Life in Cape Town: Author Interview

Moving to Cape Town shortly?


What makes Cape Town a great expat destination? What are some of the challenges? Renata Harper shares her thoughts with us…

ELI: Tell us why you wrote the Guide to Cape Town…
RH: I had just come back from two years of studying and working in the Netherlands and was approached by Barbara, the co-founder of, to write about settling into Cape Town. Writing the guide felt like a natural – and exciting – extension of the expat-related writing and editing I’d been doing in the Netherlands.
I had a personal quest too: my Dutch boyfriend (now my husband) had relocated with me and many of his experiences (and challenges) in Cape Town were consequently incorporated into the guide.
Mostly, I love Cape Town! The city is seeing increasing numbers of expats and I want them to have the best possible experience here. I was inspired to write a practical manual that would give real value and support to expats in Cape Town.

ELI: You’re South African born… how can you write a guide for expats?
RH: Ah, but you know I’m from Jo’burg originally and it’s a vastly different place? Every Joburger and Capetonian will agree with me on that. (I had to laugh when a Joburg guy who had just moved here responded to my call for expat interviewees!)
But on a more serious note… I may not be an expat now, but I’ve been one a number of times (e.g. in England and the Netherlands, as well as during a mature study stint in Italy). I’m also an adult TCK, I’ve been an accompanying partner, and I’m in a multicultural relationship – so I have a good understanding of the emotional dynamics of relocating. My experience as a journalist helps with the practical details as I prioritise great research.
This is a complex place, which, of course, is why it’s both challenging and inspiring. It’s highly multicultural and full of surprises. So I might have the passport, but – like all expats – I’m on an on-going journey to understand the country.

ELI: Is Cape Town a good place for expats?
RH: Yes! I dare say it’s the best city in South Africa for expats, though Barbara (author of the Jo’burg guide) may disagree! In my experience, people often want to stay permanently.
This is a beautiful city and I believe that has a profound effect on wellbeing. It’s also inherently multicultural, which means you needn’t feel different as an expat. Everyone here is different! Each area/suburb is different too, so you can shop around and (budget constraints notwithstanding) find a place that feels right for you.
Cape Town also offers a slower pace than most cities. I love how an expat from Toronto put it: “When I’m not annoyed by it, I really appreciate the relaxed attitude of the people.”
Above all, you can enjoy an incredible lifestyle here without having to spend exorbitantly. It’s a lovely mix of city and nature and, come weekend, there are so many options for fulfilling activities… go for an early morning surf, cycle or trail run, shop at an organic market, lunch and wine-taste at a vineyard, enjoy sundowners or a beach walk in the evening, have dinner at a top restaurant… all within a stone’s throw of the city.

ELI: What are the key challenges of living in Cape Town?
RH: Depending on where you’re from and where else you’ve lived, the discrepancy between the wealthy and poor can be upsetting, even overwhelming at times.
Then there is the issue of safety… this is a tough one! I always advise people to be aware and take the necessary steps to be safe (e.g. be alert at the ATM, invest in security appropriate to your home and area, never leave valuables exposed in your car), but not to become paranoid.
Those from more developed countries may feel annoyed by the lack of free wifi and poor public transport, though the introduction of the MyCiTi bus system has been a huge improvement (may this continue!). Poor customer service is a complaint expats often mention too.
And then of course, there are all the new immigration laws from the Department of Home Affairs…

Share your thoughts (politely) on Home Affairs…
Friends have told me I’m crazy (I take it as a compliment), but I used to enjoy my visits to Home Affairs. I never had to wait ridiculous hours, the staff were friendly, and I loved witnessing the mix of cultures and backgrounds in one place. These days, however, I feel less warm and fuzzy about the DHA. My husband’s residence renewal was rejected in April 2015 on account of the application being sent less than 60 days before visa expiry. Now, that would be a good reason, except that his application was submitted before the 60 days. (For a comprehensive account of his visa application experience, see this article.) So due to someone’s oversight, we are in quite a pickle, and an expensive one at that.
Let’s just say that Home Affairs is experiencing some intense teething problems… and as a result some innocent people are suffering. There is no doubt that the DHA needed to up the ante – there weren’t many other places in the world where you could arrive on a tourist visa, find a job, and switch to a work permit! And in the long run, outsourcing to VFS may be a good thing (as soon as they’ve all got proper training in the new laws).
My advice regarding visas and Home Affairs:

  • Prepare way in advance.
  • Do whatever is required of you – and more. Don’t take shortcuts on your application. After years of being lax, the DHA has become strict.
  • If the worst-case scenario occurs, get professional legal advice. I can highly recommend three immigration experts. (Feel free to get in touch at

ELICT: What qualities do expats need to flourish in Cape Town?
RH: An open heart and an open mind. And an optimistic mindset! If you hang out with the kinds of people (expats or locals) who moan non-stop about the country, you’ll miss the magic.
I’ve already mentioned it, but this is a complex city (and country), which also makes it inspiring. With a sense of humour and the right mix of adaptability and resilience, living here can be an enriching experience. If, on the other hand, you struggle to deal with complexity and tend to see things in black and white, you may feel frustrated.

About Barbara Bruhwiler

Barbara is author of several books and co-founder of She has her "Expat Advice" column in a local magazine, and she authored the Guide to Johannesburg.


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