Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling To South Africa

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Culturally, South Africa has a unique blend of African and Colonial cultures, which have seen some of the most engaging and inspiring political reformations in modern times. From the legacy of Nelson Mandela to the harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa is a great place to learn about the past.

If South Africa is anything, it’s a place to heed the advice of those in the know.

1. Pay attention to your location

Always be aware of your surroundings. Kent Redding from Africa Adventure Consultants says, “If you hear or see a loud, angry-sounding demonstration or mob, turn the other way and keep away, no matter how curious you are.”

Know where you’re going – don’t wander around aimlessly. In many parts of cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, the good and bad neighborhoods are often one block away from each other.

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2. Protect yourself against theft

Dan Austin of Austin Adventures says, “Don’t pack flashy jewelry or expensive clothes for South Africa. Don’t flash cash when dealing with street vendors, or really at any time in the country. Trade your big fancy camera and lenses for a smaller point and shoot camera.”

Pay attention everywhere you go. If you show off expensive items, you can expect unwanted attention or thieves to be interested in you – especially in these neighborhoods with a bad reputation.

3. Mobile phone coverage is surprisingly great

Luckily, in South Africa mobile phone coverage is extensive and easy to access. Purchase a local SIM card from one of the four key telcos in South Africa: Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom. You can do this at the airport when you arrive.

Reception and internet speeds are great in major cities and towns, but you will lose the ability to connect fast when you head into the wilderness.

Keep in mind a local SIM can only be used on SIM-unlocked GSM phones. Check with your mobile network provider in your home country to be sure you can use it on your phone before you leave.

Never, ever purchase a SIM card off a street seller. Always buy one in store at a kiosk, supermarket or one of the official outlets.

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4. If you want to rent a car, don’t rent a convertible

Poverty is still a harsh reality in South Africa. Car theft is unfortunately common in the country, so hire a car that isn’t flashy, and preferably one that has a roof. If you rent a car, try to avoid driving after dark. In recent years, there’s been a lot more highway robbery after sunset.

If you plan to navigate the country yourself, South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road. Fuel stations (called garages) are not self-service. When you drive onto the forecourt, an attendant will fill the vehicle. It’s polite and customary to tip the attendant about US $1 for their service.

Driving yourself is relatively safe, but you might want to brush up on the local laws and road etiquette before getting behind the wheel.

5. Volunteering scams in South Africa

Alexia Nestora from VoluntourismGal says, “If you are planning to volunteer in South Africa, make sure you book with a reputable organization. A popular scam has popped up where travelers are approached to help at an orphanage. The problem is, these kids are made to look extremely poor just to get big donations out of sappy travelers.” If you want to give back to local communities, here are a few tips on how to pick a truly ethical volunteer program. 

This is why we believe orphanage visits are actually more harmful than helpful.

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6. Be open-minded

Sarah Graham from African Impact says, “It’s natural that guidebooks will resort to generalization when offering broad-spectrum advice for travelers. [You’ll need to] venture off the beaten track and get into all the nooks and crannies of South Africa to feel the rhythm of the people. The people are warm and friendly, excited to share their stories and culture with you.”

South Africa has 11 official languages, and most of these are indigenous to the country. Around 40% of the population speak either Zulu or Xhosa, though almost everywhere you go you will be able to get by with English – which is commonly spoken in all major towns and cities, at hotels, banks, and government departments. Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, which northern Europeans will find surprisingly easy to follow.

South Africa is like nowhere you‘ve ever been. A famous South African, Desmond Tutu, described South Africa by saying, “We of many cultures, languages, and races become one nation. We are the Rainbow People of God.” In such a diverse country, it’s important to remain alert, in order to stay safe and respect the culture.