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Choosing where to live

A beautiful and diverse country, in both landscape and culture, South Africa offers the newcomer a wealth of places to settle.

From flat terrain where the land meets the sea, the mountain ranges and plateaus of the interior, the coastline's cool Atlantic waters, to the warm currents of the Indian Ocean — the country's geographical makeup contributes to a varied climate.

For those who love to explore, the Garden Route and its golf courses, ancient forests, and lush greenery offer a stark contrast to the equally beautiful, dry scrubland of the Karoo plateau. Not far from the coast, the Drakensberg mountains to the east of the country offer great skiing, and to the north, the mineral-rich, sub-tropical woodland of the bushveld is a draw to tourists seeking a glimpse of wild rhino, giraffe, and antelope. The wildlife being just as fascinating as the landscape, the country's many nature reserves and parks are an integral part of its character.

The country has many major cities and three capitals: Pretoria (administrative), Cape Town (legislative) and Bloemfontein (judicial). With ocean along most of its perimeter, South Africa shares borders with five other African countries including Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Temperatures can range from the average 35°centigrade experienced in Letaba in the Kruger National Park to the north, to the 2.8° average in Buffelsfontein in the south-west of the country.

As in most places around the world, the cost of living in cities is higher than in the towns and more rural areas but, despite this, most expats choose to move to either Cape Town on the coast or Johannesburg further inland.

When thinking about where to live in South Africa, there are several things to consider:

  • Safety and security — crime rates vary from place to place, and every city has its no-go areas. Many expats choose to live in gated communities or secure compounds.
  • Do you want to settle close to other foreigners or newcomers from your country?
  • How will you and your family get to work or school? With 3-hour commutes standard in some localities, you need to think about how you’re going to get around by car or public transport in the places where it’s not safe to walk or cycle.
  • Do you want to be near the beach, mountains, countryside, or the social and cultural advantages of city life? Proximity to desirable locations can come at a premium cost.

Cape Town

  • Mercer cost of living ranking (out of 209 cities): 170
  • Mercer quality of living ranking (out of 209 cities): 94

With a laid-back atmosphere, mild climate, and beautiful scenery from mountainsides to seascapes, the Mother City, as it’s known, has a part-European, part-African feel. Although there are areas where it is inadvisable to go, most expats find that the inner city and suburbs are relatively safe and peak-hour traffic is easy to deal with. For those seeking an outdoorsy lifestyle, the coast offers fantastic beaches, shark-cage diving, and excellent hiking opportunities in the hills.

On an economic front, salaries are lower than in Johannesburg and property is more expensive but the cost of living is very reasonable. Home to a thriving IT industry, the World Design Capital 2014 is well known for its creative business community and the economy is also supported by the busy port, a film industry, and a robust financial sector.

Considered an easy place for expats to settle in, recent improvements in the bus system have made getting around without a car much easier, and the city is home to some of South-Africa's best educational establishments, including the University of Cape Town and Bishops Diocesan College.

Central City

With a young and trendy atmosphere, City Bowl, Atlantic Sea Board, and Camps Bay are the most popular places to live for professionals without children. Attracting a premium price, properties are in close reach of beautiful coastline, and stunning mountainous scenery around the city. From smart Victorian houses to contemporary bachelor flats, these areas are close to the vibrant nightlife, shopping and business districts.

Those who have been in the area for a while or who have children, often choose to move further out where there is more space and better schools. The only downside is that commuting times can be arduous with a journey time exceeding an hour at the wrong time of day.


To the south, False Bay and Hout Bay provide a quieter, more laid back atmosphere. With seaside villages and quiet harbours, it’s a favourite area with those seeking a quieter way of life.

To the north, the regions of Bloubergstrand and Table View command a striking vista of Table Mountain across the bay. With moderate property prices, it’s a favourite with families who like to take advantage of the water sports centre and easy access to the beach. Although the regeneration of the bus routes has taken some of the weight off the heavy traffic, commuting to City Bowl for work can still be a daily trial.


  • Mercer cost of living ranking (out of 209 cities): 177
  • Mercer quality of living ranking (out of 208 cities): 95

Originally a gold mining settlement, and founded on the wealth it brought, in its time Joburg (as the city is also known) was historically at the centre of the struggle against racial separation. Now a fast-paced, modern city, it has come some way to escape its troubled past, but there is still a considerable disparity between wealthy and poor, something which some newcomers find difficult to come to terms with.

The affluent, urban areas frequented by expats are green and spacious with excellent schools and pleasant, gated cluster developments. Think carefully about where you'd like to settle as a car is just about the only workable means of getting around, so make sure you are near to employment or schools. Rush hour traffic can be horrendous.

Sunninghill, Lonehill and Fourways

A pleasant environment, open spaces and great schools make this area a favourite with expats. Home to some secure estates, the newcomer will find leisure and health care facilities, shopping, and housing in one convenient location. Be warned that the commuter traffic out of this area could be heavy.

Sandton and Bryanston

Known as Africa’s richest square mile, this area of Johannesburg has seen a boom in recent years. Since the 1990s, many business and financial giants have moved their headquarters into the area and it is now home to skyscrapers, luxury housing, the stock exchange, and one of the largest shopping areas in Africa. Naturally, the closer you get to the centre, the more expensive the housing is. Green, leafy, and famous for its purple blossoming jacarandas in spring, nearby Bryanston is a beautiful area of the city to live in, but again, housing attracts a premium price. Home to excellent entertainment venues and world class restaurants, the area also boasts a vibrant organic market, a superb golf course and beautiful outdoor spaces.

Randburg and Ferndale

An affluent but quieter suburb of the city, Randburg is known for its proliferation of top-class boutiques, shopping developments, and entertainment. Perfect for families and those who love the outdoor life, there’s a good mix of quality housing types and easy access to Johannesburg Botanical Gardens.

Joburg City Centre

With increased crime rates, and degeneration triggered by big business moving out of the city, this area has not been the first choice with expats for some time. Turning this trend around, recent investment and development have seen the introduction of high-spec, secure accommodation from which the city professional can enjoy the best of the nightlife, cuisine, shopping, and entertainment Joburg has to offer. With beautiful views, and easy access to the acclaimed Wits University, this area is becoming more popular with expats again.

There are many suburbs with their unique character. Northcliffe is known for its park-like setting, Melville for its trendy university scene. Older parts of the city around Rosebank and Parktown offer some of the best schools and easy access to the famous Johannesburg Zoo. For those who fly regularly, Bedfordview is a quiet, leafy area located within easy access of O.R. Tambo International Airport.

Tshwane, also known as Pretoria

The administrative capital of South Africa, the city is known as the ‘Jacaranda City’ after the proliferation of purple blooms that flood the streets, parks and gardens with colour in the spring. With striking examples of European architecture, mixed with those of a unique South African style, the city is also home to research centres and three universities, giving it an excellent reputation with academics.

Many of the government’s central departments are housed in the business district, along with many of the nation’s historical buildings and monuments, and foreign embassies. Alongside these are the offices of major corporations and banks as well as shopping developments. With the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and the Pretoria National Botanica Garden within easy reach, the city offers an attractive mix of economic opportunity and laid-back lifestyle. The ideal place to explore a diverse range of museums, from the National Cultural History Museum (also known as the African Window Museum) to the Ditsong National Museum of Natural History. There are also excellent international schools and colleges within easy reach.

With good road, rail and bus links into the city, many expats seek accommodation in one of the suburbs. According to South Africa’s Financial Mail, Silver Lakes and Woodhill to the east, and Irene Farm Villages and Centurion Golf Estate to the south, offer an excellent and safe standard of living. With a note on rising prices in recent years, and the increasing popularity of golf estates, it lists a number of other up-and-coming, along with well-established developments. The advice is to do your research thoroughly, and you'll find just the lifestyle you're looking for.


The Capital of the Free State province, Bloemfontein (or the City of Roses) is also South Africa's judicial capital. Nearly four and a half thousand feet above sea level, the city sits at a central, pivotal point where many of the country's roads, railways and air links meet from all four directions.

The seat of establishments such as the Appeal Court and Supreme Court of South Africa, it’s home to a wealth of historical buildings and fascinating architecture dating back hundreds of years. There’s plenty to do, with arts and crafts markets, outstanding gardens, a leisure steam railway, and a zoo all within easy reach. The atmosphere is an easy-going family one.

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