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.