Jul 27

‘I no longer doubt our decision to return to SA’

In 2016 Mervyn George and his wife decided to return to South Africa. They uprooted their three young kids and moved from London to Cape Town. While they were both born and raised in Cape Town and expected the transition to be somewhat easy, it has proven to be a fairly rocky road thus far.

Here are four very real challenges he and his family faced:

1.      Starting over

It’s not the first time we’ve moved. In 2003 we relocated from Cape Town to Johannesburg, in 2007 to Cambridge, UK, and then a year later to London. This move, however, was the first one that involved children.

Starting over is hard – and you do have to start over. It’s not safe to assume that friendships you had the last time you lived in a particular city would still be as strong. People have moved on, they’ve formed new friendships, they’ve changed and so have you. Finding new friends takes time. For the adults, it may come through typical channels – work, church, sports – or unexpected encounters with former acquaintances who suddenly have plenty in common with you (that is, they have kids of similar ages also looking for new buddies). For children, it takes a lot of dedication and commitment from the parents to drive social integration. Our daughter, the middle child, started at a new school at the beginning of the year along with 18 other newbies. For the entire class, new friendships were being figured out. She wasn’t a huge concern and has adapted well to that process. For the eldest, he was joining a class that already had two full years of group dynamics and friendship forming at play, so getting him to integrate seamlessly required diligence from us in arranging regular play dates and getting to know both the kids and their parents pretty well.

2.      Questioning the move

We had plenty of toing and froing before booking our flights but even more once we arrived and the dust began to settle. The logic test we did months before the move (comparing and scoring the two cities across a set of weighted criteria) was being put to the test and minor considerations (such as internet speeds, online shopping and the ability to walk everywhere versus needing to drive everywhere) became more prominent in daily discussions.

We began to miss our friends. Our children began to long for theirs. We failed to see how re-integration could become easier over time.

To add to the complexity of settling in, my work arrangement was altered shortly after the move (due to a restructure that needed me to be back in London) and I began to look for my next role. The uncertainty of having at least one stable form of income while setting up in a new city and country (with its plethora of start-up costs) made us question if we should have moved at all.

3.      It costs more than you think

We decided not to sell up in the UK, so the exit costs included fees associated with finding and placing a tenant in our home. Apart from that, there were minor admin steps needed to close things off.

The big expense of the move was incurred with getting us and all of our stuff to South Africa. We chose to ship almost everything – vehicle, household goods, clothing, sporting equipment, etc. The thing we realised very quickly is that not only is it costly to ship stuff between countries that are at opposite poles of the world, but that it will end up costing more than what was quoted. You undoubtedly end up with more stuff to ship, or new goods you’ve purchased, or issues during the move (like the truck and shipping container not being able to access the road you live in due to narrow bends!) that require alternate arrangements.

Once on the ground in Cape Town, we had to contend with larger values of outgoing payments every day, week or month. Due to the exchange rate, you tend to feel like you’re paying so much more for everything. In some cases you are though, as the cost of living in Cape Town is quite high and we had to now include former free services (healthcare, schooling, school meals, for example) in the budget.

Other startup costs include rent (and rental deposits), mobile and internet contracts, deposits and legal fees to purchase property, capital to purchase additional vehicles, new school uniforms, kids extra-curricular activities, a lot more fuel for a lot more driving, additional furniture and additional appliances if needed.

4.      Having to justify the move

Cape Town is a beautiful city but, given the political instability and prevalence of crime, a lot of locals seem dumbfounded that we’ve returned. What made you come back?they ask. Why would you want to live here? With a blank expression I quite often think Well, why are YOU living here? The UK was by no means perfect, with economic uncertainty triggered by Brexit, the constant perception of a threat to public safety, underlying racial tension, high cost of living, and a serious lack of regular sunshine! (To be fair, we loved living in Cambridge and London.)

Cape Town is indeed a beautiful city but it seems many locals (even across South Africa) are very eager to immigrate…to pretty much anywhere. There’s a naive sense of the grass being greener somewhere else. That used to annoy me but it doesn’t now, as I know that a key reason for wanting to return was to play our small part in the socioeconomic upliftment of the country. We’re still figuring out how that will play out but the calling was strong and it seemed like the right time to make the move.

What about the outlook?

On the positive side, we’ve definitely seen the value of making the move. During December, prior to schools starting, we spent 3 or 4 days a week at a beach. The kids were in the swimming pool almost every day of Summer. My wife Janine and I have both increased our daily and weekly dose of exercise, incorporating more running, cycling and swimming – and doing much of it on and around the mountains and wine farms. We’ve been to food markets, wine tastings and amazing restaurants. We’ve played tourist in our home city – hosting visitors from the UK (a good way to find and try new places to eat). We’ve had plenty of celebrations in the first six months of living in Cape Town – including 3 family weddings, a baby shower, Christmas, Easter, plenty of family day events but sadly also one funeral. If being in a warmer climate and being around family were key factors in the move, then we’ve hit the nail on the head.

From a professional perspective, I am enthused by the level of tech entrepreneurship activity in the city. Fintech businesses have set up shop, some of whom seem to be growing rapidly. Large brands, such as Amazon, have chosen Cape Town as a base for a subset of their EMEA and global operations. Yes, the country still suffers from an apartheid legacy and much of the population has a very distinct ‘us and them’ attitude – be it via racial, religious or class differences – but most of the younger generation it seems (thankfully) are not comfortable with that way of thinking and are looking to create the future state that they and their children (and we) can be proud of.

I no longer doubt the move. I am beginning to feel really good about it. The dust seems to be settling and the baby steps we’ve made to date seem to be heading in a good direction. I don’t know for how long we’ll call this city home but for now, the relocation seems to be paying dividends.