Seven things to know before you volunteer in South Africa

    Article by Zaytoen Domingo

    Zaytoen Domingo

    Posted: September 4, 2018

    Get a head start on preparing to volunteer in South Africa with these essential tips and interesting facts.

    Hugged by both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, dominated by mountains and populated with some of the most magnificent creatures on earth, South Africa is a premier travel destination.

    Development and conservation challenges mean it is also an attractive volunteer destination. Volunteer projects span the country, with possibilities to work in almost any cause close to your heart.

    However, South Africa is more than just safaris and stunning landscapes. A complex history and diverse culture make it an intriguing volunteer destination. It’s important for volunteers to understand South Africa’s multifaceted culture, at least on a basic level, before heading off. To help enhance your experience, here are seven things to know before you volunteer in South Africa.

    1) Look before you leap

    Make sure you are going to volunteer in South Africa with a reputable organization.

    Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, can contribute to misconceptions about developing nations such as South Africa. Voluntourism can encourage people to buy into the idea of the poor African who needs to be ‘helped’ by Westerners.

    This kind of superficial engagement also falls short of getting volunteers to think more deeply about the society they are immersed in or the history, economy, and politics of the country where they are volunteering. It also does little to break down common misconceptions and bridge gaps in understanding between cultures.

    Volunteer programs that are beneficial to both locals and volunteers should include the exchange of ideas and empower communities while encouraging individuals to think more globally.

    When you are selecting your volunteer program in South Africa, think critically about the longer-term impact of the project, how you can contribute, and what you will take away from the experience.


    2) Avoid making generalizations about South Africa

    Before you leave to volunteer, you might hear people make sweeping statements about the state of poverty in South Africa, current politics or another hot-button topic. Try not to build up an idea of South Africa based on any one opinion – it’s impossible to condense South Africa into one statement. Keep an open mind and question generalizations.

    Once on the ground, you’ll witness South Africa’s depth of culture and history for yourself. You’ll then be able to establish your own impressions. The country is wildly diverse, with extremes in everything from landscapes to wealth.

    While in South Africa, be wary of perpetuating generalizations about the country in your own social media or blog posts. Think carefully about whether the way you describe your experience reinforces stereotypes.

    It’s difficult to summarize in few words exactly about what it’s like to volunteer in South Africa as well, because each individual experience is unique. Know before you go into your volunteer program, that your experience as a volunteer is also likely to be varied. You’ll likely encounter a balance of challenges and ‘I can’t believe this is real life’ moments.


    3) Be realistic about your expectations

    You might have noble ambitions of changing the world but bear in mind how much you can really achieve in the time you have, and on the project you choose.

    Look into your volunteer organization carefully to get a good understanding of what you’ll be doing and what the ultimate goals of the project are. You should also consider your personal objectives and skills.

    If you want to help improve education in South Africa but have no teaching experience, you should manage your expectations. Providing teaching support or helping with basic infrastructure projects in schools might be how you can contribute best.

    The results of your volunteering trip might not be immediate or world-changing, but the small differences you make do count.


    4) Brushing up on your history is essential

    If you arrive with a solid grasp of South Africa’s history, you’ll be better equipped to interpret what you see. Context is an important factor in understanding lingering socio-economic challenges and historical tensions.

    You’ll learn the most when you’re on the ground – locals will be your best teachers – but arriving with a base knowledge of apartheid and its implications is crucial. A deeper understanding of South Africa’s history will help you to maximize the time you spend volunteering and learn more meaningful lessons about the country.

    5) There are 11 official languages in South Africa

    Here’s a fun fact about South Africa – English is only the fifth most widely spoken language. Be prepared to be surrounded by myriad languages.

    The most commonly spoken language is isiZulu, followed by isiXhosa and Afrikaans. Although most people speak English in cities and towns, if you volunteer in a more remote region be open-minded and prepared to learn the basics of a new language.

    The impressive number of languages in South Africa is testament to the diversity of South African people. It’s also a great indicator of how much volunteers can learn and discover in this country.


    6) You should be smart about safety

    If you’re wondering if it’s safe to volunteer in South Africa, the simple answer is yes. Yes, crime exists in South Africa – as it does in many parts of the world. There are more homicides per capita in St Louis in the USA than in Cape Town, South Africa.

    However, any overseas trip carries with it an element of risk. One of the benefits of volunteer programs is that you will be surrounded by knowledgeable staff who will provide extensive support and high safety standards.

    GVI volunteers are assigned a personal support coordinator to help out with all necessary information before you leave. On arrival, you’ll be given health and safety training to make sure you know how to cope in a foreign country and avoid any specific safety issues in the region where you are located.

    The in-country staff working on your program will have the best tips on how to stay safe. Listen to the local safety advice you’re given – and follow it. Be sensible, stay alert to your surroundings, don’t walk around after dark, and be choosy about the transportation you take.

    By understanding possible safety concerns and how to avoid them, you are guaranteed to have an excellent experience in South Africa.

    7) South Africa is one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world


    One of the most interesting facts about South Africa is that it is ranked sixth out of the world’s megadiverse countries. These countries are recognized for having most of the planet’s plant and animal species. About 20,000 different kinds of plants are found in South Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. That’s about ten percent of all known species.

    This richness in biodiversity makes South Africa a huge focus area for conservation. It’s also a hotspot for volunteering with animals. South African wildlife is remarkable and opting to work with them is an awe-inspiring experience. When you contribute to conservation or wildlife protection in South Africa, you are helping to preserve one of the most valuable environments on Earth.

    A little background can go a long way, but there’s always more to discover. Volunteering in South Africa is the best way to continue learning about this fascinating country. Take a look at GVI’s exciting volunteer programs in South Africa today.

    Article by Zaytoen Domingo

    By Zaytoen Domingo

    Zaytoen Domingo is a content writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently enrolled in the Masters program in English at the University of the Western Cape. After graduating with an Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing, Zaytoen completed a skills-development program for writers and became an alum of the GVI Writing Academy.