On the Beach

Thursday, 8 March 2012

How can you spot an expat in Cape Town?

How do you tell an expat in Cape Town? Well, lots of ways.

For a start they'll be standing outside Tekkie Town looking mystified ("That's one helluva of a typo of 'tacky'".) They will also be having a heart attack about the price of imported goods (HOW MUCH for a GAP T-shirt? It's almost as expensive as the Italian Gnocchi and the Worcestershire sauce whose prices made us faint in Pick n'Pay!"). If you want to spot posh English expats, just go down to Vida Cafe in Constantia in the morning. It's like one of the 2 Saturdays in the English summer where you can sit outside on Kensington High Street. If you're a bit sleepy in the morning in Constantia, all that braying can make you a little disorientated- where am I?!

Most expats- or at least relatively new arrivals- can be seen weather appropriate clothing. Capetonians are noticeable by the fact that, come April, they wear fur-lined boots and dress their children in woolly hats (the temperature dipping below 20 for even a second invokes the use of wool, knits, fleece and fur).

On the road, an expat can be spotted by the fact that they use their indicators, stop at red lights and don't stop randomly in the road. We seek each other out, eyes meeting across chaotic junctions (both thinking: if that bus hadn't gone across on red, I'd probably be at home having dinner by now). We know who we are. And expats get pedestrian lights and road markings. It's like Capetonians have a different highway code (or, perhaps, none). I am totally beyond road rage now, my brain exploded a while ago and I drive in a state of in-car lobotomy (which probably makes me like most Capetonian road users- one more step to fitting in).

But aside from all that, there is another way in which you can spot an expat: by their shoes.

I can hear what you're thinking: that we Europeans can be set apart by our expensive shoes, our designer shoes whereas those poor Africans are so poorly shod. Now, before you start packing your aid box full of shoes, WAIT.

Expats are obvious by the fact that they wear shoes at all.

And no, I'm not just talking about the people who live in townships. Go to any shopping mall in Cape Town, even an upmarket one and you will see teens dressed in Abercrombie and Fitch, Canterbury- whatever- their bare feet gliding across the marble floor. Grown men, middle class men pop into the supermarket to pick up beers and a boerewors shoe-less. Some of the primary school teachers at my daughter's school don't wear shoes. The children are encouraged to go barefoot at a young age as it's better for their development, apparently- children are able to walk along tarred roads in bare feet in the heat of summer without flinching. You see a crowd of kids walking home from school, in uniform with a rucksack but without shoes. I absolutely love the smartness and formality of the uniform and then a pair of filthy shoes-less feet to finish it off.

My daughters have completely embraced shoe-less living, although my oldest one took a while to come around to the idea. Like a good English girl, she wore her socks and shoes at all times for a good few months, wouldn't be coaxed otherwise. The day I picked her up from school, her feet filthy and bare, I knew she was becoming a South African.  Now, however, both of them abandon shoes as soon as they can. They drop them, kick them off them in other people houses, anywhere on our property, in the car, at school and I swear that 30% of my waking day is spent trying to find shoes that we may or may not need require later in the day. When their friends come over, there's a kiddie shoe-pile at the front door- that's if they were wearing them in the first place.

It's a very cheap way to live- have you seen the price of kids' shoes?!

My mum and dad said that shortly I moved to Jo'burg as a child, I wouldn't hear of wearing shoes and I have always preferred to be barefoot, it's true- even after we left (a;though I had to adapt for the Norwegian winter somewhat).  I must really be getting into the CT way of  life, as today I rushed out to collect my daughter from school- and forgot my shoes.

I don't imagine too many South Africans gave a grown woman walking across the school park in bare feet a second thought.


  1. I love your blog! I am a Ex Pat Brit having just moved to Cape Town and am really enjoying the stories and your take on CapeTonians very astute and funny!


    1. Hi GraceK! Welcome to CT- what brings you here and how are you enjoying it? Thanks for your very kind comments- nice to know someone likes my take on the unique beast that is the Capetonian! I think someone should commission an anthropological study on them!

  2. It's so funny what you said about people not wearing shoes. I am South African, but have been living abroad for 10 years, so sometimes I forget about these things and it's very funny to see it from an expats point of view. When I was a little girl we went on holiday to Greece and I was refused entry to 3 different tourist sites because I wasn't wearing (and refused to put on) any shoes! Thanks for bringing back that memory and brightening my day :)

  3. Thanks for your comment, Mia! My mum says that when I was little in Jo'burg, they had to battle with me to put shoes on for weddings and christenings- I can see my girls going the same way! I love that you refused to wear shoes, even if you were denied access- will of steel, clearly!

  4. Hello, I find your blog very interesting and insightful as I am moving from the London, UK to study at University of Cape Town. My biggest concern, and this may be odd, is racism (despite being born and raised in London), could you please give me your insight? (I am 19 years old with dark skin)
    Also, feel free to comment if you think I'm being ignorant about this :)

    1. Hello Anon and thanks for your comment.

      This is a tricky one to answer because it is not really one for a short answer and the answer is always going to struggle to be objective. The answer you get if from a pale-skinned woman in her 30's who has been brought up in Poland, South Africa, Norway and the UK (I lived in London on and off for 22 years) and who moved here 2.5 years ago. Others may have different perspectives.

      Firstly, I don't think you're paranoid. The UK media has 2 stories on SA- violence and racism (apartheid)- I'm guessing as that is what you have heard, you're asking the question.

      There is no doubt that there are deeply rooted issues in society here stemming from segregation and discrimation under apartheid even though 19 years have passed since the first free democratic elections for all in this country.

      There is now legilsation in place to ensure "previously disadvantaged" persons are prioritised for certain employment, companies over a certain turnover are required to have BEE ratings and there is a systematic effort to "transform" the country. Obviously though, these things take a lot of time and, in my view, have been hindered by the fact that the government haven't provided people with the education system to empower themselves. You can change the rules, but the effects take a while to filter through.

      Cape Town is a pretty liberal city and I think anyone would be shocked to hear of overt racism. I am certain some diehard racists are to be found if you look hard enough, but I have been lucky enough never to meet one.

      Racism in SA does exist- there have been problems with xenphobic attacks in some townships on immigt=rants from the rest of Africa. But unemployment is high and immigrants working for a lower wage than the locals were never going to curry favour with the local community. The attacks are a disgrace but, then again, uncontrolled immigration is not a great idea either.

      Cape Town is still (largely) segregated on racial lines mostly because of socio-economic status. The sad fact is that there is a lot of poverty and the vast majority of that poverty is in African and coloured communities. The thing that you might find most shocking here (if you haven't been before) is the kms of townships on either side of the airport.

      I don't think that you will encounter problems based on the colour of your skin (if you were wondering!). There are people of all colours and from all over the world at UCT and in Cape Town.

      Last, but not least, South Africans are probably the nicest, warmest, kindest and most hospitable people in the world and I am sure you will have a great time and a great experience here.