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Culture Shocks when Moving to South Africa

A Guide to Handling Culture Shocks when Moving to South Africa

South African life can be full of the kinds of exciting, refreshing experiences associated with moving to any new continent. Unique to this land, you’ll also discover that the media often sensationalises crime, the country’s cosmopolitan cities are just that, and zebras and giraffes don’t generally roam the streets. Cultural differences from the UK exist due to South Africa’s complex history and societal variations, the large number of languages spoken, plus the various cultures coexisting in the one geography – and this can cause culture shock when moving to the Rainbow Nation.


Society and Equality

For a modern country, there remains distinctly out-of-touch societal norms. The gap between rich and poor is vast and street beggars are a frequent sight, which can be something of a shock to any new expat. The historical background of Apartheid mixed with competing cultures makes for continuing tensions; however, the country still offers a heady combination of natural beauty, diversity, and business and lifestyle opportunity. For many, the collision of developed and developing elements makes for a stimulating, inspiring future.

Modern Pursuits

Times are still a-changin’ in South Africa and urban centres are representative of a modern, developed country with middle-class values and distinct Western influences. Be prepared for the South African love of the shopping mall, even if the choice and range is limited compared to the West’s major cities. Also expect to partake in a regular “braai” or barbeque of meat (including crocodile and ostrich!) over hot coals, particularly when one of the country’s major sports is taking place – rugby, football or cricket.

Safety, Security and Solo Walks

Some cities are more obsessed with safety and security than others. Johannesburg is one such place where people’s homes are situated in gated communities, enclosed by electrified fences or walls, patrolled by security guards, and where a stroll in the local park is neither encouraged nor recommended. The focus on crime and personal safety can be unsettling for any expat, although there has been a concerted push towards crime reduction across the board and this is starting to show positive results.

Transportation Limits

Other reminders persist to show South Africa as a nation still in a developing state. Infrastructure is lacking in many areas, especially when it comes to public transport, although recent initiatives by the South African government are targeted at improving this situation. Having a car at your disposal is essential for getting from A to B but care needs to be taken on the road given the high number of unlicensed drivers and un-roadworthy vehicles.

Now, Just Now and Now Now

Time in South Africa can be an unusual concept. Measured by “now”, “just now” and “now now”, South Africans are in no rush if something can be put off until later. While this isn’t true in the South African business world, it can sometimes apply to business functions but regular applies to social engagements – punctuality and frequent rescheduling are seen as a perfectly normal way of doing things in this familiar yet quite dissimilar land.

Russell is a British expat living on Sydney’s Northern Beaches where he writes about his search for a life less ordinary at, one of Australia’s leading expat and travel blogs. He can be followed on Twitter and Instagram as @russellvjward.

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