Things I’ve Learned While Looking For Work In South Africa

I am 30 years old. I have a no-nonsense Master’s degree in economic development and five years of full-time, well-compensated work experience in my field. I have excellent transferable skills—reading, writing, arithmetic—and sparkling references. But I have spent the last six months in a strange country, scratching and clawing for something to do while eagerly awaiting a deus ex machina to vanquish my unemployment roadblock: getting legal permission to work.

Two years ago my now-wife and I were edgily dancing around the topic of spending our lives together. I told her I wanted to live abroad in the then near-future. She enthusiastically responded that she wanted to get a Master’s degree in South Africa. Six months later, she talked her way into a fellowship for 2012 that would cover tuition, travel, and living expenses. Everyone asked it if would be hard for us to be apart while she studied. “No,” I said, “I’m along for the ride.”

“Along for the ride” was not supposed to be code for “underemployed and desperate.” My well-traveled friends told me it would be easy to pick up a full-time job or good freelance gigs in my field in South Africa. I put together a dozen solid professional contacts that I stored away while my wife and I got married, quit our jobs, and backpacked across Africa for three months.

I networked like a fiend when we hit South African soil this January. I hate networking. But I passed out my aspirational “independent consultant” business cards all over town and started getting interviews. But whenever I got to that moment in an interview where I was about to be offered a job—you know if it you have lived it—the heart-stopper would be unleashed: “I assume you have a valid South African work visa.” In response to which I would inhale deeply, suppress tears, and try to negotiate my way into something, anything, PLEASE, I am bored, I will do substantive projects for free if you ask nicely and give me some rooibos tea.

As I quickly discovered, I effectively needed a work visa to get a job offer, but I also needed a job offer to get a work visa.

South Africa makes it difficult for skilled foreigners to work here, even though the country is in the midst of a massive skills shortage that leaves companies and government struggling to fill positions. Sponsoring a foreigner for a general work visa requires an organization to laboriously prove that no South Africans are qualified for the job. There are special work visa programs for special foreigners, but they have many special requirements that are not listed on the government’s special visa websites. (I suspect this is a clever effort to spur local employment in the “immigration consultant” field.)

Moreover, any organization that works on projects connected with the South African government (which feels like the vast majority of organizations here) has huge incentives not to employ foreigners. The country’s Employment Equity laws, which are connected with the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) program, can lead employers to select workers not on the basis of skills but on nationality and race. These employment policies are designed to protect South African jobs and encourage inclusive economic development; whether they succeed is a long discussion for another time (my quick answers: no and probably not).

Even with all of the frustrations, not everything is coming up snake eyes. I’ve maneuvered my way into several pro bono projects that—if you squint your eyes—can be considered “independent consulting.” More excitingly, I recently received an offer to teach a course at a local university, which I have always wanted to try. The university is willing to help me get a work visa.

Things are slowly starting to come together, and I’ve learned some important lessons about starting over abroad.

1. Line up something before you go.
Our backpacking trip made it impossible for me to line up a job in advance. I loved the freedom of a three-month vacation, but I paid for it with six months of struggle. I should have lined up a class (e.g., learning Zulu, bartending, or playing the spoons) or a volunteer gig to give me a fulfilling pursuit as soon as I hit the ground.

2. Save for a rainy day first.
Because here’s that rainy day they told me about. If we did not have some savings as a buffer, I would have needed to return to the United States just as I was on the verge of good things in South Africa.

3. Low cost of living ain’t cheap when you ain’t gettin’ paid.
The spacious two-bedroom garden apartment for $1100 a month sounded great from a well-paid American viewpoint. From the forests of underemployment, however, that $1.25 beer and $4 burger look awfully expensive.

4. Don’t forget the opportunity cost.
If I had worked at my American job for the past 9 months, I could have comfortably covered the cost of a fancy Master’s degree program in the United States for my wife.

5. Be open to lesser opportunities.
I held out for paid employment in my field for too long. I could not bring myself to sell my soft skills in writing and editing to students or online content farms. Since I widened my view, I picked up interesting opportunities helping ‘social business’ start-ups hone their ideas and have scored a teaching gig. These may not pay much (and may not ultimately be what I want to do) but they keep me busy and will help me enormously in taking the next step—whatever and wherever that may be.


Alex Okay lives in South Africa.


33 Comments / Post A Comment

bluteau (#1,853)

It is confusing to me that needing a visa to work in a foreign country is not obvious to someone with a “no-nonsense” master’s degree and Five Years Real Life Experience.

Weasley (#1,419)


It’s not that he didn’t know he needed a visa it’s that he was trapped in Catch-22 of needing job offer to get a visa and companies reluctant to offer a position to a person who doesn’t already have a visa

bluteau (#1,853)

@Weasley He went to South Africa without a visa. It’s not a catch-22, it’s bad planning.

Alex Okay (#1,846)

@bluteau Thanks for your comment. I knew I would need a visa to work in South Africa. That was, indeed, obvious. I did not anticipate just how hard that visa would be to get. Bad planning stemming from arrogance? Perhaps. We all make mistakes.

oiseau (#1,830)

I liked this article, and appreciate the addition of a not-aspiring journalist/writer’s perspective.
I got my bachelor’s in economics and am currently debating whether to get a MS Econ with a concentration in economic development like what you have, or if I should get an MBA or other (more marketable?) degree.
In the sprit of Logan’s post that came after this one about informational interviews, I would like to ask: What types of projects do you work on? Did you go to a fancy school? Is your field competitive? Does it involve lots of number-crunching, or is it a little more like business consulting?

Weasley (#1,419)


I liked that it was from a non-writer too.

I think some of the perspective on this site gets skewed in that direction because those are the people most inclined to share their experience. In a year I’ll graduate with a Bachelors in astrophysics and it would be interesting for me to hear more scientists talk about the money issues surrounding them like both personal and getting their projects funded and papers published.

Alex Okay (#1,846)

@oiseau Thanks for the comment and for taking the initiative. Glad to answer your questions briefly.

I work on economic policy issues. I did go to fancy school, which helped me get my foot in the door in this competitive field. To succeed you need skills, connections, and work ethic, which are built slowly in the classroom, at internships, and through schmoozing. (I hate schmoozing.)

In practice, my work is closer to business consulting. I try to avoid the number crunching side of things — I find it boring — even though I do have the skills.

Excellent (terrible) timing! I am moving to Canada one week from yesterday for grad school, with a tag-along American-citizen fiancé!

@mirror_father_mirror Well in many cases Canada does have some kinds of similar work permit issues (i.e. you need a job offer to get a work permit, but can’t get a job offer without one), buuuut there some exemptions to this. Spouses and common-law partners of full-time, international students with a valid study permit are eligible for open work permits (see for more info). Some areas of Canada still have decentish demand for labour so there are also decent possibilities for obtaining employment/work permits through other routes depending on where you are going.

@This is my new user name Yeah, we’re looking into common-law partnership now. If we can’t establish that, there’s always a quick Christmas break trip to the courthouse!

@mirror_father_mirror Yeah they only require that you have lived together in a marital type relationship for one year so hopefully that applies to you. What type of information they will want to see to demonstrate that, I do not know. I imagine that depends on a variety of factors and whether there are any red flags indicating a “relationship of convenience” type scenario. Good luck though!

@This is my new user name Yeah, we’ve lived together for multiple years, but we are not both on the lease, so we’re trying to establish it in a somewhat more elaborate manner.

theotherginger (#1,304)

@mirror_father_mirror my friends did it here fairly soon after she moved to Canada to study, and live with him. So, it can be done. Probably you need testimonies, pictures and a lawyer.

@robyn.andrews Yikes. A lawyer? That sounds…expensive.

faience (#1,874)

@mirror_father_mirror Go talk to your international student centre about getting your SO a work visa. They would know what is needed. My university also has a law school that does pro bono/low priced work for students as well if it comes to that. It is also possible as a graduate student for you to obtain a work visa that authorizes off-campus work for up to 20 hours a week though you may be limited by restrictions related to any funding you receive from your university. Im an American who has been attending Canadian universities now since 2000.

@mirror_father_mirror You can do it without the use of a lawyer for the most part. Maybe if need something notarized or whatever, but otherwise lawyers aren’t necessary. Don’t pay a lawyer to print and mail forms you can get off the internet.

@faience The international student center basically said “see what they say at the border.” So we’ll find out soon enough!

like10thousand (#1,860)

I’ve done this twice. Always go with a back-up plan (ticket home, parents’ basement), some savings, and a lot of determination. Figure out the visa if you need one. Don’t come to Israel if you can’t prove 1 jewish parent or grandparent, they don’t want you here. Finally, I have several friends who’ve made small fortunes teaching English in Korea for a year or two, where apparently jobs and visas are plentiful.

bibliostitute (#285)

@like10thousand UGH Also don’t come to Israel if you don’t have an organization willing to lie about hiring you, or a fuckton of hitech skillz? I am currently looking for work here, and let me be real, aliyah is more cost effective (at least up front).

Can I informationally interview you by asking where you came from and where you landed (if you are still in IL)? Are you working in the field you wanted to be? Can I take you for coffee and/or Goldstar to learn more ways to bust into the economy?

smack (#307)

Also change your last name from “Okay” to “AWESOME!”

Alex Okay (#1,846)

@smack I will keep that in mind when I launch my fantasy independent consulting firm.

I think this is good advice even for domestic moves. A couple years ago I hosted a friend who wanted to try her luck in California, which didn’t work out for her, and now I’m on the edge of heading east for a spell. Meanwhile my friend who moved to Chile with interviews lined up around the block is still there, three years later.

jake70 (#1,867)

“Line up something before you go.”

It all depends on what sort of work you’re looking for. If you have an advanced degree and a specialized field, and no work visa, this advice is applicable, as would be apparent to anyone with common sense. Otherwise, prepare your tender mitts to do shitty work for little pay, as hard as that may seem to such a well-educated product of the American educational system, like the hordes of well-educated people who come here and find that the vast majority of companies could give a shit about overseas degrees and experience, forcing them to do shit work in order to pay the bills.

Or, get an education in TESOL, preferably an MA or M.Ed, and you’ll be employable just about anywhere—maybe far less in English-speaking countries, but the jobs will be plentiful just about anywhere else.

cat1788 (#1,809)

This resonates with me right now. My partner and I moved to Germany from Australia about 4 months ago. We just wanted to do something different while we could and while we knew we would be able to enjoy it.

I was lucky enough to be transferred through my work, but he is a recent PhD in Biology and having a hard time finding work that he is interested in. Even without the drama of visas (he is the lucky holder of a British passport, enabling him to work in the European Union) the simple logistics of finding work in a specific field in a foreign country are tough.

He’s bored, so he has been doing an intensive language course, but what happens when that finished, when our savings run out and there are still no jobs to be found? We knew it would be a risk, of course but hoped that it wouldn’t be quite this difficult.

Alex Okay (#1,846)

@cat1788 Thanks for sharing. I feel your pain.

As I mentioned, being creative in what I define as “my field” has helped me find opportunities to use my transferable skills. It is tough to make that mental shift from “what you want to do” to “what you can do”, but it can open things up. For your partner, for example, scientific writing or teaching biology (at an English-language school) might be worth considering. Good luck!

Hey Alex, thanks so much for the post. My boyfriend (him and I both American citizens) is heading over to SA for a 2 year stint with the Peace Corps. I will be graduating with a BA in Fine Arts in May and have been planning (after speaking to SA Embassy, several travel agents and blog posts) to apply for any and all positions that will help me acquire a workers visa. This, to my knowledge, is the only way to live and work there for over a 90 day period, and though I would obviously prefer to work in my field (cosmetics, arts, non-profits, community org etc) I am open to other options as well (lower pay, volunteer networks etc).
Do you, or anyone else, have any advice for my situation?
-I have assembled separate professional resume’s (CV’s) and have found job listings in many fields on several SA job sites….



Ray@twitter (#2,943)

Alex, thanks for writing this… Couldn’t have read this at a better time. I’m planning on moving to SA from the US in a few months.

Do you have more insight into the special work visa programs for special foreigners you mentioned above? I’d like to get a Visa before my arrival.

Pleas advise

caf10 (#2,958)

Thanks for writing this — I’m currently looking to spend a chunk of time in South Africa, and I initially wanted to do more than 90 days, but the Consulate site for Visas is just truly baffling. The point of my trip is just to hit the reset button for a bit, and achieve a dream of mine in living in SA, and maybe try NGO work, or something more business-minded, since I’m looking to segue out of my web editorial career into something more in the realm of business. (So I have the skills of writing, editing, etc. — would love a volunteer opp with children’s literacy groups, but there’s really no Visa that I can see to do that for more than 90 days.)

Michelle_Le (#3,573)

Hi Alex, real glad I stumbled across your post. My partner is currently working in Johannesburg after an intra-company transfer. I’m trying to join him but am finding it very difficult to find anything due to their BEE laws! I’m still in Australia and ideally would like to line something up before I quit my job and pack my bags.. any tips you can give me in terms of networking, people to contact etc? I’ll be visiting in 2 weeks so would be a fantastic chance to touch base with anyone who may be able to help while I’m over there.
Thanks, Michelle

I am a Chartered Accountant apparently a shortage occupation in SA with 10 years plus experience in the UK (I am British) I have yet to even secure an interview in SA as I have always point out I need a work permit at the outset, I already own a home in Jo’burg but have never been able to do more than holiday there. I’m just about ready to give up which is sad as I think SA desperately needs foreign input to improve things there. Unless you can get an inter-company transfer I don’t like anyone’s chances of getting a general work permit

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Macs (#7,657)

Hey Alex, so how did it all go? Are you still working in South Africa? Did you successfully get a work permit?

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