Volunteering in South Africa
Discover volunteering opportunities in South Africa, a country of astonishing diversity.
About South Africa
South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent and bordered by the spectacular coastlines of the Indian and Atlantic oceans. The diversity of South Africa’s geography and people (the country is often referred to as the ‘rainbow nation’) give the country a special excitement and energy. Beyond the coast, South Africa is a land of fertile valleys, massive mountains and parched deserts.
South Africa’s beautiful and diverse landscapes, nature reserves and diverse flora and fauna bring renown and tourists – the nation is in the top three most visited countries in Africa.
South Africa has a diverse linguistic history and has 11 official languages. English is widely spoken and is the preferred language of business. isiZulu is the most spoken language, and is the primary language of over 11 million people.
Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has undergone a democratic transition and become a prominent advocate for human rights on the African continent and beyond.
Poverty and inequality are key development challenges for South Africa. Despite rising GDP, South Africa’s income distribution pattern is among the most unequal in the world. Around half of South Africans live below the national poverty line of less than US$50 a month and only a small percentage of the population earn over US$50,000 a year. Poverty is primarily experienced by the country’s black population. It has also been acknowledged that while South Africa is among the most unequal countries internationally, of African nations it is doing the most to address inequality, and was second for spending in health, social protection and education.
South Africa faces other significant development challenges, particularly in the health sector. The nation has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV and AIDS, and has a comparatively low average life expectancy. South Africa has the largest antiretroviral treatment program in the world with more than 4.6 million people accessing lifesaving medication from public health services.
South Africa is a constitutional democracy, and the transition to democracy was noted by the World Bank to be one of the most ‘remarkable political feats of the past century’. Since democracy, the African National Congress has held political power, and most recently won the 2019 general election with a majority of 57.5 per cent.
Economically, South Africa is a powerhouse on the African continent, and has the second largest economy behind Nigeria.
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of South African partner organisations achieve their development goals since 1994.
Volunteering opportunities in South Africa support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Gender equality and women’s rights
- Violence against women and girls
- Education, including science
- Good governance
- Working with people with disabilities
- Human rights (including for LGBTQI+)
- Environmental management
- Strengthening institutions that promote stability, democracy and the rule of law
Clinton's second volunteer experience was with the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange. He worked with a local community in rural South Africa to help improve under-privileged schools.
Take a look!
Life as a volunteer in South Africa
Culture, religion and dress
Living in South Africa varies across provinces, and rural versus urban. People in rural contexts are more traditional and follow more conservative lifestyles, with regards to dress, social customs and interactions between men and women. Cities have a more cosmopolitan feel, bringing together people from many countries and cultures across Africa to live and work.
The constitution protects religious and faith-based freedom. Almost 80% of South Africans practice some form of Christianity. Other major religions are Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. There are also many who observe traditional cultural practices followed through many centuries of tribal and traditional beliefs, that combine Christianity and traditional cultural beliefs. Some traditional belief systems are patriarchal, and at times challenging to volunteers.
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. However, the country continues to face many social justice challenges in people realising these rights. Volunteers may be exposed to harsh inequalities on a daily basis.
Dress is usually quite casual but can vary depending on the occasion and at special events. Volunteers should bring a range of clothing with them to also accommodate weather variations. Volunteers will be able to enjoy the range of beautiful traditional clothing styles across the country.
English is commonly used and volunteers will get by with ease in English. There are 35 languages indigenous to and spoken in South Africa. Eleven official languages are recognised, including English. All official languages are afforded equal legal status.
Volunteers are able to access training in a range of local languages should they be interested. Learning a local language for the context they are placed in will enhance the acceptance of volunteers by their community, and enhance the volunteer experience.
South Africa is a large country and has various climate zones. These range from tropical areas on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, snow in the Drakensberg mountains, and more temperate climates in the Highveld areas like Johannesburg. Average temperatures range from 3°C to 26°C in Johannesburg, 7°C to 26°C in Cape Town, and 23°C to 28°C in Durban. In some areas temperatures go below zero in winter.
Volunteers will need to buy a mobile SIM card and independently subscribe to an internet provider in South Africa to use at their place of residence. Many mobile and internet providers offer adequate speeds and easy-to-use connections.
Most workplaces have Wi-Fi which would readily be available to the volunteer for work related use. Communication with partner organisation colleagues is easily undertaken using mobile phones, landlines, email and messaging services, and social media.
Dining and entertainment
There are an abundance of social activities available to volunteers, including world-class restaurants, parks, cinemas, art galleries, museums and frequent exhibitions within most of the major cities. Outdoor activities are within a short distance of many locations, including hiking, game drives/safaris and river rafting.
Recreational facilities, gyms, banks, health care providers and shops that provide all amenities are readily available.
Chain supermarkets are widely available, catering for various tastes and budgets. Some cities have organic food markets and many shopping malls have health food stores for specific dietary requirements. There is a growing awareness of vegan and vegetarian needs in supermarkets and restaurants.
Alcohol is available in bars, restaurants, hotels and shops licensed to sell alcohol. Major international brands are available as well as local brands. South Africa has a reputation for producing good wines.
Accommodation and transport
Accommodation options vary from house shares to apartments or small suburban houses. Availability may differ from rural to urban contexts with differences in cost and variety. In cities there are many global hotel groups. Airbnb and furnished short term and long-term rentals are also possible. Rural areas may have less variety and more basic amenities. Security needs are important when considering accommodation and the level of security systems in place may vary.
Most cities have various public transport options, including buses, public minibus taxis and trains. In Johannesburg there is an intercity speed train service called the Gautrain as well as bus services. People also make extensive use of Uber. Should the volunteer choose to purchase a vehicle, second-hand cars are available.
The security context is very different from that which volunteers may be accustomed to in Australia. Vigilance, compliance with security guides, and active responses to security and safety advice must be adhered to. Security presents a range of challenges and needs very careful consideration when selecting places to live, where to walk and how to travel.
Before applying for a volunteering assignment in South Africa, please do some further research on living in South Africa and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
Australian volunteer Andrew went with his colleague to a wedding where he tried many local foods. Chakalaka was a standout.
Download the recipe for Chakalaka
Ashly Hope has a vision: to connect and empower women working in trade governance across Africa.