Living in Cape Town, South Africa: a Nomad guide

Written by Andrew Henderson
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Dateline: Cape Town, South Africa

I’ve been in South Africa since the beginning of November and have spent most of my time here in Cape Town. I’ve been visiting some people I’ve known for a long time, as well as talking about investments and discussing what’s going on in the country.

South Africa is a country that has been struggling for a while. Just a couple years ago we talked here about some of the land reforms going on in the country that essentially allow the government to take people’s land in a type of reverse apartheid. We’ve also discussed the idea that maybe South Africa isn’t the safest place to put your money. Now that a couple of years have passed, I’ve come back to check in on what’s happening and to take things from there.

I also wanted to see if the country is a good place for lifestyle.

I’ll be the first to say that South Africa is not a good place to plant flags. However, there are some places where you can have a lifestyle and “live” without really going the full monty. That’s what Kuala Lumpur and other areas in Southeast Asia are for many westerners. Sure, Malaysia has the MM2H visa, but many people just live there as a tourist. They come, they go, and they spend some of their time there — perhaps even as one of their four bases. (In fact, you can rent an apartment as a tourist.) But you’re not going to open bank accounts in Malaysia unless you have a residence permit.

That’s the difference between Malaysia and Georgia, for instance. You can’t just show up in Malaysia and get a bank account, whereas Georgia is very easy in that regard. South Africa is not a place where you’d even want to try and get a bank account, but it may just be a great place to live.

Now, I’m also going to be in Lesotho, as well as the city of Johannesburg. Even so, I don’t expect to find much more in those locations about South Africa as a go-to lifestyle hotspot. Cape Town is the city where most people want to live.

Why?

Beyond Cape Town, there aren’t many attractive cities for lifestyle purposes in South Africa. I don’t really see the point of going to Johannesburg if you’re not there to discuss the gold or diamond business. It’s boring. The same goes for the capital city of Pretoria (where the executive and administrative areas of the government are located). Durbin is a growing city that shows some potential, but I’ve not been there, so this article will focus on Cape Town since it’s where everybody seems to want to live.

A politically favorable location

Cape Town, interestingly enough, is one of the few parts of South Africa that is controlled by the Democratic Alliance (DA). While the party’s influence is growing, it is still a trailing second place among South Africa’s political parties. The African National Congress (ANC) is the more aggressive, liberal, socialist, corrupt party, so it’s nice to see that Cape Town is going a different direction politically.

With the DA in Cape Town, the city is becoming a bit more friendly both politically and for business. In fact, businesses are moving here from Johannesburg. Johannesburg has always been the financial capital of the country. It is the New York of South Africa while Cape Town has always been the Los Angeles. It has the same vibe and the same geographical position even. However, all that’s changing as more and more businesses move to Cape Town where policies are a bit more friendly.

Stunning scenery

So what is the lifestyle like in Cape Town? For starters, the scenery is beautiful. It reminds me of parts of Malibu, driving along the PCH. When you drive along Clifton Beach, Camps Bay, or through parts of the residential areas, you honestly feel like you’re driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.

There are parts of the country that feel like Los Angeles while the mountainous regions remind me of the nice parts of Arizona. For those of you who are from the US and think that San Diego, Malibu, and Scottsdale are nice places to live, you can live or spend time here in South Africa and enjoy scenery that is just as beautiful.

Spectacular food

Another positive for Cape Town is that the food is great. You’re right on the water, so if you’re looking for a beach town, this is a great one — seafood restaurants included. Now, none of the gourmet restaurants the five-star hotels have recommended me have been amazing or blown me away like the restaurants you’d find in Dubai or Singapore. However, I enjoyed a nice meal at a relatively nice gourmet restaurant right on the seaside the other day.

The restaurant was located in a beautiful, quiet area a little bit outside of town near Hout Bay. In all, the meal cost about $30 for the catch of the day (very well prepared), a nice little appetizer, a glass of wine, etc. A nice, complete meal for 400-500 rand. For that amount, you can go to a lot of really nice places here. Tax, tip, a little alcohol, out the door.

On top of the great price, you get some great views in nice places with live music and more. A beautiful dinner on the beach.

The variety of interesting foods makes Cape Town a great foodie town as well. There are so many interesting and rare fish you can try here. I tried a fish called Kingklip that only exists in the Southern hemisphere markets of Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. It’s exciting trying fish they don’t have pretty much anywhere else.

South Africa also has Mozambique style food from its neighbor. They cook prawns and fish in a Mozambique style chile which is really tasty. What’s more, I have always loved Ethiopian food and, of course, they have it here. You’ve got a lot of stuff that other places don’t have. Where else outside the US and Ethiopia are you going to find Ethiopian food? Maybe in Singapore? Maybe not. But they have it here.

Reliable transportation and English

On top of the great food and great scenery, transportation is actually pretty decent. I have been using Uber during my stay and I’d have to say it’s actually good service. You can get around easily and, quite frankly, it’s pretty dirt cheap. To go from the central business districts to the beaches is about $5-7.

The other benefit here is that they speak English. In terms of diversity, South Africa is very similar to the US or Malaysia. There are many different ethnic groups that speak their own language (for example, many people speak Afrikaans, which is descended from Dutch), but English is the universal language in the country. This makes it easier to get around and conduct business.

I talked to a guy the other day who lived in India for a while and he said that Uber drivers didn’t even know how to find you there. They just played dumb. So it’s nice to know that you’d have the language advantage living in South Africa.

Difficult for planting flags

But what about the downsides? The first downside is that you can’t really plant flags in South Africa. I simply don’t know how you can plant flags here. There’s no way to really open a bank account. And why would you want to? Interest rates on a one year term deposit in the local rand currency are at about 6.5%. You can get better than that in countries that are more stable.

South Africa is a country that is going through a difficult period right now — politically and economically. Among other things, you’ve got the president going out on a no-confidence vote and a currency that’s just barely recovering. It’s not a place you’d want to be politically. That’s not to say that the US with Trump and Hillary is a great place of confidence, but you know what I mean. If we’re talking about going where you’re treated best, why go from the US to South Africa? This is not a place to plant flags, bank, or set up a business.

In fact, I’ve been hearing from more and more people in South Africa who want to leave. There’s a little bit less clamoring to leave now that the rand has recovered, even though that does mean it’s a bit more expensive to live here than it was six months ago. It’s still a very affordable place to live.

But that’s all I’d consider South Africa for living. No other flags. This is a place to live, to spend time, or even to make one of your bases. Quite frankly, though, I don’t think that the residence process or the PR process is worth it. I just don’t see the benefit.

Atrocious internet service

The other downside is the internet speeds. This is the big one. In fact, just the other day one of my friends was asking me why South Africa wasn’t more on the nomad circuit. After a couple of days here I knew why: the internet is atrocious!

The city of Cape Town is undergoing a big initiative to install fiber everywhere. That’s great, but it’s not doing enough. Not yet, at least. Hotel internet is mediocre and I’ve heard that Airbnb’s internet is even worse because it’s capped. None of the internet in all of these buildings even works. And people are basically just buying 4G bundles (which I’ve always disliked). I’ve never really understood the draw of buying some kind of 4G box with capped data in any country. And in South Africa speeds aren’t really 4G, either. Plus, it’s expensive.

Mobile data is maybe 4G and it’s not cheap. I’m not saying it’s really, really expensive, but you’re going to run out of data. I’ve been here on my mobile phone trying to avoid doing things. I’ve turned off background data and tried to pull every trick and be very careful because not only is it expensive and annoying, but it’s also difficult to add more data to your phone once you’ve run out.

When I ran out of four gigs faster than I expected, I found it nearly impossible to top up my mobile phone for data. I went to two different stores and they said that the system was down for Vodacom. So I went to the Vodacom website and it wasn’t working either. It just seems that nothing works when it comes to this stuff.

Resolving the main issue

Credit card acceptance is decent here, but not for some of the things that you would hope. I won’t say that it’s a bad thing because they do tend to take credit cards — although not a lot of American Express, which I find a bummer. However, if you’ve got a good international bank and you can take out money here, you shouldn’t have a problem. You can take out money as you need it and in rands. Furthermore, you won’t be subject to too much currency issue.

As I see it, the one main issue with Cape Town, if you’re considering it as a part-time base, is merely the internet. It’s just one issue, but it is a big one. Especially if you’re like me and run a location independent, online business.

If Cape Town sounds like a good fit for you, the internet issue is what you’ve got to figure out. That’s the missing element. Other than that, it’s a nice place to spend a month out of the year — even three months. They are making it a bit more difficult to get into the country right now, but these are minor formalities. If you’re a western citizen then it’s just a little bit annoying. Other than that, it could be quite an attractive option to live in Cape Town, South Africa.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Dec 26, 2019 at 8:04PM

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1 Comment

  1. Samir Franciscus

    Hi Andrew, I think you are pretty much spot on in terms of the political and economic uncertainty. As a South African digital nomad I am looking at planting flags in different locations as well.
    Im not sure what year this article was written (I presume late 2016) but internet infrastructure in Cape Town has improved the past couple of years. High speed fibre is now available pretty much anywhere in the CBD as well as the suburbs. While mobile operator internet costs are still high, more competitors are entering the market so thats a plus. 5G is also starting to be rolled out in South Africa which will be great.

    Reply

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