7 Inside Tips Before You Volunteer in South Africa

by Published

Epic nightlife. Rich heritage. Braai meat straight from the heavens. That’s just scratchin’ the surface of why South Africa should be your next volunteer project locale. Look deeper and you’ll discover a nation working to free itself from the grips of apartheid. Volunteers help mend the socio-economic challenges lingering in South Africa today. With such a complex history, you won’t wanna roll up in SA uninformed! 

So, what are the best ways to approach your volunteer in South Africa project? How can you make the best of your time? Here’s everything you need to know before you volunteer in South Africa.

Bo-Kaap

Colorful Bo-kaap in Cape Town can’t be missed!

Make a meaningful impact as a volunteer in South Africa with these tips

Volunteers heading to South Africa are a special breed. You’ll be heading to the economic hub of the continent of Africa. That means you don’t want to arrive in SA too wet behind the ears. So gather round! Here are some golden nuggets on how to approach volunteer in South Africa projects.

1. Go with the good guys: choose your volunteer org wisely.

All volunteer organizations in South Africa are not created equal. Some companies have proven track records of positive results (these are the good guys!). And then there are the ones who are borderline crooks (pass on these folks). These volunteer organizations in South Africa will pocket your program fee money. They’ll make little impact on the cause you’re looking to help. You want to choose an org with a sturdy foundation and an ethical approach to reaching its goals. Our MyGoAbroad directory will link you up with thoroughly vetted programs that match your volunteer interests and skills. 

Need more advice on how to pick a volunteer program? We got you.

2. Up your English teaching skills.

Heading to teach in South Africa with an education or English bachelors? High five! Still, plenty of folks don’t have degrees in English or teaching. Is that a dealbreaker for volunteering in South Africa? Definitely not. There are institutions on the ground that will accept you without any teaching qualifications. Still, in the name of ethical volunteering, your goal should be to give local kids the best education possible. Get your TEFL certification so that you can have the strongest impact while teaching English to South African students. Do an honest evaluation of your experience and skills as you apply to South Africa volunteer opportunities. Pro-tip: Check out some local syllabi to get a feel for the South African curriculum too!

Children smiling

From Cape Town to Johannesburg, there are plenty of ways to make a difference.

3. Don’t slack on local safety advice.

Does South Africa have a high crime rate? Yep. Is that a reason not to volunteer there? Heck no! Plenty of foreign volunteers have a crime free stay in South Africa. And think about it. How many uber-safe destinations do you know of that need volunteer assistance? *Crickets* Volunteering in South Africa is often in lower income communities that deal with crime. So yes, your volunteer placement may very well be in a “township”. 

So, how do you experience the dopeness of SA incident free? Get hip to the safety threats and how to avoid them. Take heed to all the pointers you’re advised on. That means absolutely no traipsing around Jozi solo after dark. Stay woke about your surroundings during the day and be picky about transportation (private is the way to go). Invited to an unfamiliar hood? Stick with locals you know and trust to move smart. Rape and sexual harassment rates of women are high in South Africa. Women travelers in particular should get familiar with how to steer clear. Being proactive about risks will significantly lower your chances of being a victim of crime in South Africa.

[Bookmark and compare volunteer projects in South Africa]

4. Get schooled on the history.

Bird feeding in Kruger National Park? Teaching Capetonian kids how to swim at the community pool? No matter what your volunteer assignment is, an understanding of South African history is crucial.  So study up on South Africa pre and post apartheid. This info will help you understand the challenges the country faces today. And you’ll navigate through your volunteer work better. Do some googling and buy a book or two. Then plan on visiting some historic sites once you’re in-country. 

South Africa hospital

South Africa volunteer work opportunities include medicine and healthcare.

5. Read up on voluntourism.

Quick! What comes to mind when you think of South Africa volunteer work? A war zone? Malnourished kids? Westerners in khaki shorts handing out supplies? If these images crossed your mind, don’t beat yourself up. There’s an unlearning that many of us have to do about Africa. And, as a foreign volunteer, you play an important role in how South Africa is portrayed. Now, we know blogging is all the rave. Just be mindful of how you showcase your volunteer experience to the world. 

Be wary of making sweeping stereotypical generalizations in your posts. Avoid blogging pics that juxtapose yourself as the “savior” among township kids. And think twice before sharing flicks of local children with the world (privacy people!). Get a grasp on voluntourism before you hit the continent. This will dramatically improve your approach to sharing your volunteer experience.

6. Don’t overpack. 

There’s an unfortunate misconception that Africa is one big underdeveloped sh*thole. This leads foreigners to pack their entire lives for South Africa volunteer work. Because you can’t find a thing in South Africa, right? Wrong!

South Africa is bursting with metropolises. You can literally find anything and everything in the local shopping centers. Left your Kindle on your nightstand at home? Don’t freak. Hit up the local malls or even grab one at O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg! 

One final gem on the subject of packing. Unfortunately, the international airport in Joburg has developed quite the reputation for theft. So, don’t pack your most important stuff in your luggage. Keep it with you above deck. 

[Your new volunteer packing list & planning timeline]

7. Plan for a meaningful South African experience. 

So, you’re definitely getting cool points for your service work in the Motherland. But why not experience South Africa at an even deeper, more meaningful level? Hang with locals, visit historic spots (like Mandela’s birthplace!), and follow the local news. Don’t forget to learn some local language and get a feel for the different customs too. With this approach, you will have truly lived and learned the South African experience. Plus, South Africans will love you for your efforts.

Braii in South Africa

You may not realize it yet, but one of your favorite things about volunteering in South Africa is bound to be the sunset braiis!

Where are the best places for volunteering in South Africa?

South Africa offers volunteers incredibly diverse communities to explore—no wonder it was a top contender on the best places to volunteer in Africa in our 2018 report. And each place offers its own flava. Not only that, “The Rainbow Nation” is a melting pot of different religious groups, tribes, and cultural scenes. There’s something for every type of volunteer to dig into. Here’s where volunteers in South Africa tend to drop their bags.

Cape Town

Even one of the most beautiful cities on earth needs volunteers. So head to Cape Town and offer up your skills to South Africa volunteer programs. Cape Town is a city with stunning views and a seemingly chic lifestyle. Still, volunteers will find extreme contrasts between the rich and poor. Lower income communities like Cape Flats face the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crime, violence, and alcoholism. So, foreigners will find South Africa volunteer opportunities across all sectors. Then spend your free time visiting historic spots like Robben Island. Or simply bask in the views of Table Mountain. Cape Town volunteer programs offer the best of both worlds!

[See all Cape Town volunteer programs]

Johannesburg

*Cues house music* In Jozi you’ll find the beats of kwaito music pulsating on every corner. Roots of the arts and entertainment scene are tucked in Soweto. And the ever present history of South African freedom fighters is inescapable. Johannesburg is the place to be! Still, you won’t have to look far for volunteer Johannesburg programs. Participants in South Africa volunteer programs can work to fight social ills like crime and poverty. Now, Joburg does have a reputation for being a dangerous city. So follow South Africa safety precautions (more on these in a few) because it’s still a fantastic city for volunteer work in South Africa. 

[See all the ways to volunteer Johannesburg]

Limpopo province

Ready to get down and dirty with mother nature? If you came to South Africa all set for eco-volunteerism, this northernmost region has it all! Think of Limpopo province as South Africa’s very own nature hub. It’s a region with dozens of nature reserves and Kruger National Park, one of the largest African game reserves. Volunteers will find projects in anything from agriculture to wildlife conservation and climate change. This is also a province full of of African beauty errywhere! You can wet your toes on the banks of the Limpopo river or relax under the shade of the endless Jacaranda and baobab trees. And since Limpopo province borders Zim, Moz, and Botswana, free time can spent visiting South Africa’s next door neighbors!

Black rhino

Have a soft spot for animals? Find wildlife conservation volunteer projects in South Africa.

The most popular volunteer projects in South Africa

The list of volunteer organizations in South Africa is insanely long. Need some direction on volunteer work in South Africa? Check out these popular ideas. 

Wildlife Conservation

If “Big Cat Diary” was one of your favorite tv shows, get your tail to South Africa! This is a country exploding with wildlife. You’ll find everything from exotic birds to humpback whales. Sadly, the allure of the country’s animal kingdom brings poaching, smuggling, and other threats to local species. Ready to join the fight to save your furry (or slimy) South African friends? Volunteer in South Africa with animals with a wildlife conservation org. Your nights may be spent sleeping in the South African wilderness. That way you’ll be ready for those predawn animal watching sessions in the bush. Or you might team up with locals on how to peacefully coexist with wildlife. 

Recommended programs:

Health volunteering

Private health care in South Africa is stellar. However, the majority of the Black South African population can only afford public health care—a system stretched thin and struggling to tackle HIV/AIDS, TB, and other afflictions linked to South Africa’s high poverty rates. Got a background in a health related field? Thinking a career in medicine is in the stars? Then medical volunteer programs in South Africa are your go-to. 

Recommended programs:

African kid wearing a soccer jersey

Volunteer with youth development projects and make friends with the coolest kid on the playground.

Youth Mentorship

Unemployment. School dropouts. Impoverished homes. These are just a few of the reasons why many South African kids need mentorship. Crime and drug abuse plagues many township communities. Parents often work long hours, leaving little time for helping with homework. And many South Africans who do finish high school oftentimes can’t afford college. All of these socio-economic issues affect the confidence of many young South Africans. It’s why youth volunteer programs in South Africa are the perfect way to serve. You can help out at a daycare playing with kids, dishing out meals, and tutoring. Or hook up with an org that facilitates youth empowerment workshops and lead chats on life skills. 

Recommended programs:

Teaching English

Most South Africans learn their mother tongue first and English second. Around grade four children begin learning subjects in English. As a result, many South Africans struggle with teaching and learning English in school. South African schools are also often understaffed and under-resourced. Volunteer English teachers can help fill the staff shortages or partner with local educators to improve teaching strategies. Teachers are mostly needed at government (public) schools. However, South Africa volunteer opportunities in education also exist at private institutions. 

Recommended programs:

children in a classroom in Africa
Become an English teaching volunteer and make learning fun!

Next steps to finding volunteer work in South Africa

Now that you have the inside scoop, know where many volunteers choose to spend their time, and know common causes that volunteers are working to eradicate, it's time to choose who you want to volunteer abroad with! Choosing a program isn't as hard as it sounds, especially if you follow these steps:

  • Decide where to go. Figuring out where YOU should volunteer in South Africa is paramount. Have a short list of locations that sound ideal for your goals and skills (i.e. if you don't have experience working with animals, you might reconsider volunteering in Kruger National Park). Don't let the lack of braii hold you back—choose a place that's right for you.
  • Pick your project. We outlined a few common causes that international volunteers support above. Do some reflection on what skills and knowledge you bring to the table, and which project would best benefit from your time and energy.

  • Choose from the best volunteer abroad programs in South Africa. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and how the project's needs match your skills. Some programs may even share contact info for ambassadors or past participants if you want the REAL dirt. Here are more considerations to make as you figure out how to choose the right volunteer program for you. Pro tip: You can use MyGoAbroad to compare programs side-by-side.

  • Plan your finances.  Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge on travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Be sure to raise a little extra money to donate to the organization that you'll be working with. Learning how to fund your volunteer abroad adventure is essential prior to your travels!

  • Get prepared! Preparing to volunteer abroad is as fun as it sounds. With the days til departure number dwindling and your excitement boiling, it can be easy to overlook the details. Lean on us to help guide you through your pre-departure process—that's what we're here for.

Aweh! You’re chartered for your most meaningful travel experience yet

You’ve narrowed down your list of volunteer organizations in South Africa to your fave. And you’ve tuned out the naysayers. Now you’re about to plop yourself into volunteering in South Africa. Trust us, it will way more interesting than alphabetizing books for free at your local library! 

crazy inspirational gif

Despite the immense challenges South Africa faces, many volunteers end up adopting it as their home away from home. Yes, your eyes will be opened to harsh aspects of South African life. But the South African spirit of perseverance through adversity is infectious. You’ll catch the bug and be changed for the better. So pack your travel pillow and book that ticket. Sawubona!

Find South Africa volunteer programs now

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