What challenges does a businessperson face living in South Africa? Avondale's Bill Stewart shares his story of a year abroad in Johannesburg.
In a recent article I (Bill) shared my experiences living and working in London on a consulting assignment. I later spent a year in Johannesburg, South Africa, advising a large metals and mining company on their global growth strategy. My wife and I found living in South Africa to be an amazing and challenging place; it was one of the great experiences of our lives.
Johannesburg is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with 7 million people in the city and surrounding areas. It is also one of the most dangerous cities, at one point competing for the titles of world's highest murder and assault rates.
Johannesburg has a mix of high-class living and third-world poverty. In some parts of the city we could stroll past rows of cafes and restaurants with the feel of London or Amsterdam. Other parts of the city are marked by tin-and-wood shacks and more than 50% of the children living in poverty.
The city remains highly segregated, both economically and geographically. Johannesburg was designed with buffer zones between segregated neighborhoods; more than 20 years after the abolition of apartheid, those geographical boundaries still largely exist.
South Africa is, however, one of the faster-growing world economies, with GDP per capita growing at twice the average global rate (2.8% vs. 1.4%) in the last 10 years. GDP per capita (purchasing power parity) now stands at roughly $11,000. However, South Africa has one of the most unequal income distribution in the world, with the world's 4th highest GINI coefficient (a measure of income inequality) and the richest 20% of the population earning 18 times what the poorest 20% earn (vs. 8 times in the United States).
Having grown up on a farm in Michigan, we never had to be very security-conscious, so we experienced quite a culture shock! The house we rented for our year in Johannesburg had 8-foot-high walls with three feet of live electrical security fence on top and strong steel doors. We both carried key chains with red panic buttons on them. One press of the button and security guards would be at our door within two to three minutes, guns drawn! Several security companies operated in our area with roving security vehicles, so that on average a security company car drove past our house every five minutes, patrolling for anything out of place. I became an early-morning jogger, as the neighborhood was safer at 6 a.m. than at 6 p.m.
Driving in Johannesburg is also challenging. As in Britain, they drive on the opposite side of the road from us Yankees. Also, there are a number of unlicensed taxi buses that drive aggressively and recklessly. We quickly learned when a traffic light turned green to wait three to five seconds before moving, as taxis could barrel through the intersection long after their light turned red. We saw some truly horrific car accidents in our time there. For the most part we paid a driver to ferry us around.
On the whole, though, we found Johannesburg an amazing place filled with wonderful, friendly people who were often there with a cheerful smile and a wave. We became great friends with our housekeeper and our driver, and would take their kids out for movies, bowling and ice cream.
We also took the opportunity to travel throughout South Africa and the surrounding countries (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius). Capetown is one of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen. Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe truly must be experienced. We rode on elephants and the highlight of our Zimbabwe trip was a walk we took with five lion cubs. Imagine playful kittens that happen to weigh 40-50 pounds each! The guides gave us short twigs with instructions to tap a cub on the nose with it if they got too "frisky." We went on a couple of horseback-riding tours where we got chased by zebras (who apparently think they belong in the horse herd) and startled a few giraffes and wildebeest along the way. All in all, we had many amazing experiences we simply could not recreate in the States.
We still miss our friends in South Africa and travel back to Johannesburg every one or two years to visit them. We also go on safari each trip; we cannot get enough of lions, elephants, giraffes and rhinos.
Based on our London and Johannesburg experiences, I strongly recommend that any businessperson should jump at the chance to live and work abroad. There are significant challenges and it requires a lot of intestinal fortitude, but the rewards are well worth the trials.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark