Ten years ago I visited the beautiful, yet complicated country that is South Africa. I have some very fond memories, yet it was also a shock to experience a country that was so fundamentally different from where I live in the UK.
Whilst there is so much for a tourist to do in South Africa, from a safari in Kruger National Park to a week in Cape Town, the bars on windows, extremely high crime rates and racial segregation that I never knew existed outside of the historical films I'd watched made me a little anxious. This guest post, written by an expat who moved to SA summarises her views on the topic.
South Africa is a country of contradictions that has plenty to good aspects but before you even so much as think of immigrating here, you really do need to understand both the messy past and at times an even messier present! It's also important to understand what part that plays in the day to day life of the average South African – if, that is, there even is such a thing as an “average South African”.
Aside, perhaps, for its beautiful beaches in Cape Town, majestic game reserves and safari parks (yes, contrary to what some might think, if you want to see a lion or giraffe, you do actually have to go to such places – they don't, in fact, walk freely around our streets) South Africa is undoubtedly best known for one word: Apartheid. Effectively a formalized system of discrimination that favoured white people over not just indigenous blacks but over Asians, Indians and those of mixed race too, Apartheid lasted some forty-five years and, sadly, continues to influence even the current state of the country.
The division between white and non-white has given way somewhat to – taking a cue from many a “first world” country – a division between classes. But old prejudices die hard and much of the current political atmosphere of corruption, abuse of power and people at the top generally doing all they can to make things difficult for the rest of us, is a direct result of literal “black and white” thinking. And, of course, none of this is remotely helped by widespread unemployment, gross income inequality and lack of quality education that leads to everything from violent crime to inefficient government services – all the result of either the lingering effects of Apartheid itself or the bumpy transition of power from the disastrously immoral to the hopelessly unprepared.
You might think that this all simply adds up to a country that no one in their right mind would want to be within a thousand miles of and yet, for all that South Africa has major problems and for all that its future is uncertain, South Africa is in many, many ways a great place to live and one that has steadfastly refused to play into our worst expectations.
Take, for example, the end of Apartheid and the dawn of real democracy in the early to mid '90s. Reasonable expectations and even the most cursory knowledge of history strongly suggested that such a transition should have been accompanied by widespread bloodshed and violent revolution – and if you look at the general reaction of white South Africans at the time, that's certainly what they expected – but instead the transition was largely peaceful with power quietly changing hands after a remarkably orderly and well managed election.
Now, twenty years later, South Africa is still defying expectations: this time poking major holes into the myth that the increasingly corrupt and inept ruling party, the ANC, was untouchable as municipal elections saw the ANC lose its hold on the country's biggest and most affluent cities. Beyond that, from a far smaller and subtler point of view, though the rift between white and black has hardly fully healed, South Africa has still managed to create, in her cities at the very least, a fully cosmopolitan, egalitarian society with people of all races, religions and gender working and living side by side.
Of course, as it's every bit as foolish trying to predict the next “miracle” as it is trying to predict the future – things may look grim but South Africa is still as likely to pull itself out of its current predicaments as it is to implode on itself – all that we really have to go on is what South Africa is like now and why it is still worth immigrating to rather than away from.
Whether you're looking for an almost impossibly mild climate, plenty of natural beauty (Cape Town is constantly ranked as one of the most beautiful cities in the world for a reason and there's lots to do too) and an excellent quality of life/ cost of living balance, South Africa has plenty to offer people coming from even the most advanced, “first-world” countries. Its people are also known for being very warm and friendly and its mix of Western and African cultures creates a very rich and colourful cultural life.
Interestingly, for a so-called “developing country”, South Africa excels in some quite surprising areas. Our banking, for example, is world class with our internet banking being a particular standout. Excellent banking, however, does mean that they aren't afraid to charge so when first moving to South Africa, it's highly recommended that you make use of a foreign exchange/ money transfer company as not only are they significantly cheaper and far more dedicated to each customer, they also offer useful extras like setting up a private bank account for you, holding your money until they do so and have quality connections with both the country's other financial institutions and banks. There are particular companies which are known to have great local connections in S.A, namely Currencies Direct (read about their services here).
Either way, South Africa may not guarantee the level of security and certainty of many “developed” countries but it is a unique, special country that still offers a cheaper and easier lifestyle than much of its competition.