One of the most popular series on my site at the moment is the one featuring South African expats who’ve chosen to emigrate and live abroad… I think it’s a sign of the times (and the discussions happening around braai’s across the country)
But what about those people who’ve actually CHOSEN to move to South Africa… How did they come to make that decision and move?
So to answer these questions about what it’s REALLY like to live here as a foreigner I’ve rounded up a few Expats in SA to tell us their story and today is the turn of Verena, a 42-year-old freelance travel journalist and copywriter who is married to Justin (43). They call Cape Town home together with their four-year-old son, Noah, and new baby, Milo (2 months)
Read on to find out more about her experience of being an expat in South Africa…
Where are you originally from? and where did you move from?
I’m originally from Austria, but lived in London for 19 years (amongst several other cities and countries in between).
When did you immigrate (year) to SA?
What was the catalyst/s for your immigration decision to move to SA?
A South African – and South Africa itself! My husband Justin is half South African, half British – he grew up in Cape Town before moving to London when he was 18. We met in London in 2005, and when he invited me to a friend’s wedding in South Africa three months later and I jumped at the chance. Like so many others before me, I immediately fell in love with Cape Town. Justin had wanted to move back for a while, so after getting married in Yzerfontein in 2011 we decided to take the plunge – a year later we left grey London behind for a new life in the sunny Mother City.
How long had you thought through the immigration process?
A while, as it did mean a big move for us – we were very settled in London at the time. We made the final decision during our wedding in SA – the weather played a big part, as did the thought of where we wanted to bring up our future children; plus, we had really joined the “rat race” in London at that point, working too much and not really taking advantage of what the city had to offer any more. Not to forget the exorbitant costs of living in the British capital!
How easy/ complicated was the application process to immigrate and how long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/ documentation/ finances etc?
It was a complete and utter nightmare to be honest, requiring a ridiculous amount of documents, resilience and endless patience. I first tried to go it alone, which seemed a mission impossible. I remember queuing outside the South African embassy in London one morning, in the pouring rain. I was there to submit my application – when I finally got to a desk I was told that some of my documents were wrong and that I couldn’t submit. I was in tears at that point. After that we hired an immigrations agency, Imcosa – they have since guided me through three temporary visa applications and, eventually, my permanent residence application – which was finally granted a few months ago. Even so, it was anything but smooth sailing, and it took me seven years overall to get to this point.
What was your first year like after immigrating to South Africa?
Definitely challenging. We were real “Londoners” when we moved, and it took us a while to adapt to life in Cape Town. Whereas everything happens almost instantly in London, things are super slow here, and the Cape Town Justin left behind, aged 18, was very different to the one he found moving back 20 years later. We also figured out after a while that it takes on average three attempts to get anything done here! We struggled with the internet, service providers, and many peoples’ attitudes in general. It also took us three months to find a flat, and we decided to import our car from London, which turned out to be a ridiculous, lengthy process. At the same time we were still living a bureaucratic nightmare, not helped by the fact that we had to deal with certain name change issues (I’ll spare you the details!) I was lucky in that I walked straight into a great freelance job but things like registering my company were a total nightmare. That, and the fact that my salary was suddenly half of what it used to be in London ☺ It was all very challenging and took a lot of willingness to adapt. But, and this is a massive BUT – I never lost my faith in our decision, and despite all the drama, the positives by far outweighed, and still outweigh, the negatives. In Cape Town you can have an utterly rubbish day – then you come home, take a walk on the beach, watch the sunset (ideally with a glass of wine in hand) and the world is suddenly alright again.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children? (the positives of immigrating to SA)
The weather for starters, which is a big deal for someone who lived in the UK for so many years! I love that we have actual seasons here, and that a good summer is virtually guaranteed. Then there is the location – we are very lucky that we live right opposite the beach in Camps Bay, it’s incredible to think that it’s normal for Noah to go to the beach whenever he wants to. I will never, ever get bored of the sunsets here – I’m still pinching myself every time. Camps Bay also has a really nice community feel to it, and it’s where Noah goes to school. Another thing I love is the sheer endless amount of things to do in Cape Town and surrounds – the beaches, mountains, hiking, wine farms, family weekends…the list is endless. And it’s such a family-friendly place, which to us is super important. In a nutshell – it’s an amazing place to bring up your children.
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your children? (the negatives of immigrating to SA)
Safety is an issue of course, you have to be very careful and guarded. Also the fact that we live in a bubble – we are very privileged and it’s easy to almost forget how much poverty exists here, and what hardship so many less fortunate people have to go through. At the same time it’s also hard for us to keep up a certain lifestyle, especially with children – school fees are extortionate here, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the somewhat elite private school system.
What have you NOT missed about your previous home country – for you and your children? (the positives of emigrating)
Certainly not the British weather! Other things I don’t miss about London are the lack of a work/life balance, the insane celebrity cult, and the ridiculous consumerism. I also couldn’t imagine bringing up children in London – just the thought of trying to get on the tube with a pram, the exorbitant nursery costs, the lack of fresh air…Never mind the harsh reality of Brexit.
What have you missed about your home country” – for you and your children? (the negatives of emigrating)
Having lived in London for so long I considered myself to be a real Londoner, and I really miss the Britishness of it all – the British humour, our British family, friends, lifestyle, culture, fashion…and decent newspapers! Also the public transport system, and being right in the middle of it all – I feel like we are very much behind here all the time. Oh, and the fact that things actually work, and that when you request a service you don’t have to do so three times! Also the proximity to Austria and other European countries – it was definitely a lot easier to visit family back then, and to hop on a plane to just go anywhere.
Knowing what you know now – would you immigrate to South Africa again? Or would you immigrate again but to a different place?
I have no regrets and still believe that moving here was 100% the right lifestyle decision for us. Now that we are settled and got used to the pace here we are really enjoying life as a family. Having said that, I am glad that I didn’t know in advance about the hurdles that would come our way – it was definitely best to just take a leap of faith and go for it!
What makes you consider South Africa your permanent home now?
The fact that our son Noah was born here (and that our second son will be born here) and that we all feel really settled. Like I said, Camps Bay has a lovely community feel, we’ve made really nice friends (both locals and expats), Noah goes to school here… Moving back to London wouldn’t be an option for us at this point – Brexit alone has made me feel glad to be in South Africa. The grass is most definitely not always greener on the other side!
What makes it hard to call South Africa home – for you and your children?
A somewhat uncertain future – you can never be sure what will happen next here, especially from a political point of view. Also, the cost of living keeps rising, while salaries stay inexplicably low, which might make it very hard for us to remain in Cape Town in the long run. I think that even if we stay, I would love for my boys to move to Europe after matric, to widen their horizon, connect with their European heritage and experience the European way of life – that’s really important to me.
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?
I think for Europeans it can be a bit of a culture shock moving here – it certainly was for me, which, as a seasoned expat, is something I didn’t expect. It is definitely a big decision, so make sure you are ready for it – and remind yourself that coming here on holiday is very different to actually living here. I would definitely use an immigration agency to help with the maddening bureaucratic process. The magic words are patience, patience, and more patience – and a willingness to adapt to a certain degree. Be aware of costs that you might not have thought about – things such as health insurance, schools etc. Coming on holiday with Euros or Pounds makes you feel like Royalty but earning Rand is a different matter entirely – the ideal scenario would be to live here will still earning European currency! Having said all that, it really is worth the effort – Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world, and an absolutely incredible place for children to grow up. Have faith and go for it!
Thanks for sharing your story Verena.
If you enjoyed this post be sure to read all the Expat in SA interviews.
Images: Verena Neumayr-Howes