South Africa is so varied and complex, you could never hope to understand it by just visiting for a week or two. To really get to know the rhythm and beating heart of this country, you have to live there. And teaching is the perfect opportunity. It’s probably fair to say that South Africa is the nation Nelson Mandela built: a multifaceted, multicultural mix of languages, traditions, and history. It’s a country of beautiful national parks, soaring mountain ranges, flat arid plains, and subtropical forests. It’s a country of music, passion, life, and food. It’s also, it must be said, a country with deep problems - crime, race, and AIDS are all serious issues present. But the problems that South Africa faces should not put off you off. Living in South Africa as a teacher is a valuable experience, and one you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Geography & Demographics
As its name suggests, South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent. The country’s population of 50 million people is divided into a number of different provinces, all of which were renamed almost 20 years ago. The capital title is shared between three cities: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial), and Cape Town (legislative).
Beyond its photographic natural phenomenona and social political heritage, South Africa is most famous for its wildlife. The country claims several world-class national parks, but two of the best are Kruger National Park in the north-east and Addo Elephant Park in the south-east.
The weather in South Africa varies from province to province. The north-west and north-east of the country nearer Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe are hot and dry; the south-west around Cape Town is warm and temperate; the south-east near to Durban and Swaziland is subtropical and the central region around the Drakensberg Mountains is cool and crisp.
As with all southern hemisphere countries, the seasons are the reverse of their northern counterparts. The hottest time of year kicks in around between December and January, while in June and July things are much milder.
What to pack depends on when and where you travel. In summer, the hottest parts of the country will require mosquito nets and anti-malaria medicine, while in the cooler climates during winter you’re best off packing plenty of thick jumpers!
Food & Culture
South Africa’s eclectic blend of cultures is evident from the fact that it has 11 official languages, the most well-known being Afrikaans, Zulu, and Xhosa (although most people speak English as either a first or second language).
The currency is the rand. Like most of Africa, the exchange rate to Western currencies is usually good, although it’s not as cheap a place to travel as traditional south-east Asia backpacking trails for example.
If you’re planning on exploring some smaller, neighbouring countries, the Lesotho loti and Swazi lilangeni have historically operated on a one-to-one exchange rate with South Africa’s rand.
The staple food of choice in South Africa is the pap, a dense substance made from water and maize meal. On its own it’s pretty tasteless, but cooking it up with meat, vegetables, and seasoning makes it more appetizing. Many street vendors will serve up pap with grilled chicken.
One thing all South Africans seem to be united on is their love of braai and beer. Braai is just Afrikaans for barbecue, and cooking up some ribs, burgers, and Boerewors (local sausage) is a popular pastime.
In the coastal cities, such as Port Elizabeth and Durban, seafood restaurants dominate, and you’ll find plenty of fresh, tasty lobster, shrimp, and a variety of fish to try. There’s a significant Indian and Asian population in South Africa too, particularly in east coast towns and cities, so you’ll also find a smattering of curry houses and noodle bars.
There are plenty of well-known South African beers, such as Castle and Carling Black Label, but the tastiest brew arguably comes from over the border in Namibia - Windhoek is the cultured drinker’s beer of choice. But South Africans like their wine too, and a vineyard visit to Stellenbosch in the Western Cape to try some Chenin Blanc or Pinotage is highly recommended.
Things to Do
1. See the Big Five
South Africa has an exciting variety of wildlife and is famous for its safaris, which bring visitors within touching distance of the Big Five animals: elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, and rhino. So make sure you make it to one of the country’s amazing national parks. If you have the urge to work with animals, you can always do some conservation volunteering too.
2. Visit the sights in Cape Town
Cape Town is as close as Africa gets to a European city, which means there’s an intriguing mix of cultures. A trip up Table Mountain and across the water to Nelson Mandela’s former prison Robben Island is a must.
3. Learn the history of apartheid
It has been 20 years since Mandela was elected president of South Africa, but the country is still feeling the effects of the racial divide that characterised apartheid. Spending time in South Africa will allow you to learn about this dark and important period of recent history, especially at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
4. Travel the Garden Route
South Africa’s Garden Route is a beautifully scenic stretch of coastline. In between visits to picturesque towns like Knysna, Mossel Bay, and Plettenberg Bay you can bungee jump, whale watch, surf, or just lounge on the beach.
5. Get invited to a traditional wedding
Weddings are an all-weekend affair in traditional South African communities. They’re also fairly all-inclusive events - the bride and groom’s family usually hang up a flag to signal that all locals are welcome to come in for food and drink.
Teaching in South Africa
To live and work as a teacher in South Africa means you’re getting to know a community. You’ll experience the country on a different level than a tourist. It’s an incredibly immersive and rewarding way to see a place, but be prepared to work hard!
The most common ways to experience South Africa as a teacher are as a volunteer, with a charitable organisation or by doing a TEFL course. A teaching salary in South Africa typically provides about 10,000 to 15,000 rand per month ($900 to $1,300), although how much you actually receive will depend on your qualification, level of experience, and living arrangements.
Often, volunteers or working teachers live on-site at a boarding school during their placement. This means a great deal of interaction with students at mealtimes and in the evenings. Fees or salary deductions will usually go towards covering living or accommodation costs.
Classrooms in South African schools can be large and noisy, so be prepared to go into full class control mode!
Finally, you should have plenty of time to travel and explore on weekends and holidays while teaching. Coaches are easy enough to book, although the Baz Bus is recommended for an authentic backpacker experience.