LETTERS FROM A SMALL ISLAND

People relocate to other countries for a variety of reasons.  However, making a relocation work for you depends on much research, an open mind, a sense of adventure … and deep pockets

No amount of reading, research, and attendance at seminars can prepare you for the reality of relocating to another country.  Having made my own move to the UK just over two years ago, I found out many things ‘the hard way’.  Much like Billy Joel in The Entertainer, “things I didn’t know at first, I learnt by doing twice”.

If you, a family member, or a close friend are considering a relocation from South Africa to another country, you’ve come to the right place.  By ‘right place’ I don’t necessarily mean the UK, but rather this article and the ones that will follow over the next few months as I share my first-hand experiences, both good and bad, of pulling up sticks and starting over somewhere else.

I’m hoping that you’ll have a few laughs at some of the dumb things I did, possibly shed some tears as you come to terms with your own reasons for wanting to make the move, but most of all learn some things that you’ll probably not find at some slick seminar or glean from some glossy brochure.

My experiences are specific to the UK, as I’ve not lived in any other country apart from South Africa.  However, much of my story will apply equally to many other countries that you may be considering – including the popular English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.

So, fasten your seatbelts, dear reader … this is likely to be a bumpy ride, but I trust that you’ll enjoy the flight with Air Jones.

Having relocated to the UK just over two years ago, the Editor shares his experiences so that others considering a move to another country can benefit from the ‘school fees’ he has already paid. Image by Edd Allen from Pixabay

Why you might consider moving to another country

The main reason why I decided to uproot my family and leave South Africa are … nope, I’m not going down that road, primarily because everyone’s reason for contemplating a move to another country is as unique as they are.  These range from a desire to explore one’s roots, work or study opportunities, wanting to earn hard currency (but bear in mind that you’re living expenses are also in hard currency!), travel possibilities … the list is endless.  There’s a big world out there just waiting to be explored and experienced!

What’s important, though, is that you approach your proposed relocation in terms of what you are moving to, rather than what you are running from.  If you’re looking at emigrating because you’re tired of the crime, corruption, decline in standard, etc. then I’ve got bad news for you – you’ll find something that gets up your nose wherever you go.  SA may have had Zuma and his cronies and all that went with that sad legacy – but the UK has Brexit (although what the final outcome will be, and whether it will actually happen at all, is by no means a foregone conclusion), and we could end up with Boris Johnson (gasp!) or Jeremy Corbyn (horrors!) as our next Prime Minister.

Looking west, the United States has The Donald, rednecks, guns, and hurricanes to contend with; while Canada snows all through the winter, covering your car, garden, and half your house (except for those ‘warmer’ days when the temperature is minus 10 degrees!).  Staying in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand never stops raining and is filled with walking behemoths that instil fear and trembling into the hearts of any other rugby side you may have ever supported; while Australia is teeming with multi-legged creatures that are out to kill you (including the odd Fosters-fuelled Aussie).

In short, every country has its problems.  Trust me – once the newness of everything wears off and the ‘honeymoon period’ comes to an end, you’ll see them … and suddenly you realise that wherever you find people, you’ll find issues.

What you should avoid

South Africans!  Just kidding … in fact, although I am of British ancestry and grew up in an English-speaking household, there is often great delight in bumping into someone who truly understands the gravitas of delightful Afrikaans words such as ‘lekker’, ‘voetsek’ (hint: stray dogs all over the world understand what this means!), and ‘gatvol’; knows what boerewors, bunny chows, and ‘bakkies’ are; and can name at least 20 different scenarios where ‘eish’ is an appropriate response.

On the other hand, I bumped into a sales assistant at my local Currys PC World who hailed from Boksburg a few weeks back, and after listing to him berate South Africa for ten minutes straight, I had a sudden urge to be anywhere else – managing to engineer my retreat by playing the ringtone on my cell phone and pretending that my wife was calling.  Avoid those South African expats who continually run down SA to somehow justify why they left, and please, please, please … in the name of everything that is holy, don’t become one of those whining Saffers yourself.  You’ll make your fellow South African expats’ lives miserable, and you’ll make your own life miserable.

Keep focused on the positives, remind yourself why you decided to embark on this great adventure, embrace the new experiences … and you’ll be just fine.

Things that will shock you

You are moving to a different country with its own unique culture, so don’t be surprised when you encounter a whole host of things that are vastly different to what you took for granted back in South Africa.

From a UK perspective, there’s a saying that “in the United States 100 years is a long time, whereas in the United Kingdom, 100 miles is a long way”.  The same can be said of SA – a relatively young, large country on the southern tip of Africa with a similar population to an old, small island perched somewhere to the left of Europe.  Accordingly, these are some of the things that took me completely by surprise:

  • The roads are narrow, the houses are tiny, and there’s people everywhere.  Apart from the motorways and dual carriageways around major cities, most of Britain’s roads are so narrow that you need a feeler gauge if two Ford Fiestas should attempt to pass in opposite directions.  If there’s a van parked at the side of the road, you are likely to have to mount the pavement to pass.  As far as housing is concerned, 120 square metres under roof is considered ‘large’ – and as for the number of people around, Gautrain at peak hour is nothing in comparison to those sardine cans known locally as the London Underground or ‘the Tube’.
  • Cars are cheap, fuel is expensive, and insurance is extortionate.  You can buy a ‘banger’ for under ₤1 000 – which will get you anything from a Nissan Micra to an S-Class Merc depending on the age and the mileage (more on the UK car market will be covered in a future article).  Petrol currently costs around ₤1.25 per litre, which works out to around R23.29 at today’s exchange rate (24 April).  Insuring it, on the other hand, can cost you many multiples of the cost price of the car – especially given that you are starting with a clean slate, which means your ‘no-claims bonus’ from your South African insurance company counts for nothing in the UK insurance market.  Insurance is compulsory in the UK, but prices vary markedly between insurers, so shop around.  Speak to locals, though – there’s some good insurers, and there’s some really dodgy ones!  Or stick to the bus at first – they’re plentiful, regular, safe, clean, and reasonably priced.
  • Eating at home is virtually on a par, cost-wise, with South Africa – even taking the exchange rate into account.  ₤250 a month (around R4 500) covers our full grocery bill for a family of four, and we’re not exactly depriving ourselves in any way in terms of what we eat.  One needs to shop around, of course, but it’s no different in that respect to SA (although the supermarkets are somewhat smaller than your average Pick n Pay Hyper).
  • On the other hand, eating out can be ruinously expensive – ₤15 per head (R275) is on the lower end of average, although pub grub is good value with a decent meal coming in at around ₤8 (about R150).  If you like a tipple, though, best do your drinking at home.  Not only are the penalties for driving under the influence incredibly severe; alcoholic beverages in restaurants are insanely expensive – especially since you can obtain these at a fraction of the cost at your local supermarket anytime between 7 am and 11 pm, seven days a week.  (Or just stick to softs…)

Okay, I’m probably jumping the gun a bit.  First things first: To relocate to another country, you have to get there first – that means visas, removal costs, temporary accommodation once you arrive, subsistence until you get your first job, communications, transport … the list (and cost) goes on.  I’ll cover this in a future Letter From A Small Island.