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Interview with Sine – expat advice on life in South Africa

Updated 7 Feb 2011

Sine Thieme is an American expat who moved to Johannesburg, South Africa with her family in 2010. She is loving life in South Africa, particularly relishing the ideal climate of the Joburg highveld and the friendly locals. Sine writes the entertaining blog Joburg Expat based on her experiences.

For more information about expat life in Johannesburg, visit the Expat Arrivals city guide to Johannesburg or read more expat experiences in South Africa.

About Sine

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: My husband and I are originally from Germany, but we had lived and worked in the United States for 20 years before moving to South Africa.

Q: Where are you living now?
A: In Dainfern Valley, which is located in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg

Q: How long you have you lived in Joburg?
A: We've lived in Johannesburg for almost a year, since March 2010.

Q: Did you move to Joburg with a spouse/children?
A: Yes, with aforementioned spouse and four children, ages 8 to 14.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: My husband works for a large multinational corporation, and I'm the spouse who tags along when he gets a new assignment. We had moved quite a bit within the United States the past few years, and to and from Singapore before that, so moving and living as expats is nothing new to us.

About Johannesburg

Q: What do you enjoy most about Joburg, how's the quality of life?
A: What I love most about Johannesburg is the weather and the people. Honestly, if you had to come up with the perfect climate, you would design something close to what we have here. Hot (but not too hot) summers, and a few months of dry cool (but very sunny) winters. I don't think many places on Earth have more days of sunshine per year. (Of course, as I am writing this, we're having a very unusual summer with rain at all odd hours of the day). And the people are welcoming, fun-loving, and lively. There is a large expat community, but I love the fact that we've made many South African friends. Oh, and I also love the local art. You can surround yourself with the most beautiful sculptures and paintings at a very low cost.

Q: Any negatives about Johannesburg? What do you miss most about home?
A: I miss shopping in just one place for most of my needs. I'm not a shopper at all, which is perhaps why getting everything painlessly in one place appeals to me. For that reason, I also miss (which at some point did not even ship to South Africa due to its postal system fraud). Sure, you can get everything you need and many new and interesting things here as well, but it always involves many more trips. I also miss the American road system, where an interstate highway remains an interstate highway across the entire country, instead of turning into a dirt road right outside of Gauteng.

Q: Is Joburg safe for expats?
A: No, but I don't think any city is safe, for that matter. I also think that Johannesburg gets terrible press in terms of crime, some of it deserved, but a lot of it exaggerated. We have personally never encountered any problems, and any stories of muggings or carjackings we have heard are second hand. You do have to be sensible as to where you go, especially after dark, but life here is much more normal than I ever imagined before moving here. I regularly roll down my window and chat to street vendors without any problems, something I was gravely warned never to do. But we also live in a walled-in estate with round-the-clock security, which is something you will just get used to.

Q: Describe an ideal way to spend a weekend in Johannesburg?
A: Well – my ideal way might not be your ideal way. I can sit reading by our pool overlooking Dainfern Valley and enjoying Joburg's sunny weather, and call that a successful day. But here are some visitor tips: The Bryanston Organic Market on a Saturday morning or the Rosebank Rooftop Market on Sundays for African craft shopping, Montecasino or Melrose Arch for dinner and evening entertainment, a Soweto tour or the Apartheid Museum for some South African culture and history, and perhaps a visit at the DeWildt Cheetah Centre or the Lion Park to see animals.

Living in Joburg

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in Johannesburg as an expat?
A: Most expats live in the northern suburbs, and of those, in the Dainfern (including Dainfern Valley, Dainfern Ridge, Fernridge, Fourways Gardens) and Kyalami neighbourhoods. This is where the most secure estates are located, which is what most employers of expats will be looking for.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation?
A: The properties are very nice, most all houses include pools. If you're coming from Europe, houses will seem huge to you, and if you're coming from the US, they're about the same. They are not particularly well built and often feel drafty in the winter, which is why it's important to make sure you have under-floor heating.

Q: What's the cost of living in South Africa compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Home being the United States, I would say the cost of living is a bit higher in South Africa, maybe by a factor of 1.2 or 1.3. But not everything. Groceries are more expensive, but the quality is also very good (Woolworths especially). Gasoline (petrol) is also more expensive, though cheaper than in Europe. Travel is also very expensive in all of Africa, as far as I can see. The one thing that's definitely cheaper is going out to eat, and there are a number of wonderful restaurants to choose from. Domestic help is also much, much cheaper here, but of course if you've never had any you will spend more here, because you'll definitely want to get a maid.

Q: What are the South African locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: South Africans are fun-loving and active. They enjoy being outdoors and typically have a great sense of humour. They are also almost never in a hurry. Our friends are actually mostly South African, which probably has to do with the fact that our kids go to a South African school. But there is of course a large expat community, and it is very easy to find other expat friends, either just by living in an estate such as Dainfern, by having children at the American International School, or by joining an organisation such as the American Society.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: We found it very easy to make friends through our kids and their friends. You do have to be a bit more outgoing, as South Africans keep to themselves a bit more than Americans, but ever since we got to know some people they have been very welcoming. You will always be invited in when you pick up your child after a playdate, for instance.

About working here

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: No, but this was managed by my husband's company, or rather outsourced to a lawyer or other professional. The only problem consisted in getting the visa IN TIME. We entered South Africa on temporary visas, which in itself was not a problem, but when you try to get a mobile phone contract or buy a car, having no permanent visa is a huge drawback. I would suggest to all prospective expats to put their effort in obtaining the permanent visa as early as possible. It will make your first few weeks much easier.

Q: What's the economic climate like in Johannesburg, is there plenty of work?
A: South Africa, and I suppose Johannesburg by extension, has very high unemployment, but paradoxically also a big shortage of skilled labour. I can't say that there is "plenty of work" but there is definitely demand for people who are good at what they do.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: I have limited experience with the work culture. My guess, from what I've observed in general, is that it is professional, but maybe a bit slower-paced than at home. People seem to be a bit more relaxed about life here, and not in such a rush.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move?
A: Yes, we had a relocation company assist us, and they were very helpful during the initial phase of looking for a place to live and a school. They also assisted in setting up a few things upon arrival, but were not as knowledgeable and helpful as I would have wanted during the settling-in phase. Which is why expat websites and blogs are so valuable!

Family and children

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to life in South Africa?
A: No, as in our case my husband was the one to go to work and leave me to the troubles of settling in. But I wouldn't say that I had problems adjusting either. I do imagine that for first-time expats settling in South Africa might be somewhat trying – because of the glacial pace of bureaucracy, and the fact that things can stop working at any moment.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?
A: I wouldn't say they settled in easily, at the time. We had a few difficult days when everything at school was new and not everyone was helpful or friendly. But becoming familiar with everything, and then finding new friends and becoming excited about school or sports didn't take more than a few months. From that perspective, I would say that settling in was very successful. They are now more self-confident for having mastered the transition, but of course nothing of value like gaining confidence is obtained without any pain.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A: We've been very happy with Dainfern College, a private South African school conveniently located in between several estates, and the other option is the American International School of Johannesburg, where many expats send their children.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in South Africa?

A: We have been happy with our healthcare so far. There are a number of excellent private hospitals in Johannesburg, as well as many doctor's offices to choose from. Our insurance is US-based, so I don't know much about health insurance (called medical aid) options in South Africa. I do know that the price of treatment is a good deal lower than that in the United States.

~ Interviewed February 2011

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