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Interview with Clara – a Brit living in South Africa

Updated 11 Dec 2015

Cuban-born Clara is a well-versed expat. Having visited and lived in an enviable amount of countries, her insight into expat life is accessible and practical. She has delved into the notion of the trailing spouse on her blog, and in turn successfully published a book on the topic. Read about her experiences of Pretoria, what it's like to live in South Africa and how her family has adjusted to their nomadic lifestyle.

About Clara

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I am British but was born in Cuba – my parents were British diplomats. I have lived all over the place.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: In Pretoria, South Africa

Q: When did you move to Pretoria?
A: Last August (2015).

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here with my husband and our two daughters, who are now 10 and 8.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: My husband’s job brought us here – he works at the British High Commission.

Living abroad

Q: What do you enjoy most about Pretoria? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: There are so many good things about both Pretoria and South Africa, it is hard to know where to start! Lots of sunny weather, but dry rather than humid. Gardens full of birds. A fantastic array of restaurants, cafés, coffee shops etc. and (if you are paid in sterling as we are) wonderfully cheap. Great wine. Incredibly friendly people. And really excellent getaway opportunities – some just a few hours away (like world-class game reserves, the Drakensberg mountains, the KwaZulu Natal coast), others just a short flight (Cape Town, Namibia, Mozambique etc). My personal quality of life is a lot higher than at home, but I realise I am one of the lucky ones.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: Yes. Security is a huge problem here, and you do have to be ever-vigilant. We live behind bars and electric fences. Violent crime is a daily reality. What I miss most about home is being able to open my front door and simply walk. I also miss being able to get everything I need in one shop, and a speedy internet service.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Pretoria? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I think you get a bit of a false sense of security here, as South Africa LOOKS very modern, and you can forget you are in the developing world. But we have a saying which is TIA – This is Africa, our way of explaining that scratch the surface, and you are still in Africa. Things take a long time to get fixed. Shops appear to have a fantastic array of goods – but they often have no stock. Supermarkets will run out of some of the real basics. I don’t think I have suffered too badly from culture shock, but every so often I do find myself getting very frustrated when something doesn’t happen….again!

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: For us at the moment, it is cheap as chips. Eating out in particular is unbelievably good value. A bottle of wine here would cost you less than a glass at home. But this is because we are paid in pounds. I think it is a lot tougher for those who are paid in Rands as prices are going up steeply. There are some things that are still expensive, even for us: electronic goods, books, imported clothes and shoes. Haagan Daaz ice cream, as I discovered last night!

Q: How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: You would struggle without a car here. We have two, one each. It isn’t that safe to walk, especially at night, and the public transport system is not recommended. People do use Uber though, and I have heard good things about it. There is a good train line between the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg (Gautrain) that gets used by commuters and has security etc. on board. There are also good trains down to Cape Town and Durban, as well as a lot of flights between all the main cities.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Pretoria? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: So far I have only had one experience of going to the doctors, to get malaria tablets, and it was all very straightforward.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Pretoria? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Huge safety issues (see above) – you need to be aware of these before you arrive. As well as avoiding certain areas (in Pretoria this includes Sunnyside and Mamelodi, but there are no-go areas everywhere), you need to be as sensible as possible – keep doors locked on cars, be very careful in shopping malls, don’t walk around in areas you don’t know or anywhere at night etc. But in all honesty, so long as you are careful, you can lead a relatively normal like here. Traffic accidents are also a big issue – it is rare that I go out without seeing at least one, and we saw our first dead victim in the road the weekend after we arrived.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in the city? What different options are available for expats?
A: Our house is good, but we are in an expat bubble. Everyone I know lives in a nice home. Albeit it on a compound or behind bars. Most expats in Pretoria seem to be split between the Brooklyn/Waterkloof areas or further out of town on much larger compounds. Those big compounds have a very high level of security, to the extent that some houses don’t have bars and grills. You will still find that most do have “keep” area.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: I am bias, but I love Brooklyn!

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women, etc.?
A: The locals are very friendly. This is a country with a massive history of discrimination, and yet as a foreigner, I don’t really see it. I realise it is still there, there is this undercurrent that you are constantly aware of. But the younger generations don’t know Apartheid, so things are getting better (well, in relative terms – most of the poor are still black, most of the rich are still white). It is worth being aware though that as a white foreigner, you are very unlikely to get a job here due to positive discrimination policies towards black South Africans. As an accompanying partner, it is not something I have had to worry about as I have a remote job based in the UK. But I know it can be frustrating for others.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: More or less every friend I have made has been through the school my children go to. It is an International school, so we are making friends with people from all over the world. This has been brilliant for the kids – what a great way to learn about the world!

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? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: As for South Africans, I am sure that were I in a position to meet and get to know them they would be friendly, but like with most expats it isn’t always easy to meet locals. I do have South African relatives, and we really enjoyed spending time with them. My husband is into paragliding, and he has met a few people through that – I always think having a hobby is the best way to get to know people in your new country.

About working in South Africa

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I don’t work here; my husband got a work visa through the South African High Commission in London with his job. I know a lot of people do have problems with visas here, so it is something I recommend looking into a soon as possible if you want to come here.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in the city? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic climate is pretty dire. I would not recommend coming here without a job, or with a skill that you know is needed here. Hopefully this will change, but there is not enough work for the locals let alone expats.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city/country?
A: I am afraid this is not something I can comment on!

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: There are always challenges for the so-called trailing spouse, and this is why I wrote my book the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. Many accompanying partners have no idea what they are getting themselves into when they agree to move overseas with their spouses. It doesn’t matter where you are – do your research! Personally, I have found adjusting to life here a LOT easier than in other places we have lived as a family (Islamabad, St Lucia), but even so, life here is not without its challenges.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?
A: This move was harder for the children than for me. My youngest in particular has no recollection of living anywhere but our last home in the UK, where she started school. They miss their friends and have had to move into a completely different school system, which has been a challenge. Yes, children are resilient, but never underestimate how this might impact on them. Luckily, they both seem to be settling in now – I was told it generally took six months maximum for them to be happy, and I think that will be about right (for the younger one, the older one is much more settled).

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: Ours go to the American International school, which seems like a great school. Very caring and with good quality teaching – albeit very different from what we are used to. There are good South African private schools, but they are on a different school year to the northern hemisphere, which makes moving between schools hard. I have heard some negative views of some of them as well – you really need to try and see them and decide if they are right for your own child. There are a couple of British-curriculum schools, but unfortunately nothing that was really a fit for our children. We try and do some extra work at home to make sure they are kept up with the British curriculum as we know we will be returning there in a few years.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Lots! But I will just give you three:1) Try and find personal blogs from your new country to follow before you leave, it will give you a good feel for what life is really like for people living there. 2) Read up on culture shock and in particular the “cycle”; know what is normal and what shall pass. It makes the difficult early days easier to deal with. 3) If you have school-aged children do NOT arrive in your new country at the start of the long holidays, however much of a good idea it seems at the time. Unless you can afford to be away on holiday in your new country, they will soon get very bored without their stuff and no friends. I would recommend maximum a week before school starts to settle in; once they are at school, their lives can start properly.

~Interviewed December 2015

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