What I’ve Learned After One Year Living In South Africa

Johnny

It’s been one year. I’m still alive and I’m still in South Africa. I’ve gotten used to the day to day life. While I still have my “this is Africa” moments, I’ve become accustomed to most of what this country has thrown my way. I’ve done and learned so much in the last year that it’s difficult to write it all down.

Getting used to the South African life


Joburg is a city of many different faces. It’s the financial hub of Africa and SA’s equivalent to NYC when it comes to young professionals looking to grow their careers. It’s also a very family orientated place with a slow, relaxed pace of life that makes me think I need to have some kids of my own to live that lifestyle. Nevertheless, in the span of a year, I’ve become completely accustomed to my new life and its surroundings.

The shitshow at Absa Bank Sandton Branch. Expect nothing to get done when coming here.

The shitshow at Absa Bank Sandton Branch. Expect nothing to get done when coming here.

I walk slower, talk slower, and can expect nothing to get done when I visit the bank. I’m completely used to the numerous accents in this country and I sometimes have to do a double take when I hear a stranger speak American English. I go to the occasional braai on the weekends, visit the same restaurants over and over, and generally just live a much more relaxed lifestyle. It’s not bad. Five years of the NYC lifestyle can have a toll on a person so this is a good break before I return to the mayhem that is the Big Apple. Although I must say I can’t WAIT to not have to drive anymore.

 

 

Rewatch all the African themed movies (Blood Diamond, Last King of Scotland, Invictus, Hotel Rwanda, etc.)


After living in New York for a year, I re-watched a lot of movies shot in the big city. It was a special feeling to be able to point out a landmark in a movie and say oh I lived right next to that! While I can’t exactly do this for all the African set movies out there, I can relate just a little bit more. Leonardo Dicaprio’s accent in Blood Diamond, while Zimbabwean, sounds familiar. Pretoria’s parliament building in Invictus, Ellis Park, and just learning about Uganda’s history during my time there and re-watching Last King of Scotland.

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The Income Disparity in South Africa is daunting


Is really getting to me. I’ve visited plenty of poor areas of the world in my life but never for more than 2-3 weeks at a time. I sneak a few glances at these living conditions, let out a sigh wishing I could do something about it, and then I have to return home and end up forgetting about it. I’ve lived in SA one year now and I have seen not only extreme poverty, but extreme wealth coexisting somehow right next to each other.

Porshe opening launch party. Hanging out at places like these, one can think there are no problems in SA.

Porshe opening launch party. Hanging out at places like these, one can think there are no problems in SA.

South Africa ranks in the top 5 in the world for income disparity and it’s clearly visible. Where I live in Sandton resembles more of a high end American suburb with more German luxury cars than Germany. People here expect and DO live the average to above average American lifestyle. The one fact missing here is the average income of America is $50,000 a year and the average salary of a South African is $7,500. Something doesn’t add up here. Just drive 15 minutes east of all the mansions of Sandhurst and Hyde Park and you’ll see a township called Alexandria where people live like those infomercials that always guilt you into adopting an African child.

Having a posh brunch at Tasha's Melrose Arch

Having a posh brunch at Tasha’s Melrose Arch

Another example is the Aston Martin dealership in Sandton. The British luxury car company, synonymous with James Bond movies, sells more cars in its Sandton branch than any other of its branches around the world. For a car that starts at $250k in a country with a $7,500 GDP per capita, this wouldn’t be possible without a little bit of income disparity. And yes, I see these cars around ALL the time.

Meanwhile, the township of Alexandra 20 minutes next door . . .

Meanwhile, the township of Alexandra 20 minutes next door . . .

South Africa is a rapidly growing country and its educated population expects to live well and therefore demand salaries almost comparable to salaries made in America. While the rich get richer, the poor stay poorer. Your average gas station attendant will make something like 3000R a month (~300$/month). Not much can be done about this unfortunately. The lingering effects of Apartheid and the country’s corrupt government will mean at least a few more generations will pass before this income divide converges. Which leads me to the next point..

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Sometimes, you just gotta appreciate the little things


You never know what you take for granted until you move away from what you’re used to. It’s no secret I love to travel and see as much as I can. People in America that didn’t share my same sentiment, I just thought of them as someone who just hasn’t been bit by the travel bug yet (although there are plenty of these people in SA as well). I can safely say that the majority of the people in South Africa, in their lives, will never travel to 10% of the places I have traveled to in the last year. This isn’t because they don’t want to explore the world, but rather they are trying to make ends meet.

Helping lighten the load for the kids. These batches of firewood are NOT light by the way. Incredible how a little kid carries this stuff around so easily.

Helping lighten the load for these kids in Uganda. These batches of firewood are NOT light by the way. Incredible how a little kid carries this stuff around so easily.

Hell, many of the people haven’t even been to Cape Town, and likely never will. I’ve already been there five times in a year! The people in East Africa are even worse off. The kids living in Arusha will likely never experience the breathtaking sights of Serengeti that’s only a few hours away. The hillside farmers of Uganda will never trek with the gorillas next door. The kids in Zanzibar will never see the inside of the hundred luxury lodges surrounding their homes.

The list goes on but the one thing that is always consistent is somehow these people are so happy when I see them. I honestly think it’s genuine too. How do people with so little, yet see people with so much, still live so happily and be so nice? I’ve yet to find the answer to this but I’ll be damned if I have to ever think of an answer to “still or sparkling” at a restaurant (Tap water damn it!)

 

 

Ok, so the weather isn’t perfect


Summertime gloom in Joburg.

Summertime gloom in Joburg.

But it’s about as close as it gets. I’ve been through a full year of Joburg’s weather patterns and can conclude that it is perfect. People here have no idea how good they have it. Weather patterns here are simple. Winters (May-Nov) are of overwhelmingly sunny blue skies, mild temperatures (~20 degrees) with nights getting a little chilly. I do get a good laugh every time I see a South African wearing a proper winter coat and scarf which happens a lot. The locals have no idea what real cold is. It’s almost like they’re trying to create winter for themselves here. It is not cold. Summers(Nov-Apr) are hotter (~30-35), but not intolerable, and the afternoons can yield some breathtaking thunder storms.

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There was one stretch of weather in March where it rained cloudy for three weeks straight. Aside from this bad stretch, weather has been mostly predictable and rarely a topic of conversation between people. I will say that Joburg, when gloomy for long periods of time, can be a depressing place. Thankfully, these days are far and few.

In comparison, nice weather during the winter.

In comparison, nice weather during the winter.

The winter has returned now and this is easily my favorite season as you can go a whole month without seeing a cloud. My type of weather. Cape Town on the other hand has the opposite weather where summers are amazing and winters are filled with rain and gloom.

 

Inflation is very prevalent


Gas prices were less than 12R a liter when I first arrived. Of course, the weak rand is one of the causes for this spike.

Gas prices were less than 12R a liter when I first arrived. Of course, the weak rand is one of the causes for this spike.

Inflation is something we can’t run away from. In America, CPI is somewhere around 2% a year and feels even less so. I can recall almost five years of living in New York that 7$ burritos at Chipotle rose about 40 cents. Not exactly something to write home about. Inflation in short was just not something I factored into my budgeting.

All hope is not lost.Last year, Turn N Tender had 36R 300g steak specials and it's only gone up 1R this year! Can definitely live with that inflation.

All hope is not lost.Last year, Turn N Tender had 36R 300g steak specials and it’s only gone up 1R this year! Can definitely live with that inflation.

South Africa on the other hand has a CPI of ~6% and this figure is extremely skewed since the income disparity is so high. 6% is the national average but consider than the average grocery store checker makes 3500R a month, this figure is no where near what it is for more affluent individuals. I mean the cost of pap can only go up so much. I wouldn’t consider myself an affluent individual by any stretch but with the income disparity in South Africa, I’m a part of that group just by process of elimination.

 

Inflation for people like myself is more in the 9-10% range. I can feel it too. All around me, just in the last year, I’ve seen prices of goods go up anywhere from 10-50%. In ONE year! I’m talking basic groceries, food at restaurants, even my barber raised his prices! Oil has gone up drastically since I arrived but that is due to the weakening of the rand. Nevertheless, inflation was always a number I was aware of because I studied finance. In reality, I never noticed its effects first hand until moving here.

 

Six countries down, few more to go


In one year, I’ve visited the countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Uganda. All while working full time. Not bad I must say. I’ve still to visit Victoria Falls, the Okavango, Madagascar and Mozambique so the adventure has not concluded yet!

African sunrise over the Ngorogoro Crater. Can't be beat...

African sunrise over the Ngorogoro Crater. Can’t be beat…

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Showing 2 comments
  • Avatar
    Grey
    Reply

    This may not be seen, as this blog was written several years ago, but I have my hopes lol. Hi Johnny, I’m a 22 year old with no illustrious career but working full time. I’m in need of some advice of some sorts.. see I’ve been very close friends for a couple years now with this, amazing girl, who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, I live in Texas. Our relationship has progressed to a point where.. I’ll just say that she means the world to me, even though we’re worlds apart. And I’m not sure what to do. This may seem, laughable or childish, but I want to be with her, and I’m open to leaving the states even if only for a few months to a year. We’ve talked about it and, I could really use some advice, and to know what my options are as a non-student, with no transferable career. This all may seem ridiculous & I understand. I’d be happy to hear back from you ๐Ÿ™‚

    Sincerely, Grey.

    • Johnny
      Johnny
      Reply

      Hey Grey, it is not easy to just show up in South Africa and expect them to take you in. At your age, I would look into doing volunteer work. You may find some jobs under the table that will pay you but will be difficult to get a rea`l job that sponsors you unles you have some crazy skill to offer. Otherwise, if you are there for a year, just do visa runs where you leave the country to Swaziland or Lesotho or Namibia and come back. Best of luck!

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