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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in South Africa

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Life in South Africa

Many people around the globe may only have a somewhat fuzzy notion of what life in contemporary South Africa looks like. For a very long time, the one thing most people knew about South Africa was apartheid, the system of governmentally backed and enforced segregation along racial lines. Fortunately, this is history now, and the nation has been working on establishing a positive image internationally.

A Country Building Its Image

The FIFA World Cup in 2010 gave the world a glimpse of modern South Africa. However, it was also criticized for failing to portray what living in South Africa means for large parts of the population. So what can be said of living there in general terms? The country is diverse in all possible aspects, from language to religion, owing to the many, many ethnicities unified in this nation. In South Africa, you can find some of the most “westernized”, wealthy, and progressive facets of the African continent, but also some of its most dire problems. One thing is certain, however: expats will rarely experience something just like life in South Africa.

A Lot of Ethnic Groups with a Lot of Languages

Prior to 1991, the government divided the population of South Africa into four general ethnic categories: black, coloured, Asian, and white. After the abolishment of apartheid in the 1990s, these categories fell out of use, at least for most official purposes.


The reality, however, still shows the old divides in terms of education and income, for example. Blacks are, statistically speaking, still the most underprivileged group within South African society. Nonetheless, change does come step by step, and South Africa has already successfully begun to lose the aftertaste of decades of governmental inequality and segregation through a series of countermeasures.

Today, around 80% of South Africans classify themselves as black Africans. This is a culturally and linguistically very diverse group, consisting, among others, of the ethnic groups of Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, and Ndebele peoples. Whites, who are an equally diverse group, constitute about 8% of the population. Since 1994, the number of whites in the country has been on a slow, but steady decline. The causes lie with the low birth rate and the high number of whites unable or unwilling to continue living in South Africa for various reasons, including the high crime rate that plagues the country.


With the diverse ethnic roots of the South African people, it is quite unsurprising that the nation acknowledges eleven official languages. While it is not the most common first language among the populace, English still serves as a lingua franca between the various ethnicities and expats, making it an important part of daily life. The South African accent is a very clear and decipherable one, so there should be very few, if any, communication problems. You will very rarely find yourself in a situation in which you cannot talk in English at all in South Africa’s large expat hotspots.

Health Care and Insurance in South Africa

About the Health Infrastructure

The South African health infrastructure is generally of very high quality, especially in large cities. Hospitals and clinics have highly trained, experienced staff. South Africa has excellent clinics for heart disease and eye conditions, attracting a respectable number of medical tourists every year.

Pharmacies are well stocked with anything you might be familiar with from your home country. However, if you regularly take prescription medication, you should be aware of the fact that some pharmaceuticals can be very expensive. If you can, bring a small supply to last you for at least the first couple of weeks or months in order to save some money. Do not forget to bring all medication in its original packaging, along with the prescription from your doctor.

South Africa’s standards in water supply and hygiene in food preparation are very high. You will be able to enjoy meals from street vendors, locally grown produce and dairy products, or tap water without problems.

Insurance for Expats: Make Sure You Are Well Informed

We strongly advise you to get to the matter of buying insurance with full coverage well before you relocate to South Africa. Alternatively, discuss the inclusion of a group healthcare plan in your benefits package with your future employer. There is no national health plan. Even with insurance, you cannot always be completely sure that all expenses will be taken care of by your insurance provider. The costs of healthcare in South Africa are steadily rising, and some insurance providers have caps on certain services. If the costs for a certain service or treatment reach this cap, you will be liable to pay yourself.

The South Africa Info Portal, a service provided by Brand SA, has further detailed information on all health-related topics. It should definitely be among your websites to visit before the big step into your new expat life. Another helpful tool is the South African online directory Ananzi, which offers, among many others, a directory category on health care and insurance. If you would like to get direct links to all healthcare providers in South Africa in to compare, please see the directory of the Board of Healthcare Funders of South Africa.

Important National Health Issues

A very pressing health issue is the prevalence of HIV and AIDS in the country. It is estimated that about 6.8 million people — translating to roughly 13% of the population — live with HIV/AIDS. It is also one of the leading causes of death in the country. The fact that the rate of new infections seems to be on the decline is a silver lining in this matter.

Other health issues that become increasingly serious include tuberculosis and insect and tick borne diseases. In contrast to many other African countries, however, there is no need to worry about malaria, as the country is largely free of the disease. Some risk areas include parts of rural Limpopo and Mpumalanga, including the Kruger National Park and other game reserves.

Transportation and Safety in South Africa

What to Do with Your Foreign Driving License

Provided your driver’s license is issued in English, you may use it in South Africa for a duration of up to twelve months. If the license is not in one of the eleven official languages of South Africa, you have two options: you can either apply for an international driver’s license before you depart for South Africa, or exchange your original license for a South African one.

In order to take the latter option, your driver’s license must be valid, include your picture, and be accompanied by a letter of authenticity and — if necessary — a translation into English. Your embassy should be able to help you with the last two requirements.

If you plan on staying for more than twelve months, it is advisable that you exchange your license. Not only does this simplify things in case of road controls, but it is also helpful for insurance purposes: some companies might require proof of a valid South African license, even if you originally were able to buy insurance without one.

Road Conditions and General Advice

South African roads are generally in a very good condition and fairly safe. However, the driving style prevalent among many drivers can make driving in South Africa still somewhat risky — the country has twice as many traffic deaths as the global average. Apart from aggressive — and sometimes not very sober — driving, poor lighting on some country roads and insufficient upkeep of vehicles can pose further risks.

Be particularly alert when approaching stop signs at junctions — South African traffic regulations make ample use of four-way stop signs. Right of way is given in order of arrival: the first vehicle to arrive is the first to have right of way, and so on.

In South Africa, motorists drive on the left side of the road. Please keep this in mind at all times; you would probably not be the first absent-minded expat getting into a calamitous situation right after driving out of the car dealership.

Crime and Safety — Well Known Problems

A very lamentable fact about everyday life in South Africa is that the crime rate is exceptionally high, both in regards to petty crimes, such as theft, and more serious felonies, including acts of violence and sexual assault.

Some of the causes and roots of this large burden for South African society are more straightforward than others. For one, the country inherited many burning, unsolved issues at the end of Apartheid, some of which (such as income inequality) pose large challenges to this day. Sprawling urbanization led many impoverished families to the large cities in hopes of getting jobs that were not available, or at least not in sufficient numbers. The alarming ratio of unemployed people and those living in extreme poverty surely are important factors, among many others.

If you become a victim of robbery, please comply with the demands. Resorting to violence has almost become normalcy within some circles of South African society, and robbers might not think twice about it.

The prevalence and sheer number of cases of sexual assault in South Africa is cause for continued concern. Reportedly, one in four South African males stated to have sexually assaulted a woman. There is no special or elevated threat for expat women, but it is advised that you always stay alert.

We have already pointed out the tendency of many expats and members of the upper and middle classes to move to gated communities for all these reasons.

That being said, there is no need to think that you will enter pandemonium every time you leave the house. The South African government is very aware of this problem, and various countermeasures have been taken to ensure the safety of citizens and expats alike. The large majority of areas of your future daily life as an expat professional in the large megacities of South Africa may be as safe as in comparable expat magnets.

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