Duncan Butler-Wheelhouse offers some tips to fellow South Africans who have recently made the move to the UK and wish to put down roots.
According to Home Office statistics, between 2018 and 2022, over 52,000 visas were issued to South Africans to live in the UK1. This doesn’t include the many South African holders of British passports who have also moved over in the past few years.
You may never be English, and you’ll always feel a little flame of recognition burning when you hear a familiar accent on these distant shores, or someone referring to a ‘braai’ or ‘wors’. But being British is wonderfully all-encompassing and really is multicultural. Britain has a plural and tolerant society that allows many different people to thrive, each in their own slightly different way. As someone who has lived through the upheaval of relocating to the UK, here are my top tips for making a new home away from home.
1. Be prepared to feel unprepared
Moving anywhere is a big adjustment, even in the case where there is a familiar language. It has been said that Americans and the English are divided by a common language, and sometimes it feels like that as a South African abroad when you say “Howzit!” and tell someone things are “lekker!” But the good news is there are so many Saffas in the UK, especially in the South-East, that you won’t raise many eyebrows these days.
Still, getting to grips with your new surroundings will take some time. If you have a family, there is a different education system to get your head around. You’ll also typically need to adjust to a new role or company, and sometimes the not-so-subtly-different ways that your work is done in the UK or internationally.
Then there may be cultural differences. For example, you may feel that some people are awfully permissive in England about how children behave towards elders. But you’ll soon see that a great many people in the UK also value and encourage politeness and respect. Part of what makes the UK a great place to live is the strong emphasis on civil and personal freedoms, but also accountability for your choices. Give yourself some time and you will find your groove.
2. Make new friends
Making new acquaintances will often happen through work, as well as meeting other families in your local area. But it takes real effort to move beyond acquaintance into friendship.
The building blocks of true friendship tend to be time spent together and shared interests. Which is why successfully integrating and being happy in your new home can be greatly bolstered by joining groups of people involved in hobbies or interests that you share. Whether that be a local sports club, or attending sessions with the Women’s Institute or singing together in a choir, or being part of a group of writers or poets, or motorcycle or classic car enthusiasts. I know people who’ve built up solid friendships through regularly going for a run or a long walk together.
The UK has so many subcultures that the great news is, whatever you’re interested in, you can be sure to find a group of similarly interested people, some of whom could become meaningful friends. And you don’t need many friends, just a few good ones, to feel yourself taking root in once unfamiliar soil.
3. Be present
A key to settling in well in the UK (or anywhere for that matter) is being present in the moment and engaging in your new surroundings. Even if you don’t always feel it, try to actively participate – because, as cliché as it sounds, you get what you give.
When I was studying in Oxford, I noticed that many local townspeople were reluctant to engage with anyone who might be a student of the University, because they suspected those people would move on again in a short period of time. You may not be a student, but beware of being that person who only speaks of ‘home’ as somewhere else, or always relates things to where they were, not where they are now. No-one wants to be your second choice or back-up option.
There is no denying that a part of you will always be shaped by what and where you have come from, and this can enrich where you are now. You can celebrate your roots. But a key part of building a new life is ensuring that you move on without constantly looking backward over your shoulder.
4. Wrap up your past
To face the future, you need to make sure you’ve wrapped up your past. That includes legally and financially.
Have you written a UK will? What plans do you have in place for your loved ones should anything happen to you now that you’re in the UK (including if you are unable to work for an extended period of time)? If you have parents or family members still in South Africa, have you discussed their longer-term personal and financial plans? Do they know whether they would be able to join you here in the UK if the need arose – both in terms of immigration and finances?
See also: Tax emigration from South Africa
Your assets in South Africa might not only include property and investments, but could also include a retirement annuity. While you need to wait at least three years before withdrawing it from SA, and that can seem like a hassle, it’s worthwhile when you consider that 55% of your RA has to be invested in South African based assets (despite the fact that South Africa’s equity market is less than 1% of total world market capitalization).
Some expert cross-border tax and wealth planning advice might solve a lot of headaches, while giving you a holistic overview of your financial plans going forward.
There’s likely less of a problem managing your financial affairs yourself if you’re the only person affected if your ship sails into stormy seas. But if you have responsibilities to others who could be left in a very difficult situation, or if you have managed to accumulate anything approaching a total household asset base over a million pounds – which can happen surprisingly quickly once your house costs more than £500k – then you might be better off with the peace of mind that comes with the support of a skilled planner and wealth adviser who can look holistically at your situation in the UK, South Africa, and across many other jurisdictions around the world.
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Our teams in the UK, South Africa and Australia can ensure that when you decide to move overseas, invest offshore or expand your business internationally, you'll do so with the backing of experienced local experts.