Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Life in South Africa

A while ago I received an email from an American woman living in Asia, who is married to a South African and contemplating relocating to Cape Town. She asked for my thoughts on life here, in the long and the short term. She wondered about the things you hear in the news – the negative explanation points that seem to encompass a place, deservedly or not. Her email really got me thinking about my own experience here. I took my time to craft my reply to her and wanted to share it with you as well – I hope you’ll enjoy my candid response:

Dear friend-

Thanks very much for your mail. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come back to you. The truth is, your question kind of intrigued me and at first I wasn’t really sure what I would say. In a way I feel that it’s a privilege to share my perspective with you as you make this very important decision, and at the same time it is a huge responsibility to respond to you with honesty. Ultimately only you know whether moving to South Africa is a good decision for you. You might already know the answer you are seeking, somewhere deep inside.

My story in South Africa began a long time ago, in 1998, when I came here as a study-abroad student in university. At the time I didn’t know much about SA. I had heard about Nelson Mandela and apartheid and was fascinated with the idea of “Africa” – but otherwise I came with a mostly blank page, innocence, excitement and pure joy. I had always dreamt I would travel – and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to finally board that plane and awake to sunrise over the Kalahari.

While I was here studying I fell in love. We met amidst the Southern Hemisphere’s largest sand dunes, in Alexandria. It’s a place not too far from Port Elizabeth where the dunes pile up like mountains. The view from the top makes friends at the bottom look like ants, far away, and then the blonde giants tumble down dramatically to the edges of the sea. I grew up in land-locked Pennsylvania and had never seen such harsh and abrupt beauty.

I went back to the States to finish my studies and six years went by. I had a new life but something was always missing for me. Eventually I had the chance to come to South Africa for a three-week holiday and then everything changed. I reunited with the friend I had fallen for before and we travelled together to the Transkeii on the East coast and had one of the most amazing times of my life. Those 21 days were full of turning points for me and memories that still make me smile – New Year’s Eve fireworks on a wild coast, feeling the humid tropical weather, driving through pouring rain and waving to locals who walked slowly, the same as they would on any other day, camping on a hillside next to a village where people live in huts, don’t have electricity and cows roam the beach. It was a world away, even now, and it helped me make my decision to move here, to be with this wonderful person and to carry that feeling of absolute freedom every day.

A year and three months later I moved here. It was difficult to leave my “old home” for my new one. I sold off most of my things, packed what I could, and arrived full of anticipation. I never looked back, even though this hasn’t been an easy journey. It took me a long while to make new friends and really feel like this is my home. My professional life was also full of adjustment and at first, cultural misunderstandings that proved frustrating. Soon after I arrived I personally experienced crime – something which served as the biggest stumbling block for me in adjusting here since it destroyed my sense of confidence and for a while, my free spirit. But time heals all things and now I can say I am living the life I dreamt I would live.

In the long run South Africa will present you with financial challenges – the rand does not go very far which makes international travel and every day shopping a budgeting exercise. There is talk of a national policy to weaken the rand further, making exported goods cheaper and more competitive but meaning that imports are that much more expensive. Crime is a reality that affects many people. The nation is awash in “transformation” and Black Economic Empowerment and while this is good for many it creates special challenges for white South Africans. The price of electricity is rising at a rate of 30+% each year. Quality education comes at a high price and with a good dose of competition for the limited classroom seats. The public healthcare system is troubled – there are stories in the news of hospitals having to close due to copper wire theft, babies dying due to unsanitary conditions. The president is a polygamist with five wives but still there are stories of his fathering children with other women out of wedlock – making his position as a role model in a nation awash in rising HIV / AIDS rates difficult to believe. Life in South Africa can be first world in some places, in some experiences, in some lifestyles – yet there are stripes of third world realities, struggles and corruption and the two sides cannot help but intersect at some points.

In the short term South Africa will offer you a beautiful life with wild and wondrous scenery, awe inspiring weather, joyous discoveries and memories for a life time. We’ve been to Mozambique where I slept next to the beach, snorkelled in clear warm water, ate prawns and discovered that at night there are hundreds, maybe thousands of crabs that come out and scamper along the sand. I’ve seen the greatest sand dunes of Namibia, in Sossusvlei, where the grains at the peak form a snake-like dragon highlighted by the first light of dawn. We camped in Etosha National Park and clung to our pillows while Honey Badgers snorted outside, in search of food and by day watched elephants and zebra drink at the watering hole. We walked in the zone of leopards and heard hyena at night in the distance. I’ve climbed to the peak of Monk’s Cowl in the mighty Drakensberg Mountains, 18 hours of steady walking, exhausted and exalted at the end. I’ve spent time learning to surf in the frigid Atlantic and the warm Indian Oceans. I’ve been surprised by a giant purple-domed jellyfish and later laughed at my own freak out. I am learning bits of Afrikaans and surprise locals by throwing in a word or two while talking. People are generally quite curious about me as an American and are inquisitive about life in the States and how I came to be here. I now live in Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. We laugh that on weekends spent at home we still feel like we’re on holiday with all of the amazing things to discover. I’ve grown into a better person and learn new things every day. I miss my friends and family – and reunions are that much sweeter. I think about the things that are important to me and thank the universe for allowing me to be so lucky.

What happens to one person will never happen exactly to another we each have our own path and for that reason I think we must each make our own decisions. I hope you will make your decision carefully but believe that a dose of light heartedness goes a long way, and that sometimes the decisions made with our hearts are the most powerful ones of all. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story with you.

Wishing you all the best from the fairest cape in the whole circumference of the globe,



  1. that is so beautiful! thank you so much for sharing your story... :)

  2. Theresa, thank you also from us! My husband is South African and my two daughters (13 & 16 yrs) and I are a bit nervous about our upcoming relocation to Cape Town. My husband is a C-level IT exec and has some wonderful opportunities there. We've traveled to SA on holiday often so its not a completely new experience for us but it is going to be a bit of a change, especially for our girls.

    Do you know if there is a group of people who have moved to Cape Town from the US or UK that we may be able to join up with? I thought it would make the transition a little easier. My email is donna@us-steenkamp.com.

    Thank you again for your insight and wonderful story!

    Donna Steenkamp

  3. Theresa, thank you for your personal insight. My husband and I just came back from SA visiting friends and traveling around.

    As expected, we fell in love with the people and the country. We always considered moving there; now we are seriously looking into it. While doing web search, I stumbled into your blog, thank you for sharing your experience and for your honesty.

    We have lived in other continents and once again we plan to make a big leap, our emotions are high, we are eager to start a new life and would like to be prepared for the challenges of living in SA. We have favored the Cape Peninsula: Scarborough, Noordhoek... that's your area right?

    Your letter is perfect, it gives a broad picture of the current situation while keeping in mind the beauty of the country and letting each reader make their own gut decision. Would love to be more in communication with you.
    Thanks again for you blog and all the best to you, Florence

  4. Hi Theresa,
    Ohhhh! I have tears in my eyes my friend. You write SO beautifully!!! My hear is swelling right now. Thank you for sharing this with me. You wrote a beautiful, honest, and extremely well thought out message to this woman. This was extremely kind of you.
    I love and miss you,

  5. Whew!!!! after reading your thought-provoking account of your life experiences here in South Africa and sharing your emotions I am truly moved by your explicit detail, candour and literacy. Need I say more?

  6. Thanks for posting. I have just made the decision to move to CT and I was looking for some personal experiences so your post was truly helpful to me.

  7. I am a South Africa who moved away three times (to study, for work, etc) and everytime I came back. The last two times I came back I knew it wouldn't be permanent because I was young and restless and wanted to experience the world. However, even during those restless years, i wanted to come back to this country, unpack my bags and take a deep breath here.

    This time, coming back is permenent. I am in Cape Town. Moved from the US last year. LOVING it. It is still the honeymoon period, I guess. There are some frustrating things about Cape Town (which also what makes CT special in some ways). It is laid back, too laid back. This is not a product of living in a 3rd world country because Johannesburg is anything but laid back. The laid back attitude here can be frustrating when you want things done, but it also reminds you not to get angry, not to get frustrated and just enjoy life and its journeys.

    It is beautiful. The city is breath-taking. I can't describe it. You have to be here to know what I mean. The mountain gives life to this city. You have to see it to know what I mean. The first day I saw table mountain from the city view (the classic view), was when I was taking a cab to town. As we came around the corner, suddenly this mountain was in full view, in all its glory. I broke out in a spontaneous smile. It is that feeling "I have arrived". Well, I can't describe it well. Why don't you all come on a holiday here and experience "having arrived".

  8. Well, your letter made me cry! it's beautifully written and is exactly my view on this beautiful country.
    I am french and my husband south african, we live in the UK at the moment but in our twenties travelled and lived in NZ for a year and we've been to South Africa over 10 times from a few weeks stay to a 3 months stay, and I have to say SA is my favorite place in the whole world!
    I first visited this amazing country in 1998 for my boyfriend's sister wedding in Hout Bay, (a boyfriend of only 1 month at the time, who is now my husband!). I fell in love with with the place.
    We too had a nasty encounter with crime when 4 armed men entered my in-laws beautiful house (part of a secure complex) in Pretoria at 9pm while we were watching TV, an experience I don't want to revisit ever!
    That was followed 2 days later by a very scary experience in the Kruger where our car got trapped between 2 aggressive elephants (one in front and one running towards us behind), at this point I wanted to die and did not understand why all this happened to me. (although it made me study elephants and learn everything about these beautiful creatures).
    But you know what? not once, while this happened, did I wish I never put foot in this country.
    Life is full of experiences and the many many wonderful ones I happened to have in this country far outweigh the bad ones.
    It made me stronger as a person and willing to learn more about South Africa, it's politic, people etc...
    And let me tell you, as a foodie and wine lover, I much prefer South Africa than my own country France.
    It's just magical!
    Thank you again for your beautiful letter.