21 Things to Know Before Moving to South Africa
If you’re planning to move to South Africa, siyakuhalalisela (congratulations)!
The nation is often described as ‘a world in one country,’ and it lives up to this reputation, offering everything from beaches to deserts, from forests to mountains, from vibrant cities to stunning game reserves.
With dozens of cultures and an area five times bigger than the UK to explore, you’ll never run out of new experiences.
But to fully enjoy South Africa, there are some key pieces of information you should first absorb. That’s where we come in, to prepare you for life in the rainbow nation.
Cape Town is wonderful and diverse, like the country as a whole
1. English is the language of business, politics, and city life
If you’re living in a big city, you’ll probably get by with English, which dominates urban areas as well as economic and governmental affairs – but it’s rarely heard in other areas.
South Africa has 11 official languages – the fifth-most of any country – and English is only the sixth-most popular when people are speaking at home.
Just 8.4% of people use English in private, so it may be worth researching which language is most popular in your area of the country, and starting to learn it.
2. This is a multifaceted country
South African culture, language, and etiquette is different in different parts of the country, and among different groups of people.
As well as the 11 state languages, there are at least two dozen more spoken across the country, indicating the incredible variety that makes this rainbow nation so special.
This means you can’t simply learn the ins and outs of one culture, and may lead to you being surprised and unsure of how to act in new situations.
You have to approach this fact with humility and flexibility. If you don’t know what to do, admit your ignorance, and ask for guidance.
3. Healthcare services are lacking
That means the country has fallen behind nations with much lower Gross Domestic Product per person, including Tajikistan, Nicaragua, and Iraq.
South Africa’s relatively underfunded public healthcare system means waiting lists can be lengthy – despite the fact that hospital stays cost up to £50 per night, depending on your income bracket.
There are also 0.9 doctors per 1,000 people, which is three times fewer than the UK, according to the World Bank.
The lack of staff, facilities, and funding has contributed to an infant mortality rate that’s 8.6 times higher than it is in the UK, a maternal mortality rate that’s 17 times higher, and an average life expectancy of 65.3 – which is 16 years less than in the UK.
4. ‘Now’ doesn’t mean now
You should make an effort to absorb the local slang, or else it’ll confuse you on a daily basis.
For instance, when someone says “now,” they don’t mean now; they mean at some point in the future. That may be in a few hours, a few days, or never.
If they say “just now,” that’s more encouraging, and they’ll probably be faster than if they’d said “now” – but it still means later, rather than now.
The term you want to hear is “now-now,” which comes from the Afrikaans term ”nou-nou,” and is the most immediate option.
You’ll also get used to hearing people say ‘braai’ (barbecue) and ‘eish’ (an expression of frustration, disbelief, and regret), as well as describe things as ‘kief’ or ‘lekker’ when they like them.
5. One capital wasn’t enough
South Africa has three capitals, divided between the three branches of power.
Pretoria is the executive capital, where you can see the government and president’s buildings; Bloemfontein is the judicial capital, where you can find the Supreme Court of Appeal; Cape Town is the legislative capital, where the government meets.
Despite ongoing pressure from some quarters, the setup is unchanged since colonial times, partly due to the high costs of establishing one city as the sole capital.
6. Scars from Apartheid are still healing
This white supremacist system of racial segregation and discrimination was in place from 1948 until 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed and negotiations began to end Apartheid.
You don’t need to completely avoid this extremely sensitive subject, but be sure to only contribute to conversations when you truly have something worthwhile to add.
This is an especially tricky task when you consider the UK’s role in creating the Apartheid system, so silence may be your best option.
Nelson Mandela remains a deservedly heroic presence in South Africa culture
7. The country has a nuclear history
Under the Apartheid regime, South Africa developed six nuclear weapons.
In 2019, the country signed the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, becoming the first nation to create nukes, voluntarily dismantle them, then sign this treaty.
8. Life here is more affordable
The cost of living in South Africa is much lower than it is in the UK – especially if you happen to still be earning a UK-level salary.
In general, life in cities costs about half as much as you’re used to paying – though clothes will only be slightly less expensive, so you may want to avoid splurges at designer stores.
South Africa’s economy is also growing encouragingly. In the past two decades, the country’s Gross Domestic Product per person has more than doubled, according to the World Bank, while its inflation rate has consistently fallen.
This means your living costs will continue to be relatively low for some time, but you can also rest safe in the knowledge that South Africa’s economic future is bright.
9. This is a religious country
South Africa is a predominantly Christian country, with 86% of the population defining themselves as such, and just 5.2% of people saying they don’t have a religion.
It’s common for people to be observant, too, with 56% of Christians saying they attend religious services every week.
In contrast, 38% of people in the UK identify as Christian, while 52% say they don’t belong to any religion, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey.
South Africa has no state religion, and the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it’s good sense to be respectful of commonly held beliefs when you’re making friends and networking.
You should also bear in mind that blasphemy is illegal in the country, even if this law is rarely enforced.
10. HIV/AIDS is an ongoing epidemic
In the UK, it’s easy to forget that we’re still in the midst of an HIV/AIDS epidemic, with hundreds of people dying from an AIDS-related illness every year.
In South Africa, it’s impossible to forget.
The country has the fourth-highest adult prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, according to the CIA Factbook, and the highest number of deaths, at 72,000 people per year.
One of the country’s four main aims for this decade is to “produce a generation of under-20s that is largely free of HIV,” but HIV/AIDS is still the fifth leading cause of unnatural deaths, according to Statistics South Africa.
Be aware, be sensitive, and be safe.
11. The sun shines, and shines, and shines
The weather here is just as glorious as you’d hope it would be.
Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria all enjoy around 3,200 hours of sunshine every year – nearly double the 1,633 hours which Londoners receive.
Feel free to celebrate this fact on one of the country’s dozens of beaches.
12. Embrace your natural surroundings…
There are countless ways that South Africa will take your breath away, and most of them are found in its innumerable natural attractions.
You can find wonders like Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which between them contain lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, buffalos, cheetahs, vultures, and eagles, along with sweeping landscapes of tropical forests and red dunes.
Make sure you also visit iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal, which is home to beautiful coral reefs and crocodile-filled rivers.
Somehow, this nation of unbelievable variety and beauty is only five times bigger than the UK. Make the most of it.
The animals here are amazing, and will remind you how fragile humans are
13. …but not literally
Don’t get so entranced by the natural beauty that you get too close to a puff adder, hippo, crocodile, buffalo, or black mamba, as they all kill multiple people each year.
And seeing as thousands of people in South Africa contract malaria each year, with dozens dying from the disease, you should also make sure to protect yourself from mosquitoes.
14. Wine not explore some vineyards?
South Africa has a reputation as one of the best producers of wine in the world, and it’s fully deserved.
The vineyards at Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Paarl in the south-west of the country are beautiful, and produce some of the most delicious wine you’ll ever taste.
And if you’re a serious fan of the fermented grape, make sure you visit Swartland and the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley too.
These wine regions are less celebrated, but are well worth your time if you appreciate excellent chenin blancs and pinot noirs, respectively.
15. Be careful with your drink
The legal blood alcohol limit for driving in South Africa is 0.05g per 100ml of blood, which is 38% lower than the UK’s maximum of 0.08g.
For most people, this limit equates to less than one drink per hour.
Make sure you stay below the limit, as a drink-driving arrest can leave you with a minimum fine of R2,000 (£100), a two-year prison sentence, or both – as well as a criminal record.
16. Alcohol is a problematic area
South Africa produces delicious wines and beers, inventive cocktails, and liquors like Amarula which are sold all over the UK.
But the drinking culture in South Africa is complicated and fraught.
69% of adults abstain from alcohol, but of those who do drink, 65% are binge drinkers, according to the World Health Organisation.
17. Don’t worry about the water
You can absolutely drink and cook with tap water in South African cities.
However, you may want to turn to bottled water in rural areas – not because it’s unsafe, but because it contains different bacteria than your gut may be used to, and may therefore leave you with an upset stomach.
If you’re worried, just ask the locals if the water is safe.
18. The food is fantastic
South Africa is home to many delicious dishes, and you should dive right in.
Make sure you attend a communal braai (barbecue), where locals gather to talk, laugh, and enjoy a cornucopia of different meats, including the traditional boerewors (farmer’s sausages).
Asian immigrants have brought bunny chow – a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with delectable curry – and bobotie, which you make by simmering minced meat with herbs, spices, and dried fruit, topping it with eggs and milk, and baking it.
And there’s nowhere like South Africa for air-dried meat. Made from beef or game, both the thinly sliced biltong and sausage-shaped droewors serve as excellent snacks.
19. Tipping is customary
Once you’ve had your fill at a top-notch restaurant, you should tip your waiter 10%, though feel free to pay 15% or 20% if you’re particularly impressed with the service.
If you’re staying in a hotel, make sure to tip your housekeeping staff at least R50 (£2.50) per person on your trip, per day.
20. Football is the most popular sport…
The hosts of the 2010 World Cup have a long history of football fanaticism that has thrived since the end of Apartheid.
Just two years after Nelson Mandela’s election and the formal end of Apartheid, South Africa hosted and won the African Cup of Nations. This triumph helped to bring the nation together.
There are now 1.5 million registered footballers in the country, which has produced Premier League stars like Benni McCarthy, Lucas Radebe, and Steven Pienaar.
21. …but cricket and rugby aren’t far behind
All of these sports may have been introduced through colonialism, but they’ve been vital in uniting South Africa in recent decades.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup is a prime example of this, but the rugby and cricket teams’ continued rise since then have both stoked national pride.
South Africa beat England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup to become the joint-most successful country in the history of the tournament, so you could do worse than get behind these consistent winners.