There is a reason why so many people come to volunteer in South Africa and why this incredible country is consistently rated one of the top travel destinations in the world. Make that several reasons. Where else can you watch the sunrise from the top of a mountain, catch a wave in the ocean and spot an elephant roaming at dusk all in the same day? President Nelson Mandela proclaimed this country as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ – a country as diverse and colourful as it is exciting and adventurous.
What Is It Like Volunteering in South Africa?
South Africa is African Impact’s home (so we may be a little biased) but volunteering in South Africa is completely unique to any other destination on earth. Despite their complex history, South Africans are hugely welcoming to international travellers and are extremely proud of their tourism industry. Outside of it being one of the top destinations in Africa for those looking to go on safari or experience the continent’s iconic wildlife, it is also an adventure-junkie’s paradise. You can surf, sky-dive, bungee-jump, go whale watching, ride horses, dive with Great white sharks, and even ski (yes, it can snow here!). Tourism is the backbone of the economy and an income-generator for a lot of communities, so South Africa is the perfect destination to volunteer if you are also looking to tick some bucket list adventures off your list.
But there is a lot more to experience as a volunteer in South Africa than simply the tourist attractions.
South African Culture
South Africa is also known for its diverse culture and has 11 different official languages – there is no other country in the world with quite so many. As a volunteer in South Africa with African Impact, here is a little bit more information on some of the cultures you will encounter:
While not the most spoken language in South Africa, Xhosa is the most widely distributed, meaning you may bump into someone who speaks Xhosa anywhere you visit. More fascinating is that around 15% of the Xhosa language originates from the San people; the first people of South Africa and one of only 14 populations from which all humans descended. Perhaps the most famous Xhosa-speaker of all time? Nelson Mandela!
Sotho was one of the first written languages in Africa and has a rather mysterious origin. While Sotho is the official language of the Kingdom of Lesotho, it is now widely spoken across the North-Eastern part of South Africa. Similarly, to many other South African tribal cultures, Sotho communities are split into villages, led by a chief. Uniquely, however, traditional Sotho villages are separated by age and assigned specific roles and responsibilities. While volunteering with animals on our Greater Kruger projects, you will definitely encounter this colourful tribe.
The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group in South Africa, with Zulu the most widely spoken language, easily identifiable by its ‘clicking’ sounds. Traditionally, Zulu men wore animal skins and feathers, made famous by King Shaka Zulu who also brandished a large spear and shield. However, in today’s culture, most Zulu people wear traditional Western clothing and will only adorn traditional attire when celebrating. That being said, while volunteering in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region of South Africa, don’t be surprised if you’re invited to a traditional ceremony or two, but be sure to try and learn a few of the ‘clicks’!
For many, South Africa is on their radar because of the late Nelson Mandela, who was the face of revolution and played a key role in the anti-Apartheid movement. However, it’s important to note that more than 50% of South Africa’s population still live in poverty and remnants of the Apartheid era are still evident in day to day life.
Apartheid (literally meaning ‘apartness’ in the Afrikaans language), was a political and social system in South Africa that ensured racial segregation and deep discrimination against non-white individuals by limiting their rights and privileges. While South Africa has a very long history of racial discrimination, the law of Apartheid only came into play in 1948 and ended in the early 1990’s, following years of protesting, international pressure and negotiations led by figurehead Nelson Mandela. 1994 saw the country’s first democratic election, where Mandela was elected the first black President of South Africa.
Despite having ended over twenty-five years ago, the social, economic and politic consequences of the Apartheid rule is still impacting the 57-million residents of South Africa and there is still enormous inequality that continues to provide barriers to quality education and healthcare for marginalized citizens.
The unequal distribution of wealth is not only seen in the bright lights of the most well-known city, Cape Town, but across the country. Communities living alongside some of the most famous national parks in South Africa are also struggling from food scarcity and minimal opportunities for employment, while those living on the rural coastline struggle to access healthcare and find schools for their children.
Its complex and difficult history, one that is still very much in the making, means South Africa is a country that welcomes, and needs, volunteer support.
As a volunteer in South Africa with African Impact, you will directly support one of our initiatives that focus on the sustainable support of local communities or conserving the country’s precious wildlife. Living with our team at one of the program bases (there’s three across South Africa), you’ll work alongside other international volunteers from Monday through Friday, having your weekend free to explore and get up to mischief.
For those looking for a slice of rural, coastal South Africa, let us introduce our Zululand projects, based from the tropical town of St Lucia. We’ve been working in the rural villages here for over ten years and our volunteers have always been an integral part of the community. It’s ideal for those looking to volunteer with children in Africa, as we support a number of day cares that look after orphaned and vulnerable children. We also run a medical program here that sees volunteers working in rural clinics, providing home-based care to home-bound patients, as well as running support groups for those suffering from HIV or AIDS.
If you love the hustle and bustle of city life, our Cape Town projects could be for you. We’ve been working in the township communities of Khayelitsha, Red Hill and Langa for over five years, providing effective early childhood development programming and sports coaching, as well as supporting local teachers in their classrooms. More recently, we launched an award-winning girl empowerment initiative to try and reach the girls we work with who are falling behind and are most at-risk from early marriage and pregnancy.
If working with animals in South Africa is more up your street, then look no further than our Greater Kruger Projects. Based from a beautiful lodge on a private game reserve, volunteers focus predominantly on researching the iconic ‘Big Five’ (elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo), undertaking conservation photography, teaching conservation education and spending almost every day on the back of a safari vehicle. What’s not to love!?
For those looking to spend a little longer abroad, we also run internships in South Africa from all three project bases, varying from social work and gender equality, to field research and wildlife photography. These internships are a truly unique work experience opportunity and offer interns an exceptional level of support, including a personal development coach and academic mentor.