South Africa is one of the most popular destinations for volunteers around the world. With the end of apartheid in 1994, the country is doing its best to progress, creating ample opportunities for volunteering. As a volunteer in South Africa, you will see a country amidst great change and transition, an exciting time to both be a part of and experience. There are mountains to hike, beaches with good surf, close encounters with nature in its purest form (safaris!), traditions you can only get from rural villages, and vibrant cities to explore in your free time, too; so, if you are looking for a perfect combo of volunteering, learning, and adventure, you’re looking at the right country!
Volunteer placements in South Africa span the geographical spectrum. Whether you are looking for a big city or rural town, volunteering near the ocean or in the grasslands, you can find the perfect place to volunteer abroad in South Africa.
Cape Town is a large coastal city that offers a wonder of sights, cuisines, people, and history. You can take a hike up Table Mountain, feast on local Cape Malay dishes, and head to Long Street to shop amongst the crowds. Throughout the city remnants of apartheid have been preserved, but to get a more in-depth historical encounter, peruse through the District Six Museum and the infamous Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Travel farther outside the city and you will find penguins (YES, PENGUINS) hanging out at the Cape Peninsula and wine-tours-galore in the vineyards of Stellenbosch. The diversity of Cape town adds to the variety of volunteer projects and popularity of volunteering in and around the city.
On the total opposite side of the country lies the northern Limpopo Province, complete with a contrast of scenery. Here volunteers will find true bushveld, indigenous forests, and flourishing wilderness. There are many small towns to choose from to get your volunteer hands dirty (with nature) in, including Hoedspruit, Phalaborwa, and....Kruger Park! You may have heard of Kruger National Park as one of the best safari parks in South Africa. Well, here’s your chance for a “free” safari experience by volunteering in South Africa with an array of wildlife. There are even opportunities to educate local community members and kids about conservation while having ample time in nature, too. Win!
South Africa wouldn’t be South Africa without its rural areas. The great thing about volunteer work in South Africa’s rural villages is the total uniqueness of the opportunity. Every rural area has different traditions, language, practices, etc., so you’ll get to learn a lot (and probably embarrass yourself, in a good way) along the way.
Volunteer Programs in South Africa
With the wide variety of locations for volunteering in South Africa, you are right in assuming that there must be just as wide a variety of volunteer projects. In many ways, volunteers will be able to combine their interests and travel desires to find a perfectly-suited volunteer placement in South Africa.
One of the first placements volunteers may think of when they think about volunteer work in South Africa is healthcare. Throughout apartheid, the vast majority of people had little to no health services. This, combined with political and social factors, has brought South Africa to have the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, along with high rates of tuberculosis and fetal-alcohol syndrome, among other diseases and conditions. Those who willing to volunteer in South Africa in health education and awareness raising, nutrition, and medicine are greatly needed and valued throughout the country. From assisting nurses in public health clinics to educating mothers on proper nutrition for infants and children, your eyes will be opened to system challenges, individual struggles, and steadfast workers that will both break your heart and give you hope.
The amount of poverty in South Africa makes working with children and youth another common volunteer placement. AIDS has left behind many orphans to be cared for, unfortunately. Prepping during meal times, being goalie during soccer, and cleaning out activity rooms may not seem like much, but it gives the staff some much-needed rest. Similarly, schools in rural and underfunded areas can use educational and recreational support to inspire the next generation of leaders. Share your love of sports and teaching with children who want and need teachers, mentors, and coaches.
Don’t worry if volunteering with people isn’t your thing; there are pleeenty of opportunities to work with the environment and animals in South Africa! You can work on marine or wildlife based research initiatives or volunteer at an animal rescue sanctuary. You can get hands-on, helping wildlife you have only seen before on the Discovery Channel! For those who are seeking valuable career experience working in the field or the lab or those who simply want to support conservation efforts and get up close and personal with some really fascinating wildlife, volunteering in South Africa makes perfect sense!
Costs & Affordability
While you can definitely find less expensive countries in Africa to volunteer in, South Africa is still a very affordable destination to volunteer abroad. You can expect most things to cost around half the price of what it would be in your home country, even at some of the most high-end local spots. What will cost more are global name brand items, like Levi and Apple. If you stick to local products, brands, restaurants, and services, you will find you don’t have to break the bank to live here.
A big plus of volunteer programs in South Africa is the reduced fees you will be paying to cover some meals, housing, and even excursions. In rural areas, transportation, accommodation, and meals are typically provided. In cities, you may have to pay for your own meals and even your own transportation, but accommodation and excursions could be included. It’s important to look at the organization’s site to see where your money is going before making a decision.
Especially for short term volunteer work in South Africa, you will usually pay your own airfare and, of course, will need your own spending money. But don’t let a lack of savings deter you from getting out there! There are many ways to get help covering the costs, from crowd-funding sites like FundMyTravel, to grants and scholarships.
Accommodation & Visas
If you’ve never spent the night in a hut, here’s your chance! Depending on your placement, you may stay in an apartment or dormitory, or you may get a full cultural experience in a family homestay. In apartments/dorms, shared living spaces and kitchens are common, sometimes with private bedrooms, and sometimes not. Sharing space with other volunteers is part of the experience and helps you learn a lot about yourself, too!
Even if you are placed in a city, you can still take an opportunity to visit a village and experience rural life. For those who take that opportunity or who volunteer in South Africa in a rural area, you may find yourself sleeping on the floor of a hut, walking outside to use a makeshift toilet, and sharing space with not only humans, but also insects and small reptiles. Placements that take large groups of volunteers will sometimes have a dormitory, campground, and kitchen for the volunteers.
It is very important to check with the local South African Embassy to confirm your visa needs. You can find a South African Embassy in your home country using GoAbroad’s embassy directory. Citizens from many countries are able to volunteer with a tourist visa for 90 days or less. If you are planning to volunteer in South Africa for more than 90 days and you are from ANY country, you should apply for a volunteer visa. This takes a bit more documentation but lasts for three years!
Benefits & Challenges
There are 11 official languages in South Africa, and you are expected to know them all. Kidding! Who could do that?! English is actually one of the official languages of South Africa so you should be able to get by (and when you are around people who don’t speak English, you’ll get by with a little help from your friends...who can translate). In rural and remote areas, there is usually someone who works with volunteer organizations to act as a translator for volunteers. But, definitely give the local languages, clicks and all, a try!
The reverberating effects of apartheid could be a lot to take in for volunteers, especially those who have never experienced a society with a high level of inequality. Politics and social structures can be frustrating and confusing. The beauty of the South African people is their love for life and joy for the day no matter their circumstance; there is a lot to learn from it.
A final big time benefit: you could check a lot of things off your bucket list! Shark diving, bungee jumping, seeing a lion roar...you name it and South Africa’s got it. And if you don’t get these types of experiences DURING your volunteer program in South Africa, you won’t have to go far to do any of the above.
The diversity of landscapes, people, lessons, and pure emotions you will experience in South Africa is unending. Volunteer work in South Africa provides an opportunity to let go of expectations of both yourself and others and live in the rhythm of its beautiful heartbeat.