6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to South Africa

Our nomads share their top tips to make your trip to South Africa as smooth as can be, from knowing which car to rent to the high costs of mobile phone coverage.


5 things I wish I knew about South Africa Photo © Unsplash/Finding Dan | Dan Grinwis

Culturally, South Africa has a unique blend of African and Colonial cultures, which have seen some of the most engaging and inspiring political reformations in modern times. From the legacy of Nelson Mandela to the harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South Africa is a great place to learn about the past.

If South Africa is anything, it's a place to heed the advice of those in the know.

1. Pay Attention to Your Location

Always be aware of your surroundings. Kent Redding from Africa Adventure Consultants says, "If you hear or see a loud, angry-sounding demonstration or mob, turn the other way and keep away, no matter how curious you are."

Know where you're going – don't wander around aimlessly. In many parts of cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, the good and bad neighborhoods are often one block away from each other.

2. Don‘t be Flashy

Dan Austin says, "Don't pack flashy jewelry or expensive clothes for South Africa. Don't flash cash when dealing with street vendors, or really at any time in the country. Trade your big fancy camera and lenses for a smaller point and shoot camera."

Pay attention everywhere you go, if you show off expensive items, you can expect unwanted attention or thieves to be interested in you – especially in these neighborhoods with a bad reputation.

3. Mobile Phone Coverage is Surprisingly Great

Luckily, in South Africa mobile phone coverage is extensive and easy to access. Purchase a local SIM card from one of the four key telcos in South Africa: Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom. You can do this at the airport when you arrive.

Reception and internet speeds are great in major cities and towns, but you will lose the ability to connect fast when you head into the wilderness.

Keep in mind a local SIM can only be used on SIM-unlocked GSM phones. Check with your mobile network provider in your home country to be sure you can use it on your phone before you leave.

Never ever purchase a SIM card off a street seller. Always buy one in store at a kiosk, supermarket or one of the official outlets.

Want to know more about South Africa? Listen to our podcast. We talk about shark conservation, the photographer who survived a deadly snake bite, plus how World Nomads swings into action when something goes wrong.

4. If You Want to Rent a Car, Don't Rent a Convertible

Poverty is still a harsh reality in South Africa. Car theft is unfortunately common in the country, so hire a car that isn't flashy, and preferably one that has a roof. If you rent a car, try to avoid driving after dark. In recent years, there's been a lot more highway robbery after sunset.

If you plan to navigate the country yourself, South Africans drive on the left-hand side of the road. Fuel stations (called garages) are not self-service. When you drive onto the forecourt an attendant will fill the vehicle. It's polite and custom to tip the attendant about US $1 for their service.

Driving yourself is relatively safe, but you might want to brush up on the local laws and road etiquette before getting behind the wheel.

5. Volunteering Scams in South Africa

Alexia Nestora from VoluntourismGal says, "If you are planning to volunteer in South Africa, make sure you book with a reputable organization. A popular scam has popped up where travelers are approached to help at an orphanage, the problem is these kids are made to look extremely poor just to get big donations out of sappy travelers." If you want to give back to local communities, here are a few tips on how to pick a truly ethical volunteer program

This is why we believe orphanage visits are actually more harmful than helpful.

6. Be Open-minded

Sarah Graham from African Impact says, "It's natural that guidebooks will resort to generalization when offering broad-spectrum advice for travelers. You will be able to venture off the beaten track and get into all the nooks and crannies of South Africa to feel the rhythm of the people. The people are warm and friendly, excited to share their stories and culture with you."

South Africa has 11 official languages, and most of these are indigenous to the country. Around 40% of the population speak either Zulu or Xhosa, though almost everywhere you go you will be able to get by with English – which is commonly spoken in all major towns and cities, at hotels, banks, and government departments. Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, which northern Europeans will find surprisingly easy to follow.

South Africa is like nowhere you‘ve ever been. A famous South African, Desmond Tutu, described South Africa by saying, “We of many cultures, languages and races become one nation. We are the Rainbow People of God." In such a diverse country it's important to remain alert to stay safe and respect the culture.

Have you been to South Africa? What do you wish you knew before you went?

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  • joshua iria said

    I will love to be in south Africa,because i have head of there good good thinks and for me i love the country very well..

  • Elizabeth Cress-Sweet said

    I am looking forward to a trip to Africa - BUT only when all the terrorism stops! I am wondering about oxygen renewals.
    Africa seems to be a wonderful country!

  • Elizabeth Cress-Sweet said

    I am looking forward to a trip to Africa - BUT only when all the terrorism stops! I am wondering about oxygen renewals.
    Africa seems to be a wonderful country!

  • rick baldwin said

    I recently returned from Jo-Burg & had an opportunity to be downtown for coffee.We may have been the only White faces but everyone was helpful & friendly.But as I was about to leave my place in the evening,a young man came in who had just been robbed in a nearby township. I have no business being in any unfamiliar city after dark-so I gave him the taxi I ordered & stayed in.

  • Shannon Kircher said

    Thanks for the info and tips! We're heading to South Africa next month - the tip about the rental car is useful. We were tempted to go for the convertible but it sounds like a more modest option is a better bet. :)

  • R said

    5 safety tips to know for traveling to South Africa and one is "be open-minded" and another is "avoid mobs." Thanks for the super helpful tips. A couple more: people expect to be tipped ~2 Rand to "watch" your car when you park. Outside of poorer urban areas, the country is safe (anecdotally).

  • Bonny said

    @Elizabeth Cress-Sweet. Africa is not a country, but a continent. Your statement equals saying 'Europe sounds like a great country'

    Yes be prepared to tip the car guard and petrol pump attendant five Rand or so in cash.

    Do not walk around Joburg or any large city alone at night. Do not flash/ wear expensive jewellery. Wear your handbag strap across your body rather than over your shoulder. Do not stop at traffic lights and stop signs after 10pm, pause and drive through when safe. Use a good GPS. If you are followed by a car with blue lights or a roof light - even by police - do not stop but drive straight to the nearest police station using your GPS. Do not leave the GPS or any valuables in sight your car. Drive with your handbag in the trunk, never ever on the passenger seat. Keep windows 1cm open when driving as this prevents them shattering in a smash and grab situation. Close the windows when you leave the vehicle. Drive with doors locked. You would be insane to rent an open top vehicle.

    Never give your bank card to a waitress or petrol attendant, the rule is that you sign or pin in their presence. They will bring a bank card machine to your table or car window. They do not take the card out of your sight.

    Ignore beggars at traffic lights or you will be paying them two or five Rand, 20 times a day.

  • alan papert said

    Dont ever visit South Africa Today I was mugged at gun point by a man who was dressed as a policeman although he may have been one He apprehended me for driving on an Australian drivers licence and said only a one year international permit was allowed When I challenged him he tried to arrest me and then was happy to empty out my wallet

    This place is finished

    Keep away

  • Penny said

    I wish I'd known that you need to have a full birth certificate when travelling with children under the age of 18! You also need a legal attestation from your partner if you are travelling alone with a child. My lack of knowlege cost us 24 hours of our holiday and 2 extra air fares. Still had a wonderful time there, though.

  • Shaw Roberts said

    South Africa is a beautiful place,
    Yes like all countries we have our problems but half of the stuff on the news I have NEVER experienced and I have been living here my entire life and in the more dangerous area of the country. Just know to be careful with your possessions and always be on the look out x

  • Abigail said

    I am a proud south african black child and i am proud to say we are blessed , if there is one thing i hate its tourists coming into our country with a negative and disrespectful mindset . I believe crime is everywhere and still it doesn't make a country the service counts .For those that enjoyed your stay in this beautiful yet crazy weathered country i say we are trying our best to grow south africa and we are happy you enjoyed your stay with us .I am lucky to be working in One of SA's most visited destination "cradle of humankind "which is a must see when you are in Gauteng

  • Paul Hollow said

    You are probably more at risk going to Paris, or London, than visiting some of the cities in South Africa. Obviously in any city, one needs to be aware of your surroundings and just use your common sense.

    In South African cities, there is probably a much higher level of poverty than in other cities around the world, which perpetuates the level of crime, so it's very important not to be flashy (as mentioned in this post) and just keep your expensive belongings out of sight.

    South Africa is such a beautiful country and one which should absolutely be on your bucket list to visit, so don't let the media scare you from going - A lot of it is hype and if you stick to the tourist destinations and keep your awareness up, you will be absolutely fine. There is also so much more to see than the cities - Book a safari, go and play golf on some the world's best courses, enjoy world renowned wines and stand on the wings of eagles in some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes on the planet!

    You can make your visit even better if you arrange a guided trip with a reputable company. They will know the country backwards, so you'll stress less (if you're a nervous person), enjoy a much fuller experience and learn so much more. I would be happy to discuss your requirements - contact me here: http://www.sunsetafricansafaris.co.uk/435062207

  • Nobby Clark said

    White Genocide in SA is on the increase. Just go to Facebook and have a look. If you go, you have a chance of not coming back. Crime is rife. Laws are no longer applicable if you are a white victim. I've seen terrible videos ......Be warned. No surprises ....

  • MissAfrica said

    There is no "white genocide" in South Africa, @NobbyClark, there is no impartial evidence that white South Africans are murdered more than other South Africans, which is why Canada and Australia denied applications from white South Africans to migrate as refugees. South Africa is a beautiful country, the advice in this article is really useful. Please see the links:




  • Michelle said

    @missAfrica ... Yes, there is genocide here in South Africa. A staggering 54 farm murders took place in 2018 and 72 in 2017. (www.timeslive.co.za - One person murdered every week on a farm in SA: AfriForum). Children butchered with pangas, elderly people tortured. It's sickening. They were all white by the way. If it is not genocide, then what is it?

    We live like caged animals, are afraid to venture out at night, even during the day we are not safe. Everyday we hear of people raped and murdered. This country is not safe.

  • Alexandra said

    My husband and I just returned from South Africa on our honeymoon! We had an amazing time and felt very safe. We read many articles and blogs on tips to be safe and used common sense. Our tour guide was also very helpful with tips and suggestions. There is crime everywhere and bad things happen, just make sure to plan ahead and learn about where you are visiting. We loved it and will be going back!

  • garno said

    racism is prevalent so if you're Caucasian I would avoid going there as the country is about to be destroyed by ignorant barbaric people

  • Tony said

    Got back from Durban a couple of weeks ago. I was at a Bed & Breakfast in an upscale neighborhood. Tall walls surrounded it, with coiled barbed wire, electrified wire behind that, and camera and sensors on every side of the house. I found out that the other local B&B had been rushed by a dozen armed men, and the owner killed. The B&B where I was staying had also been rushed a few months before, but they didn't kill the owner when a helicopter, by complete chance, happened to fly overhead and spooked them.

    I also found out that a neighbor had been taken out by a hit team a couple of months before. Another house in the neighborhood had been attacked by another hit team a few months before that (a journalist in one case, a lawyer in another.) Since I was there on business, I then asked about all this at the local company. Nobody was surprised, and told me many more stories - far worse - involving torture, death, and wanton destruction. They also told me that the government stops any reporting of all this crime, since they don't want to hurt tourism. The most gruesome stories are too gruesome for me to tell you even here on this forum. There are angry people with no concern for human suffering.

    I'll be going back - but I'm going to stay in a big business hotel and travel only with known associates. This next trip I understand the risk, and believe that I can "hide" with all the other foreigners in my business context.

  • Tom said

    Well, I went to South Africa (mainly to Cape Town) for 6 weeks and....it was amazing.

    Beautiful people, amazing history, dynamic culture. Went to fantastic beaches, amazing wineries, high quality restaurants, and amazing art. Went to Robben Island (where Mandela spent much of his imprisonment) and even visited a township (with a tour, would never do something like that solo). You can see penguins, and even go on a day trip Safari if that's your cup of tea.

    So much of the design aesthetic was top notch...could have been in Copenhagen or Sydney with how modern and clean everything was in the city center.

    Many (MANY) South Africans actually warned me about safety while I was there, which I appreciated. They were more worried about me than I was. But it turns out, that is just South Africa for you ;-)

    They didn't even want me to walk two blocks form my neighborhood restaurant to my apartment in the evening. I do know violent crime is prevalent in South Africa (sad, as it is such a phenomenal place), but I am always a bit cautious when traveling so I definitely take all the typical precautions people talk about here. And the biggest thing to note in SA is that crime can happen anywhere in the cities, even in the good areas, so you do have to be watchful.

    Occasionally I felt a little uneasy if I was going to meet friends in different parts of town, but that was more from me not knowing the other areas very well. Uber is very common - and cheap for Americans - so I'd recommend taking that. And be mindful that certain areas, like Bo Kaap might be amazing tourist 'hot spots' during the day, but should be avoided at night.

    I stayed in Waterkant (fantastic 'village' in the middle of the city bowl) and had every convenience one needs in a city - restaurants, bars, gyms, cafes, high end super markets. The locals were amazingly friendly. (Not sure if they are like that with everyone, or perhaps just me because I was traveling solo and they felt bad!)

    South Africa is a vibrant, dynamic place. Cape Town for sure is one of my absolute favorite cities in the world. Of course, they are having their water and electricity issues now, but I hope those are temporary as it is too amazing a place to not come through this.

    I would absolutely recommend visiting. Just keep your whits about you, and use common sense, and you should be fine.

  • Fantasys said

    If you ve been to the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, you are aware of how the concept of time can shift. This laid-back, slow pace is also found in South Africa. You might find yourself anxiously tapping your feet for that waiter to come by or hotel clerk to check you in, even in big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. Remember that it s not a slight or laziness, but just the wonderfully slow South African way. Embrace it you ll be back home and rushing around before you know it.

  • Irene said

    I am going to Capetown in a couple of months & I understand that shots are recommended but not required. Is it pretty safe healthwise in South Africa? Would anyone recommend a certain shot or vaccine? what are people's thoughts on this?
    Thank you in advance.

  • Chris said

    Considering all of this, would it not be wiser to visit one of the nicer countries in Africa, like Botswana or Namibia?
    Doesn't seem worth the risk, maybe some day things will be better.
    Table mountain isn't gong anywhere.

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