touchy subject. I’ve had numerous visas during my time here – at times I’ve tackled the process alone, and at other times I’ve used a consultant. To be fair, the consultants can’t do much to speed up the process, but they do have experience which is reassuring. Visa regulations for South Africa change constantly, and sometimes very suddenly.

Sometimes the way in which visas are granted seems arbitrary. Long waiting periods are common. I’ve been waiting almost 4 years for my Permanent Residency to be processed. It’s difficult because without the correct paperwork, your life is in limbo, and you can’t do even the most basic bureaucratic tasks. I once had to return to the UK and wait there till my permit was processed. It’s not fun! 

Q: What is the economic climate in Cape Town like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I really think it depends on what your field of work is. Generally speaking, unless you have very specialist skills (languages, IT, finance) you’d struggle here. The wages and employment packages generally aren’t all that lucrative either. Job portals are a good place to start searching for a job. Cape Town is a relatively small city, so networking and making connections can also get you places. 

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in South Africa? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Generally, I think the workplace is less pressurised in Cape Town. Business dress is pretty casual here, and very few people need to wear suits to work. Wages are significantly lower than in Europe and North America, and employment packages do seem pretty basic with limited perks. I didn’t really struggle to adapt to local business culture though – everyone speaks English and the systems used a pretty similar to those that are used at home. 

Family and children

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Cape Town?
A: I don’t have kids, but I think Cape Town is a family-friendly place. The fact that so many attractions are based outdoors means that they can be child-friendly. Picnics at Kirstenbosch Gardens, a visit to the penguins at Boulders Beach, or spending a rainy day indoors at Two Oceans aquarium are just a few of the things that are popular with families here. 

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Cape Town or South Africa?
A: Cape Town is a great city. Sure, life here has its downsides and things have been awfully frustrating at times. It takes a while to get settled here, but once you find your feet, the city offers you an amazing lifestyle. For me, it’s been the perfect mix of city living and having nature on your doorstep. In the decade I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of positive changes in Cape Town, and in South Africa as a whole. I also think your expat experience becomes a million times better the moment you stop comparing things to home.

► Interviewed March 2020

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