The Honest Expat: Cheryl in the UK (& now back in SA)

Another Honest Expat shares her story with you today. This time it’s the turn of Cheryl who followed her heart over the ocean to live in the UK for 8 years…. she has subsequently returned to live in South Africa (for now!)

Read on below to find out more about her thoughts on emigrating to the UK and then returning back to SA…

Where are you originally from?

I was born and raised in Durban although both my parents were originally from the UK. My dads family emigrated to SA when he was 3 and my mum came over on the boat when she was in her early 20’s. To be honest, neither mom or dad ever talked about the UK all that much although I did have a grandmother living there.

Leaving SA had never been a consideration to be honest, but after a failed marriage and a new whirlwind romance with my now husband (who was in the process of emigrating on an ancestral visa) I figured I had nothing to lose. Added to which I had a UK passport thanks to my parents, so when the opportunity presented it was an adventure too good to say no to.

When did you emigrate?

In July 1998 I left SA with GBP900 and a suitcase of clothes to join Brad who had left in the April that same year

What was the catalyst/s for your emigration decision? How long had you thought through the emigration process?

Brad had made the decision to leave SA in December 1997 and it takes about 3 months to get all the paperwork together, police clearance etc so once that was in order he left. He was teaching at the time and when he made the decision to go he was single so it was an easy decision for him to make. We met in the March so my decision was a lot less planned. I was living in Johannesburg, feeling miserable post-divorce, so when Brad asked me to go to the UK it was an easy decision really. In fact, I think we booked my ticket the very same day in case I tried to change my mind! I was still studying and had a job to resign from so I left a couple months later.

How easy/ complicated was the application process to emigrate and how long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/ documentation/ finances etc?

For Brad the process was a little more complicated than it was for me. At the time Brad didn’t have an unabridged birth certificate so he needed to apply for that. He was planning on teaching in the UK so he needed police clearance and, of course, there is a fairly large sum of money that needs to be available in a bank account for a 3 month period prior to departure. At the time that he left you could still arrive in the UK and then apply for your ancestral visa in Croydon. Most South Africans were opting to go that route as it was both cheaper and quicker. The legislation has however changed and any ancestral applications now need to be completed in SA. For me, it was no issue at all as I hold dual citizenship so it was simply a case of book my ticket and go.

What was your first year like after emigrating?

The first 2 years were tough. Since we were both young (ish) with very little money between us, we went into a house share in Fulham. Initially sharing a single bed in a box room – if you stood in the middle and stretched your arms out you could touch both walls. Shortly thereafter we moved into a home with the same housemates in Wimbledon – somewhat more luxurious as far as house shares go and with house mates that had already been in the UK 2+ years. This was great as they knew all the tricks of the trade, had plenty contacts and wide circles of friends that we slotted into. Both of us got jobs very quickly – in fact that is probably the one thing I LOVED about the UK – if you are determined and want to work – there is a job for you and, unlike SA, what you studied has very little bearing on the job you could get (unless of course you were a lawyer or a doctor). What wasn’t easy was going from a fleeting romance to living together with nowhere to run to when things got tough. But I guess it made us who we are today and certainly, when I look back – we had nothing short of one big adventure.

What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children?

We were in the UK for 4 years before we got married and then 4 years later we had our daughter. By this time Brad had nationalised and Isabella was born with a British Passport. For us as a family, that in itself was hugely positive. The same year that Isabella was born my parents returned to the UK so we had little to complain about (well, besides the weather). I was working for Microsoft in their online division and loved my job – for someone who trained as a teacher and had no advertising experience that was quite possibly my biggest personal accomplishment and an opportunity that completely changed the course of my career. To be honest I LOVED the UK, I still do however in 2009 my dad passed away and it prompted us to rethink the longer term. Besides my mum, everyone else was still in SA and Isabella was an only child so having her grow up amongst cousins and family became a key focus for us. Towards the end of 2009 the UK economy had hit a brick wall and most companies were having to make widespread redundancies. I had moved from Microsoft to another Internet Marketing company called Valueclick and they too had to make cuts. That gave me an opportunity to propose an offshore service solution whereby cuts in the UK, in FR & DE could be offset with hires in SA so that we could cut costs, but not lose the ability to service clients. It as that idea that prompted us to return to live in South Africa in 2010 after 12 years in the UK.

What have you found hard about your new home?

Coming home to live in South Africa was actually harder for us than emigrating to the UK. It’s funny, you know your way around, everything is the same – yet it’s not. Friends have moved on, our expectation of the role family would play (since that was the reason for returning) didn’t quite get met in the way we thought it would, and the lack of service and infrastructure was beyond frustrating. That said, for Isabella – the return home (she was then aged 3) was 100% the right thing to do. Although finding the right school proved a little more challenging than we expected (Some SA schools are so stuck in the dark ages) Isabella thrives living in an outdoor, active lifestyle and her first 3 years in the UK could not have been more different to the years that were to follow.

What did you miss about each country while living in the other?

Living in the UK we missed our family. We missed the weather (of course), we missed the ease of getting around and we missed that feeling of being properly connected to friends. Our friends today are those same people that we went to school with. There’s something deeply grounding about spending time with the people who knew you at 13 and love you all the same 30 odd years later.

That said, there is lots we miss about the UK too. We miss the choice…… from the cheese aisle in Tesco’s to the wide range of internet providers – choice exists everywhere and in abundance. We miss the late night convenience of the tubes and trains. We miss the ability to walk, all day and all night without looking over our shoulders. We miss our garden with no walls and our home with no alarm system. We miss dinner parties where no-one cares to ask – where do you live, what school do your kids go to, what job do you have and, of course, we miss the easy access to travel.

But at the same time, London is work hard, play hard. To live affordably you have to live out and commute. This can easily add an hour, if not more, to your daily trip to and from work (each way!). You might only start at 9am to accommodate the journey to work but usually you don’t finish much before 5:30/6pm and when you add an hours train journey home that means 6:30/7pm before you’ve even started dinner. This equates to long days and longer weeks and when you have little ones it’s really tough which is why coming back to SA was a favourable option for us at the time.

What made it hard to return to South Africa?

Returning home hasn’t been easy – I was the victim of a hijacking just 5 months after we returned home. Things don’t work the way they do in a first world environment and there are many things that are insanely frustrating, however, both my husband and I own our own businesses which we started from scratch and that’s something South Africa does have to offer that is hard to match in very evolved economies like the UK. If you are an entrepreneur there is so much opportunity here to make a go of it and certainly, to anyone looking to return home my advice would be to look for the gap and go for it! That has to be the single biggest benefit.

I think the key piece of advice for someone thinking about coming back to SA would be to thoroughly research your employment options. Our cashflow in SA is about 5 years behind what it was in the UK. EVERYTHING is more expensive in SA (except eating out and relative cost of property). The big ones that we took for granted in the UK were things like the cost of your mobile phone, the internet, insurances, medical and even school fees. Those are nominal in the UK, BUT huge in SA and take up a large proportion of ones salary here. On the contrary – those costs in the UK are relatively small unless you are electing to send kids to private schooling or you are opting for a private medical aid (not essential by any means!)

Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same place or to a different place?

Absolutely, yes, and even though we have been back in SA 8 years, I wouldn’t rule out returning to the UK especially as our daughter gets closer to High School age. Why? Because right now, University education in SA is shockingly poor and it would serve my daughter better to complete her tertiary studies abroad. Equally, securing a job in the UK as a grad is way easier than in SA so this would certainly be our preferred route for my daughter.

So where to from here? Well, we are still here and likely to remain for the next few years, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we ended up back in the UK, or elsewhere at some point.


Thanks so much for sharing your story Cheryl… I find this series so fascinating and I know many more of my readers do too so really appreciate your honesty!


If you enjoyed this interview with a South African expat be sure to read the other interviews with South African expats in The Honest Expat series.


If you are (or have been) a South African expat and are prepared to share your story please drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you!

Kathryn Rossiter

Kathryn is a South African lifestyle blogger and mom of 2 who has been blogging daily for over 9 years! She writes about travel, health, beauty, fashion, decor and family... but not food (unless it's food she's eaten made by someone else) as she is a hopeless cook. She only wakes up early for 2 things... a red-eye flight to somewhere exotic and early morning game drives. She has just finished an extensive home renovation and would prefer to never see another box again. She's never met a chocolate or glass of bubbles that she didn't like!

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