Volunteering in South Africa

Volunteer in South Africa

What to Know Before Volunteering in South Africa

In South Africa, you get the best the world has to offer in one country: remarkable natural landscapes, spectacular wildlife, breathtaking cityscapes, diverse culture, and rich history. Traveling to South Africa is almost like traveling to several countries in one place. Therefore, volunteering in the country is always an adventure, regardless of where you choose to volunteer or what you choose to do while here.

However, like all emerging countries, South Africa still has to improve the local infrastructure, as major cities and small towns are lightyears ahead of rural areas and villages.

To make the most of your trip to South Africa, memorize this list of needs to know.


South Africa has eleven official languages – English is one of them. While most of the country speaks and understands English, the further you are from larger cities, the greater difficulty you’ll have trying to find someone who speaks English. Therefore, if you’re traveling to rural areas or small towns it’s a good idea to learn important phrases in an indigenous language like Xhosa or Zulu.

These important phrases should include:

  1. Do you speak English?

  2. Do you know someone who speaks English?

  3. Can you help me find someone who speaks English?

While Xhosa and Zulu are the most popular indigenous languages, South Africa has another common regional language – Afrikaans. Afrikaans isn’t an indigenous language, instead, it’s a version of Dutch popularized by early settlers.

But, because of the country’s extraordinary diversity, don’t think that learning one indigenous language is okay. To truly endear yourself to the locals, learn a language based on the region you’ll be traveling to.

These are your options:

Cape Town: English, Xhosa, Afrikaans

Pretoria: English, Zulu, Afrikaans

Johannesburg: English, Zulu

Soweto: English, Zulu

Durban: English, Zulu

Richards Bay: English, Zulu

Port Elizabeth: English, Xhosa,

Bloemfontein: English, Afrikaans

Note: Swahili is a common African language, but no one in South Africa speaks it. If you want to be accepted by the locals, and have your appreciation of the culture admired, learn one of the aforementioned indigenous languages.


South Africa’s weather is mild, not too much humidity, heat, or cold. There are hardly any natural disasters, or extreme weather conditions, although sometimes there are cases of flooding and occasional hail. The flooding and hail happen during the country’s winter months (June to August) with most of the country experiencing clear skies and soaring heat in Summer as temperatures reach 95℉ (35*C).


In South Africa, the only currency accepted is the South African Rand, referred to locally as the Rand. If you don’t have time to exchange your currency before you arrive, it’s really easy to do so at the airport when you arrive.

Alternatively, if you’re staying in a large city you can simply continue using your debit or credit card. Most retailers in the country accept Mastercard, Visa and American Express. In major cities it’s also going to be easier to find ATMs where you can withdraw the local currency, and will only pay a small fee for the conversion.

When traveling to rural areas you’ll need cash, as there aren’t as many ATMs, or retailers that accept cards, and traveling to one can be a nightmare.

Timings and weekends

There’s hardly any difference between a working weekday and a weekend in South Africa. Most stores and restaurants will be open on weekends but could close earlier, especially on public or religious holidays. The only difference between weekends and weekdays is that banks and government offices aren’t open, or close at noon on Saturday and don’t open on Sunday. Therefore, if you have any official business to attend to, be sure to do it between Monday and Friday.

Safety Precautions

Unfortunately, poverty and drugs are a significant problem in South Africa, which means many people steal to feed a drug habit or to feed themselves. However, in many larger cities, you’ll also find scammers who try to fool tourists and extort money from them. Whether that’s overcharging for a ride that only costs a couple of bucks, or creating an elaborate ruse to ensure you part ways with your cash, or simply stealing your card pin and using your details fraudulently. To avoid being scammed or mugged you should try to blend in. If you can, travel with a local. But if that’s not possible, there are some precautions you can follow regardless of where you are in the country:

  • Travel during the day.

  • Don’t flaunt valuables like watches, phones, cameras, or cash.

  • Keep minimal amounts of cash on you.

  • Ask authoritative figures for help, or go to a local establishment like a restaurant, shop, or business if you need help.

  • Don’t give beggars money. Rather help with food or clothing, or donate to a local shelter

  • Never leave your belongings unattended, even in areas you think are safe.

  • If you lose your way don’t hang around and look lost, try walking with purpose and make your way to the closest retailer or police station, where you can ask staff for help.

Religious Diversity

South Africa is a primarily Christian country. Nearly 80% of the population identifies as Christian. The remainder of the population is either Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu. However, most South Africans are tolerant of other religions and beliefs, as it’s a core part of the country’s constitution and is, therefore, illegal to discriminate based on someone’s religion or beliefs. Accordingly, despite your beliefs, you’ll probably find a group in South Africa that shares those same beliefs.


Most local cuisine isn’t too adventurous, but there are local foods that most visitors won’t be familiar with. These local foods include:

  • Biltong: Dried and spiced meat, a more delicious version of jerky.

  • Chackalacka: Spiced and pickled vegetables

  • Koeksisters: Deep fried and syrupy desert

  • Malva Pudding: A sweet pudding with a buttery sauce

  • Umngqusho: Maize Meal samp, and Beans

  • Bokkoms: Dried and seasoned fish

Fast Food

You’ll find almost every major fast-food chain serving meals most international visitors are familiar with. But, it’s also a great idea to try proudly South African fast-food chains that serve fast food you know, with a local twist. These fast-food chains include Spur, Wimpy, Nandos, Chicken Licken, and RocoMamas.

Street Food

Street food is quite popular in certain parts of the country. In the townships of most major cities, you’ll find people braaing (barbecuing) meat and animal organs in the street. Many tourists try to enjoy at least one township trip to get a taste of the delicious barbequed meat and support the informal economy.


South Africans are rather easy-going people and don’t find clothing offensive. However, there’s an “unspoken” dress code most locals follow. To blend in, it’s probably best that you adopt this style as well.

Wear Sleeves

Going strapless on extremely hot days isn’t going to be frowned upon, but whenever possible try to wear a t-shirt or top with sleeves. The sleeves don’t have to be too long, short sleeves are fine, but covering your shoulders is an unspoken rule most South Africans follow.

Knee Length Is Appropriate

If you’re unsure about whether you can wear shorts, a skirt, or dress, follow the rule that the closer it is to your knees, the better. Mid-thigh length is fine, but anything shorter than that will get unwarranted attention.

Sandals Are Okay

You’re certainly not going to get any street-cred wearing sandals, but it’s not looked down on, the only condition to this is that if you decide to wear sandals, ensure your feet look neat. Sometimes South Africans can be extremely judgemental, and because they speak several languages you won’t know your piggies are being insulted.


Public transport in South Africa is relatively safe, however it’s one of the most unreliable forms of transport in the country. In cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, however, there are safer, cleaner, and more reliable options like the MyCiti Bus (Cape Town) and the Gautrain (Johanessburg).

You can also use Uber and Bolt, or an old fashioned cab to get around larger cities. But, if you’re staying for long, or plan on traveling between cities, consider hiring a car.

For the brave, and those who truly want to travel like the locals, consider using a minibus taxi. The name says it all. These 16 seater vans, ferry passengers from all corners of the city, but the system that these minibus taxi’s use can be hard to grasp for tourists. In most instances, it’s better to ask other passengers of the minibus taxi for help if you’re unsure what’s happening. But, to have the most pleasant experience, avoid using these forms of transport during peak hours (6 AM to 9 AM, and 3 PM to 6PM on Weekdays) as that’s when these minibus taxi’s tend to overload and become overcrowded.

You should also remember to never use a minibus taxi after dark, as plenty of illegal operators of these vehicles operate at night, with the intention of robbing the passengers.


South Africa’s public healthcare system is not the best. That’s why most of the countries citizens who can afford to, use private facilities. If you’re feeling ill during your stay go to a local clinic or private hospital.

If you’ve only got mild symptoms and need some over the counter medication, your local pharmacy will do. If you’re not close to a local pharmacy, make your way to retailers like Clicks, Dischem, or Checkers.

Furthermore, South Africa has some of the best dentists, optometrists, plastic surgeons, and holistic medical professionals in the world. Some tourists even travel to the country for the specific purpose of getting affordable, high-end healthcare that doubles as an excellent vacation.

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