On Being An Expat and a Wanderer

I have very mixed feelings about being a South African expat.

I was born in Cape Town as a third generation South African. I lived in the same house for 24 years of my life, attended school and university in Cape Town, and the majority of my extended family live in Cape Town and surrounds. My roots are firmly South African, with my not-so-distant ancestry leading back to Europe in a confusing and mysterious trail of immigration and repatriation.

Cape Town City Bowl and Lion's Head Photo Credit: National Geographic
Cape Town City Bowl and Lion’s Head
Photo Credit: National Geographic

I have been fortunate enough to travel with my family, and from an early age I’ve felt the urge to travel and see new places. As a kid, I always dreamed of living in different countries to experience different ways of life – a strong desire that still defines my obsession with travel. I have always loved my home town, my country, and the laid-back way of life. I am proudly South African – and I get profoundly homesick at times. I miss the beaches, the friendly smiles, my family and friends, and the familiar comfort of “home”.

And yet, I don’t regret leaving.


When my boyfriend (now fiance) left to find a job in Germany, I made the decision to follow him. I relocated for love – my love for him, my love for travel, and my love for adventure.

Leaving certainly wasn’t the plan, at least not so abruptly. I had a comfortable life in S.A. – I could have found a normal job, moved out of home, maybe done a Masters degree at the University of Cape Town, where I spent 4 years studying psychology. And there’s nothing wrong with that – but it wasn’t the path I decided to take. I longed for broader horizons, for new experiences. I felt restless in my hometown – everything had started to feel too familiar, and too comfortable.

And I’ll admit – certain things about living in South Africa frustrated me. Not being able to drive due to an anxiety disorder and epilepsy meant that I made use of public transport. For a year or two it was fine – an adventure, filled with quirky stories of obnoxious train preachers and dodgy mini-bus taxis – but then it started to wear me down.

I often think of my future children, South African education standards, healthcare, and their freedom and independence to go about as they please without fear. I spent every day worrying about my personal safety and being terrified of being attacked or raped on my morning commute in the dark in Cape Town city centre.

These weren’t the only things that made leaving an option, of course, but they certainly made an impact on my quality of life.

Zapiro cartoon - President Jacob Zuma and his iconic shower head, adopted after the president had unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman and then "took a shower" to prevent infection.
Zapiro cartoon – President Jacob Zuma and his iconic shower head, adopted after the president had unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman and then “took a shower” to prevent infection.

These are just a few considerations, and as with ANY country, city, or town, there are many pros and cons to staying and leaving. A current trend in South African social politics is a bitterness shown by some locals (a select few, to be fair) towards expats, especially those who express their discontentment with the current crime rates, corruption, etc. I’ve come across several scathing articles recently:

S.A. Expats Must Just Shut the Hell Up” – News 24

On Angry South African Expats” – The Disco Pants Blog

Clearly, the term “South African Expat” has come to be an insult to some – an amorphous category of people who have left South Africa to live elsewhere, because they obviously hate South Africa.


Wait, what?! The vast majority of South African expats I have met and spent time with love their country dearly. They were sad to leave, or had plans that took them away from home. They speak fondly of South Africa, they are saddened by the country’s problems and joyful at its triumphs. They still see it as home, and they look forward to their visits. They often recommend South Africa as a holiday destination to other travellers, talking excitedly of the places to see and things to do. They give common sense advice without exaggerating the crime problems. They love their country, as do I.


As for the “expat haters” – I honestly can’t understand where this extreme anger and bitterness comes from. Is it patriotic, a defense of a country they love? Is it jealousy, a way to feel better about not being able to leave? Is it a throwback to the hatred for the first generation of expats who fled the “new South Africa” after the 1994 elections?

I found this fantastic article while doing a bit of research, and the author Victoria Bourhill gives a great point of view on being a South African expat, and making sense of the negativity directed towards expats*. As she mentions, it’s true that there are a few S.A. expats who badmouth their country, for whatever reason. But the majority of this generation’s South African expats are merely seeking out new job markets, new ways of life, and new opportunities.

My husband-to-be and I would love to return to South Africa one day – well-travelled, more experienced, and better able to look after our future family in the country we love. As 20-somethings, we are thirsty for new experiences. We don’t really know where we’ll live next. The places we have been have had pros and cons, and we love and loathe different aspects of every place we’ve been. Such is life – full of good, bad, surprising, and the mundane.

Expat life is difficult at times, with culture shock, loneliness, and a sense of losing touch with your homeland, but I have to say once more that I don’t regret leaving.

My current life path is taking me through Europe, but who’s to say that I won’t return to South Africa one day?


*Click here for a link to Victoria’s blog, Its The Wanderlust. Well worth a read! 🙂




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