An expat guide to South Africa

February 27, 2017

Ranked the 33rd best country for expats in the 2016 HSBC Expat Explorer survey, respondents reported that they enjoyed a healthy work-life balance in South Africa and that healthcare standards where good.

South Africa is generally considered the most economically developed country in Africa, and is the largest economy on the African continent.

The South African lifestyle coupled with the countries economic climate ensures many expats choose  South Africa when considering a move overseas. If this beautiful and diverse country is on your radar for your next international assignment, our useful country guide can help you adjust to expat life in South Africa.

Main languages: Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, English, Southern Ndebele, Southern Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

Population: 55 million

Political system: Unitary parliamentary republic

Currency: ZAR South African Rand

South Africa is a paradise for those who enjoy life in the outdoors. Offering diverse geography,  natural beauty, wildlife, vineyards, 2800 kilometres of spectacular coastline, mountain terrain and a fantastic climate in which to enjoy it all.

Out of 221 popular expat destinations, the 2016 Mercer Quality of Living Survey placed the South African cities of Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg in 85th, 92nd, and 95thposition respectively, evaluated on quality of life factors including political, economic, environmental, personal safety, health, education, transportation and other public service factors.

The post-apartheid rainbow nation is a culturally diverse country, in which there are eleven official languages. With a large and friendly expat community and widely spoken English, the transition for many expats when they  first arrive in South Africa may be easier than other African cities.

Newly arrived expats can expect a reasonably high standard of living at a lower cost than they may have been used to in their home countries.

Outdoor living and sports are well catered for in South Africa, the sunny climate make participation in outdoor sports and water activities possible year round.

All in all, the climate and cosmopolitan life style make South Africa a wonderful destination to work, live and play. The rich mix and cultural diversity and lifestyles combined with a lively dining and entertainment scene, ensure that quality of life in South Africa is high.

In 2009 the Department of Education in South Africa was separated into two national departments, the Department of Basic Education, with responsibility for primary and secondary schools, and the Department of Higher Education and Training, with responsibility for tertiary education and training.

The nine South African provinces  have individual education departments with responsibility for implementing the policies of the national departments.

There are two main types of schools in the South African education system; government schools and independent (private) schools.

Private education is more expensive than government school alternatives, but education standards are high. Government schools vary widely in terms of standards and facilities.   

Many expat families opt for an international school, of which the larger urban regions have many excellent options, teaching various national curricula and the International Baccalaureate programme. In the best schools, competition for places is high and spaces are limited.

It is essential that families thoroughly research the school options for expat children prior to settling on a school.

For more information visit the Department of Basic Education and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Overall the cost of living in South Africa is low in comparison to what many expats will be used to on their home countries, however prices in South Africa have been increasing in recent years.

Despite this, the 2016 Mercer Cost of Living Survey ranked Cape Town in 208th position, making it one of the cheapest cities, globally, in which to live.

Example costs*:

McDonalds meal ZAR 54 (€3.80)
Litre milk ZAR 13 (€0.90)
Pint of beer ZAR 26 (€1.85)
Broadband ZAR 646 per month (€45.00)
Studio apartment ZAR 8500 per month (€595.00)
Petrol ZAR 12 per litre (€0.85)
Public transport (monthly ticket) ZAR 368 (€25.85)

The standard of healthcare in South Africa is considered the best on the African continent, particularly in the urban and coastal areas. The country has a number of private and public hospitals, nursing homes and clinics.

Hospitals and doctors will often require immediate payments for their health services. However, if you wish to have a consistent level of service, private health insurance is recommended.

South Africa has guaranteed universal access to subsidised public health care, for all citizens, based on a sliding scale according to income. A National Health Insurance (NHI) initiative is in a pilot phase prior to being introduced across the country in a phased approach from 2016 - 2025.

Private healthcare is prominent in South Africa and continues to grow rapidly driven by private medical insurance and by popular demand for personal choice and ease of access to higher quality services. This growth comes at a price of high annual inflation in private medical costs.

The country is self-sufficient and manages all its healthcare funding requirements from domestic revenue sources. International donor organisations and philanthropic foundations do play a large role in funding specific health programs of their choice, especially in HIV prevention and treatment.

High quality healthcare services are available in the private sector in South Africa. This includes a diverse range of individual private provider offices across all medical and allied professions, private clinics and specialised hospitals. The private sector also includes dental services, pharmacies and private ambulance services across the country. Private and public hospitals, as well as a number of clinics and health centres, are located in rural areas. Generally speaking, medical facilities in South Africa are very good, especially those in private hospitals. The general practitioners, the nurses and the medical staff are trained at top medical schools in the country. Some of the specialists obtained their medical degrees and underwent training in western countries like the US and the UK.
As with other countries, South Africa has certain diseases that expatriates should be aware of. Infectious diseases are generally a major concern, not just in South Africa but the whole of the African continent. It is better to seek the most up-to-date medical advice before you decide to move. Try to set an appointment with your doctor at least four to six weeks before your trip. This will allow ample time for the vaccinations and other necessary shots to take effect. Furthermore, there are no risks of yellow fever in South Africa. Thus, yellow fever vaccination certificates will be required from travellers and visitors that arrive from infected locations. Although not required by South African law, vaccinations against polio and typhoid are strongly recommended. Travellers are also advised to have vaccines for rabies and Hepatitis A and B.
Medicines in South Africa are relatively affordable. The prices are similar to those of other African countries. Pharmacies are manned by well-trained and professional pharmacists.
South Africa has very good facilities for emergency cases. Ambulances are properly equipped and there is a contact number that can be used in emergency situations.
In most of the rural and urban areas in South Africa, tap water is generally safe and potable. Milk products are properly pasteurised and dairy products, poultry, local meat, seafood, vegetables and fruits are generally considered safe to eat.

The climate in South Africa’s low altitude areas assists in the spread of malaria. The malignant falciparum form lasts throughout the year in most areas, specifically on the Northern Province, in Eastern Transvaal, which includes the Kruger National Park and KwaZulu Natal, and south as far as the Tugela River.

For expatriates and travellers there are anti-malaria tablets available. Furthermore, aside from taking anti-malaria tablets, measures can be taken to avoid mosquito bites. Malaria, as well as other insect-borne diseases like filariasis and dengue can be avoided by applying insect repellents and wearing loose, long clothing after dark. Additionally, avoid swimming in fresh water, except in swimming pools that are properly-chlorinated. This will help to avoid a parasitic infection called schistosomiasis.

As with other African countries, South Africa has been blighted by the scale of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) infected patients.

For expats living in South Africa a good international health insurance plan is crucial to ensure continued access to quality healthcare and avoid expensive medical fees. When assessing health insurance options, expats living in South Africa should consider including a repatriation plan.

For more information on the healthcare system in South Africa, visit the South African National Department of Health.

For expats considering relocating to South Africa for work or study, advice and the most up date information on visa requirements and regulations can be obtained by visiting the South African Department of Home Affairs here.
*Costs accurate at time of publishing