Durban for a Year
November 2, 2009 3:20 PM   Subscribe

In two months, Wife and I are moving to Durban, South Africa, for a year. What should we know?


My wife was just accepted to a one year masters program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, starting Feb 1st. She has a very generous scholarship to attend the program. I will be working on my dissertation and other projects the entire year.

We have arranged to stay in a poolhouse in a nice neighborhood near campus. We have researched all the visa options and are 75% through the process of getting a pair of long term visas. This is not our first time outside the US, or first time in Africa. However, this is our first time living in South Africa and, more specifically, in Durban.

Question: What should we know about packing for, moving to, and living in Durban for a year?

Thanks Hivemind!
posted by chrisalbon to Travel & Transportation around Durban, South Africa (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We stayed in Durban while on a 3 week trip in South Africa and Zambia in 2005, so just a few thoughts from that stay. 1) Read up. There is lot of travel literature on Durban; 2) Re packing and climate, the seasons are essentially the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere . . . good to bear in mind. 3) Durban is absolutely spectacular and also notoriously dangerous and high crime. This shouldn't paralyze you but it is a good thing to know and get set to deal with.

South Africa is one of the best places I have ever visited: my husband and I seriously discussed if it would be feasible to move there. But there are challenges. As one friend we met there says, it is essentially a first world country with a third world infrastructure. It is also barely fifteen years away from the ANC takeover, so racial attitudes seem to be around where they were in mid 1980s in the USA. And it is a really big and geographically diverse country. Try to find ways to get out and see more of it once you have settled in Durban.

Good luck -- I'm envious!
posted by bearwife at 3:36 PM on November 2, 2009

South Africa is hosting the World Cup in 220 days 22 hours 21 minutes and 10 seconds.
posted by pwally at 3:38 PM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Be on guard. South Africa has the highest incidence of rape in the entire world. A third of women report being raped within the last year, and up to a quarter of men admit to having done it.
posted by meadowlark lime at 4:00 PM on November 2, 2009

I was going to call out meadowlark for a source, but this Time article echoes most of the figures, though I can't find the "third of women" one. Still, definitely something to be aware of.
posted by disillusioned at 4:54 PM on November 2, 2009

pwally: We have already bought World Cup Semi Final tickets.

meadowlark and disillusioned: We know about the high crime. Any Durban specific details on security would be appreciated!
posted by chrisalbon at 4:58 PM on November 2, 2009

bearwife: I would love to hear more about the state of racial attitudes there, have any more info?
posted by chrisalbon at 4:58 PM on November 2, 2009

monkey gland sauce contains no monkey glands (and is in fact mostly vegetarian, apart from some butter)
posted by randomstriker at 7:15 PM on November 2, 2009

Oh and if you have the chance, take a drive along the Garden Route all the way to Capetown. I did it in 1999...the best road trip ever. Just don't drive at night as you might get mugged (or worse).
posted by randomstriker at 7:28 PM on November 2, 2009

Here's an answer from a good friend of mine -

"My background: I grew up in the States but my parents are South African. I live in Cape Town currently and I've been to Durban three times.

Durban is SA's third city (after Johannesburg and Cape Town). It's a distinctive city in large part because it has a large Indian population (or people of Indian descent). That makes for some great food, good spice stores, etc. Also, you'll learn about bunny chow soon enough; it's great and cheap.

Durban is in KwaZulu Natal and though it's in the historically Natal part, it still has a large Zulu presence. You'll get by with English without any problems whatsoever but it may be worthwhile to learn a little isiZulu. You know, "Sawubona" "Yebo" "Unjani?" "Ngiyaphila. Wena unjani?" "Nami ngiyaphila."

The summers (October or November to March or April) in Durban are hot and muggy, but the winters never get really cold. You'll probably never need something heavier than a light jacket in Durban itself.

Gumtree is your friend. I don't know if it's as widely used in Durbs as it is in Cape Town but it's basically the equivalent of Craigslist in SA.

Plan on getting a car (and budget a fair amount for it--cars in South Africa are relatively expensive). Public transportation does exist in Durban, mostly in the form of minibus taxis (which you can take, despite what some people say, just be careful), but SA is a relatively car-centric society. My understanding--you may want to check on this--is that you can legally drive on valid license that is in English for 6 months after arriving, but practically you can probably do it for longer. Oh and driving is on the left (quite easy to get used to, actually) and most cars here are manual transmission. I'd recommend getting someone to teach you how to drive manual if you don't already know.

Durban is known for its beaches and waves. Surfing is quite popular there, but even if you don't surf, swimming or other beach activities are quite popular. If you're into scuba diving, Sodwana is up the coast towards Mozambique a few hours and it apparently has great diving.

Yes, crime is a concern, but I don't think you need to let it ruin your life. You'll need to keep your wits about you and use common sense. Typically this means staying to well-lit and populated areas after nightfall, locking your car doors when you're driving, keeping your bag in the trunk or out of site while driving, etc. Also, not looking like a tourist is a good plan: step into a store to use a map, keep your camera in a bag rather than around your neck, don't dress like a tourist. But at the same time, beware of becoming paranoid--many South Africans, I've found, are very paranoid, so it can happen easily.

I'm not sure I'd agree with bearwife about racial attitudes being similar to those in the 1980s, especially among the younger generation. Some older South Africans are racist or patronizing, but younger SAans are generally alright. There is a remarkable candor about race here (and that will probably shock you) but that's not necessarily racism. It should also be noted that classism is as significant a concern, though there's inevitably some cross-over with racism given how recent democracy came about here.

People do like saying that South Africa is a third world country, but if you've been to very rural Africa, Durban will seem like a city--it has highways, running water, electricity, supermarkets etc etc. However, the internet is fairly slow and expensive in addition to having download+upload limits (3GB/ month is typical). Pay-as-you-go cell phones are widespread here, though new laws require proof of residence (bank statement, utility bill) to get a SIM, but someone in your wife's program could probably help you get one.

Durban recently renamed a large number of their streets. You'll probably want to get a map book--just pay attention to whether it has the old or new names. And you may need a cheat sheet (pdf) because people still give directions based on the old names.

Besides bunny chow, some food recommendations are the strip of restaurants on Florida St., which isn't far from where you'll be staying. I've also been to a good Indian place (Little India?) near the Musgrave Center.

Durban is home to an stunningly gorgeous stadium for the World Cup. June and July next year are bound to get crazy in much of South Africa, Durban included. Durban is also home to the Natal Sharks, one of the better provincial rugby teams here (though that season just ended). The fans I've met tend to be pretty rabid. I'm sure you'll get invited to some braais to watch fly-halfs kick drop goals and wingers going for tries while having some biltong and naartjies.

Which reminds me, it's probably worth reading over something like this and/or this.

SA is 220 V/50 Hz and has type M plugs, though you do see a lot of the european-style two prong plugs here (adapters or power strips often have spots for them). I'd recommending bringing a US power strip and then using just one plug adapter (which are available pretty widely here). Electronics and gadgets are expensive here so if you're, say, thinking about getting a new laptop, I'd do that in the States.

Wow, this is too long, but a few final recommendations for excursions. I've heard great things about the Wild Coast (between Durban and the Garden Route)--very sparse, small villages, great coastline drives. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is a renowned game reserve and it's a few hours from Durban. There's a 4 day walk through the park (accompanied by rangers/ guides) that's offered and apparently it's fantastic. Lesotho and the Drakensberg Mountains are quite beautiful and are not very far from Durban. Finally if you get a chance to go to some rural villages in KZN (which can be a little tough because they tend to not have hotels or a wealth of restaurants), I'd definitely recommend that.
posted by god hates math at 6:34 AM on November 3, 2009

....and of course I forgot to close that very long quote.
posted by god hates math at 6:35 AM on November 3, 2009

I had this thread bookmarked to give some input, but it looks like god hates math has pretty much covered everything.

A few points that I'd add/emphasize:

The pace of life in Durban is a lot slower than Joburg, whether that's a good thing or not is up to you.

Durban is only two to three hours drive from the Drakensberg - if you enjoy mountains or hiking then you're sure to enjoy this.

Durban and surrounding coasts are swamped by tourists from Joburg in the holiday seasons, especially December.

For internet access, 3G access via the cellular networks doesn't cost all that much more than fixed line internet. You can buy data bundles on prepaid accounts. So you may want to consider this if you don't have access where you live already. The capped bandwidth here really sucks but is supposed to get a lot better in the next year or so.

I'll re-iterate the point about the rugby games, definitely go check out a game at the Shark Tank while you're here.

Welcome and Enjoy!
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 8:49 AM on November 3, 2009

....and of course I forgot to close that very long quote.

In formal punctuation, the absence of a closing quote indicates you intend to continue with more paragraphs.

Which, given your expertise, I hope you do! :-)
posted by randomstriker at 10:01 AM on November 3, 2009

Just a quick post because my info about racial attitudes in S. Africa is anecdotal based on traveling there and my general fondness for South African writers. Obviously god hates math is a lot more familiar with the country than I am. I am Caucasian as is my husband and I was struck repeatedly as we met folks all over the country by two impressions -- first, that it is stunning how far S Africa has come in terms of racism in a very short amount of time, and second, how much lingering covert racism there is among whites, who seemed uniformly comfortable telling my husband and me about their attitudes. The slurs I heard reminded of what I heard in the 80s, i.e. criticisms of criminal behavior, incompetence, laziness, all based on race.
posted by bearwife at 12:14 PM on November 3, 2009

posted by Zenabi at 7:40 PM on November 4, 2009

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