It’s a question on the minds of many and currently a topic of conversation at braai’s across the country: Emigration. Do we stay or do we go??? But, as with life, it’s not as simple as that, in fact there are plenty of people who have actually chosen to MOVE to South African instead of leave it’s shores!
I’ve decided to ask those who’ve moved to SA to answer a few questions about why they chose SA, more about the process of immigrating to South Africa and what it’s REALLY like to live here as a foreigner.
The idea behind the Expat in SA series on my website is to gain better insight into the realities of immigrating to South Africa – as a resource for those looking to move here, but also to show South Africans that maybe it’s not all doom and gloom after all and that some people have actually chosen to be here!
Today I’m sharing my space with Elise Sormani a 37 year-old, originally from Paris. She moved to Cape Town in May 2014 (5 years ago!) with her husband Romain, 36, who is also Parisian.
Since then they have had a little girl, Estelle Zinhle, born and bred in South Africa. She is now 2 years old and in few months, we should welcome another little one, growing the number of French babies with South African roots (SA nationality is not gained by being born in SA. Two French parents make French babies!).
Elise also runs her own company, We All Share Roots, which produces ethical and African-inspired handbags and purses, 100% locally handmade in association with CMTs in the townships.
I asked Elise a few more questions about her decision to immigrate to Cape Town…
What was the catalyst/s for your immigration decision to move to SA?
My husband was working with South Africa from France since 2012. He works in solar energy and in 2013 his company offered him an “expat’” position in South Africa in order to develop their current and future solar projects.
How long had you thought through the immigration process?
It was a big decision for us, as I also had a good position at that time in Paris and prospects of growth within that company. It wasn’t easy for me to throw myself into a country I had never been to and into the role of the “expat” wife (we already had an idea of how difficult it was to get work permits).
Nevertheless we were also conscious that our lives at that time were a bit meaningless: long work hours, big salaries which were mainly spent in very high rental fees and expensive Parisian lifestyle, small flats, rare contacts with nature etc.
We finally decided to take this offer as a chance to change our lives and see what Cape Town could offer us.
How easy/ complicated was the application process to immigrate and how long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/ documentation/ finances etc?
As expats, we were lucky to be guided by my husband’s company. They dealt with the visas and the moving. We “just” had to prepare our lives for the big move: quitting my job, packing, selling our furniture, saying goodbye etc.
Luckily, we weren’t on our own. We arrived in May 2014 right when the immigration laws became more severe and even the specialized lawyers and organisations were lost with the new processes at that time.
Personally, I applied for different visas in order to be able to work and I went through many obstacles and difficulties. My files got lost on many occasions. The process took ages.
It is definitely the most difficult part of our expatriation to South Africa.
What was your first year like after immigrating to South Africa?
As any newcomers to a new place know, we went through many different feelings and phases. We had left behind our really busy lives, which were full of friends, family, things to do, preferred spots etc and we suddenly had no friends, no family and no real knowledge of the surroundings.
I felt shy and not at ease speaking English, I didn’t know where to start to meet people, find work opportunities, network etc.
We had also heard a lot about South Africa, its violence, its crimes, its women abuse, and we were quite worried. We didn’t have a real vision of the situation.
And at the same time, it didn’t take us long before we began enjoying the amazing landscapes of Cape Town, the cool spots to have drinks and dinner, the beaches, the people. We fell in love quite instantly.
In the first 2 years, we also travelled to Johannesburg, Kruger Park, Mozambique, Namibia, the Garden Route, Western Cape. The more we discovered, the more in love we were with this part of the world.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children?
Cape Town is absolutely amazing. It is a place where you don’t need a lot of money to see real beauty and enjoy nature. Sunsets are breathtaking, braais on the beach and hikes are the perfect weekend plans. The lifestyle is also a lot less stressful than other big cities. Lives are more balanced. Life is less expensive.
All our friends in Paris live in small apartments, work very long hours, don’t have many child-friendly plans on weekends. We feel their tension. In Cape Town, in spite of the bad economy, the complicated politics, the heavy past, people smile and find a way to enjoy what they have.
We love our new life here so much that when my husband’s company decided to put an end to our expat contract and bring us back to Paris, we decided to stay and start a real “local” life.
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your children?
We have tried to get used to the “TIA effect” (as we call it!), which requires extra patience for any paperwork, any repair needed in the house, or anything really.
Compared to European standards, here everything takes days and days and solutions are sometimes quite “approximate!”
Dealing with poverty and inequalities is also hard, but we decided not to judge South Africa and try to see the positive more than the negative as there are negative aspects in any country.
Personally, I run a company which employs seamstresses in the townships, bringing employment and resources to those in need.
I go to Seawinds (a violent and unprivileged area of Cape Town) at least twice a month. What I see makes me sad and angry, but I try to stay positive and think about how my business can bring change to these locals.
We haven’t started school yet as our daughter is only 2, but I know that we’ll miss our French educational system, where you can get a decent education at no cost. What happens in SA is just awful. Kids with no school, schools with no books, classrooms with no windows… and corrupted politics, it’s really sad.
One thing I really don’t like and can’t get used to in SA is how taxis drive!!!! They drive me crazy!
What have you NOT missed about your previous home country – for you and your children?
There is a rather negative mood in France (and in Europe) at the moment. The recession, the terrorist threat, the “gilets jaunes”, etc. when we go back, we feel the tension.
People are angry and express it which is fine, but in daily life it brings a negative atmosphere.
Also we come from Paris, where life is very expensive, we don’t miss spending R1 000 on a simple two course dinner without wine!
Paris is really beautiful, but the weather is not that great.
What have you missed about your home country – for you and your children?
The worst parts of immigrating to SA are not really linked to SA, we miss our family and friends.
Coming from Paris, we also miss the easy access to culture, theatres, never repeated shows and exhibitions.
We also miss the warm sea of the Mediterranean and the possibility to walk rather safely at night almost anywhere in France. Otherwise Cape Town offers a similar lifestyle to Europe: good food, good wine and a vibey city centre.
And as I mentioned before, we miss (or will miss) our good educational system, our welfare state and the efficiency of any service there!
Knowing what you know now – would you immigrate to South Africa again? Or would you immigrate again but to a different place?
We would definitely make the move to Cape Town again, this is our best decision in life so far.
What makes you consider South Africa your permanent home now?
We’re happy here, a lot more than we were in France.
What makes it hard to call South Africa home – for you and your children?
It is too far from our people. We consider going back to France one day, just to live closer to our families. We often envy the Capetonians because they can enjoy this amazing part of the world AND have their people close by.
We are also very conscious that earning Rands is not the best at the moment!
What were the unexpected (good and bad) aspects of immigrating to South Africa that you’d wished you’d known about before doing so. Do you have any advice for those contemplating making this huge move for their families?
Visas are definitely the most complicated part of immigrating to South Africa. This is a long process with many uncertain issues.
Also there are not many work opportunities in Cape Town and BEEE laws don’t make things easy for European immigrants (with no regards to the benefits of the law itself, but it is better knowing it before moving)
And life may be cheaper than in big European cities, but is not that cheap either as you need to pay for everything (your health, your education…) and buying your own house in Cape Town is really expensive (taking into account the interest rates).
Otherwise, I don’t see any major aspects that you need to anticipate… except that you might fall in love and never come back!
Thanks so much Elise for taking the time to take part in this interview series. I really appreciate your input and found myself feeling a lot more comfortable with the idea of staying put for a while longer as I am VERY fortunate to live in a city like Cape Town with natural beauty, incredible things to do AND my people!
I know that others who read your story will find real value learning from your experience… and maybe it will inspire a few more to see South Africa in a new, positive and more hopeful light!!
And if you know someone who has immigrated to South Africa and would be keen to share their story drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org