How to Survive Your First Few Months as an Expat in South Africa, Part II

If you enjoyed last week’s post by Phil Maloney –  who blogs at A Canadian in South Africa – then you might enjoy some more of his tips in Part II of his advice column for new expats in South Africa.

…You’ve just arrived in South Africa, and you’re filled with bright-eyed wonder. You’re adorable. If you’re managing to read this, great news: you managed to find an internet connection. That’s your first win. Now what?

5. Explore.

I promise you one thing: after a night of indulging in burritos and beer, it may seem like a good idea to pass gas in a hot, relaxing shower, but it’s not. Something about the way the smell sticks to the steam and then attacks your olfactory system is truly horrific. That has nothing to do with this post, but it seemed like good advice anyway, and I have nowhere else to put it. So I promise you TWO things: farting in hot showers is a terrible, terrible idea, and you’ll find more to do in South Africa than you ever thought imaginable.

Just imagine this in a hot shower.

You could do no greater disservice to yourself and your family to stay at home and within the confines of your safe neighbourhood. There are beaches, wildlife, amusement parks, museums, scenic drives, and countless other mind-blowing activities all within driving distance of wherever you happen to live in South Africa. Get out there as often as you can.

6. Get Good at Waiting

I’m not going to beat around the bush here. If you have ANY type A tendencies whatsoever, if you like things to run on time, and if you have any affinity for efficiency, you’re going to get very, very angry here. At least to start. Nothing here runs smoothly. I’m not exaggerating. Once in a while, despite South Africans’ best efforts, everything may fall into place and something will take exactly as long as it should. But that’s the exception, not the rule. [Editor’s note: This is where a discussion about Just Now vs Now Now might be in order.]

Everything here runs on South African time, which is really rather fluid. Something that should take 30 minutes may take exactly 30 minutes. Or several hours. Or days/weeks/months. If you try to make South Africa fit YOUR expectations, you’re in for a world of hurt. Things don’t run efficiently here, and you need to get used to it. In fact, toss out that previous sentence, because I’m doing exactly what I said not to do at the beginning of this list. Efficient is a relative term. Things run South Africanly here, and people just accept it. You will too.

Even the traffic is brutal here.

I’ve learned to bring a book everywhere I go. It helps numb the pain a little. Just be careful to double check the queue you’ve hopped into is actually the right queue for what you need. Or, for that matter, that it’s a queue for anything at all. Waiting in line has become so ingrained into South African culture that there will be long lines that exist solely because somebody decided to stop behind somebody else that was stationary for whatever reason, and BOOM. Next thing you know, a queue forms. There’s nothing more frustrating than waiting for 1-3 hours in a line and then discovering you were in the wrong one. Not that I know from experience or anything…

7. Try New Things


Actually, just fire your kids over the crocodiles. You can always make more.

Let’s be honest here. You didn’t decide to become an expat because you have zero sense of adventure. So make the most of it. If somebody puts a hunk of giraffe on your plate, chow down (unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you’re going to be incredibly unpopular at social gatherings here). If you’re offered a chunk of lamb innards wrapped in its own stomach lining, go for it (it’s surprisingly good). You’re not here to continue about your life the way you lived back home. Zip line over crocodiles. Put impala poop in your mouth and see how far you can spit it (I’m not even making that one up). Milk an elephant (OK, maybe I made that one up).
You get my point. Live a little. Because before you know it, you’ll be off to your next assignment and you’ll truly regret not riding that crocodile when you had the chance.

8. Eat, Drink, and be Lekker.

After waiting in queues, South Africans’ favourite thing to do is braai, which is pretty much just like a BBQ turned up to 11. Remember when I said you’d be unpopular at parties if you’re a vegetarian? You should. It was literally one paragraph ago. Anyway, that’s because they serve meat as an appetizer here. Then the main course is meat. And they top it off with meat as a dessert. And in between each course is more meat. If you’ve never been fortunate enough to have an entire barnyard perish in your belly all at once, well, you’re in luck!

If you’re at a proper braai, they’ll cook with wood. One reason is the smoke gives the meat a flavour like you’ve never experienced in your life. The closest thing I can compare it to is an angel standing in your mouth, pissing all over your tonsils. You know what I mean. But from what I can determine, the primary reason they cook over wood is that it takes a long time. And that time is devoted to drinking insane amounts of alcohol. So when you inevitably get invited to your first braai, make sure you take an Uber. Cause you’ll be in no shape to drive home.

You’ll often hear people describe something as lekker, which is pretty much a catch all phrase that describes something good. Once you’ve hosted a braai for South Africans and they say they had a lekker time, you know you’ve arrived.

8. Breathe.

When you first get to South Africa, you’re probably going to be excited, nervous, and out of your element. That’s normal. Things are insane here. Taxi drivers will actively try to run you off the road on a daily basis. Everything can kill you (snakes, hippos, lions, spiders, people, mosquitos, bad nachos, etc). But you know what? Chances are very likely that nothing bad will happen. Your frustration tolerance will be tested. You’ll hit a wall where you’re done with everything and just want to go back home (I hit my breaking about 4 months in).

Remember to breathe. Watch a sunset. Think about why you came here in the first place. I’ve never experienced such raw beauty, such stunning nature, such friendly people, and such vibrant cultures in my life. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and appreciate that while this may not be home, it’s home for now.

And know this: Once South Africa gets into your blood, you’re done for, because you’ll never want to leave.


Thanks so much to Phil for the helpful tips disguised in his trademark humor. We look forward to hearing from you again! In the meantime, if you’re an expat in South Africa with a story to tell, contact me here or on the Joburg Expat Facebook page.


“Phil is very clever, handsome, and talented. He is very good at colouring and picking out fancy cheese. He smells good at least 64% of the time.” -Phil’s mom
Phil has been many things- a musician, a university English instructor, a picker upper of dead bodies, and a sales guy. He moved his family from Vancouver, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa in September 2016 and is still wondering how that happened. Phil’s blog is, and he agrees with everything his mom said. 

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