Let’s not beat about the bush: South Africa has a bit of a scary reputation.
Much is said about the country’s crime rate, but much more is said about everything that makes this diverse destination so magnificent. It is a country that never stops doling out gifts to the traveler – world-class surf breaks, eclectic local cuisine, mountains to climb, cities to visit, tiny towns to hide away in, desert landscapes to photograph and of course, wildlife to watch.
South Africa’s extraordinary variety is both its biggest draw and its biggest challenge, at least when it comes to trip planning, and much research is needed to decide where to go, what to do and how long to stay. A trip of less than two weeks is less than ideal – three would be a better bet if you can manage the time away.
With tips to help you plan as well as information on health, safety and etiquette, here's what you need to know for a successful trip to South Africa.
1. If you’re traveling with kids carry the relevant paperwork
If you’re entering or leaving South Africa with a traveler that’s under the age of 18, you’ll need to have a few extra bits of paper in your carry-on bag. In a bid to stamp out child trafficking, all minors need to have an unabridged birth certificate – that is, one that lists both parents’ names. If only one parent is traveling with the child, you’ll need an affidavit from the other parent confirming that they give consent. The rules keep changing and aren’t always implemented, but it’s wise to have the documents at hand just in case.
2. Buy a South African SIM card and use local wi-fi
Wi-fi is fairly easy to find in larger cities and more touristed towns, but if you’re planning on wandering far from the main centers, it’s worth picking up a South African SIM card on arrival at the airport. The card costs just a few rand, although like pretty much everything in South Africa, it does come with a bit of paperwork. You’ll have to “RICA” your SIM card – a fairly simple registration process that will require photo ID and confirmation of your address in South Africa (a simple booking confirmation will suffice).
3. Carry cash, just not too much of it
While credit and debit cards are widely accepted, there are still a few places that only take cash in South Africa. It’s best to keep a small stash of notes and coins for purchases at corner stores, informal traders and for the various tips you’ll be expected to give throughout the course of the day (more on tipping below).
Of course, it’s not wise to walk around with wads of cash on you, so keep the bulk of it hidden away in the hotel safe or draw modest amounts from ATMs. Be wary about using ATMs on the street. Scams are common, so it’s best to stick to machines inside malls or banks.
4. If you really want to see SA, you’ll have to rent a car
There is no sugar coating it – public transport in South Africa is not good. Long distance buses do exist but tend to cut out your chances of seeing smaller destinations, and are often expensive for shorter hops. Long distance trains are unreliable, and hitchhiking is most definitely not recommended. If you really want to see the country, you’re going to have to rent a car. Fortunately there are plenty of fantastic road trips to choose from. All of the major car hire companies are to be found here – just be sure to book ahead especially if you’re traveling in peak time.
5. Listen to the locals, but expect some exaggeration
Local advice is always important, particularly in countries like South Africa that have a certain reputation for crime. Generally, your accommodation host will be able to tell you where the best bars or restaurants are, how to get around and of course which areas to avoid. Just be aware that there are many awesome attractions around SA found in areas that locals – particularly older locals – wouldn’t consider visiting.
I once stayed in a guest house in suburban Durban and on asking the owner if there were any places we should avoid she replied “the CBD” (city center), which would cut my sightseeing rather short. South Africans have a tendency to exaggerate crime and danger – it’s almost a part of the national psyche, and a favorite topic of conversation, so you might have to spend a little time deciphering the worthwhile warnings from the sometimes-inevitable scaremongering.
6. Be extra cautious when driving in cities
When I first moved to South Africa, there was so much talk of carjackers I had the impression there would be balaclava-clad people lurking at every intersection waiting to appropriate my vehicle. I remember panicking at the gas station because I needed to lower the window in order to pay, then passing my cash through an inch-high gap before driving away, all stressed and sweaty.
These days I often drive with the windows down, but I do approach robots (the local term for traffic lights) with caution, always leaving a car length gap in front of me just in case there’s cause for a quick escape. Be cautious but not paranoid: keep your doors locked and be extra vigilant when driving at night, keeping your windows up and your wits about you.
7. Be prepared to tip
South Africa has a tipping culture. In many industries, salaries are low and workers really make their money from tips. Restaurant staff expect 10% but 12–15% will of course generate bigger smiles.
You never pump your own gas in South Africa and for the convenience you’re expected to pay at least R5, or R10–20 if the attendant is also checking your tires, oil or water. Then there are South Africa’s informal parking attendants. While larger cities and towns will have some pay-as-you-go street parking, in most places, parking at the side of the road is free… well, sort of. Car guards – people that keep an eye on your car while you’re away – are ubiquitous and they come in a range of helpfulness levels. Some will actually stop traffic to help you back out into a busy street; others are chancers that wander by as you pull out your keys, claiming they were keeping a close eye on your car while you shopped. Reward accordingly – a R5 coin is standard thank you but R10 is more appropriate for those that actually provided a service.
8. South African English takes some getting used to
There are 11 official languages in South Africa and while – unless you’re in a seriously rural region – you’ll always find someone that speaks English, there will still be a few words that will trip you up. One that often baffles foreigners is the (extremely liberal) use of “shame”. It’s a versatile word in South Africa. Cute child fell asleep in the car? Shame. Close family member passed away? Shame. Busy week at the office meaning you couldn’t make it to the pub for Friday drinks? Shame. The word is often preceded by the utterance "ag" and followed by the word "man". "Ag, shame man" basically means anything from “awww” to “oh no, that’s terrible!”
Also overused and often in baffling context is the word “hectic”. While it can be used to discuss, let’s say, a particularly busy intersection, it could also be used to describe a ridiculously tall building, a very long line at the bank, an insanely windy day or a particularly large baby being born. In South Africa, hectic doesn’t mean busy – it simply means "wow".
9. Expect to talk about politics and power outages
Certain subjects are always off limits but in South Africa, politics is not one of them. Everyone has an opinion on the government’s latest endeavors, whether that’s discussing the abundance of potholes, the profusion of corruption or, more often than not, the powers-that-be’s failure to provide power to the people. It’s called loadshedding and it is something you will quickly become very familiar with.
Loadshedding is basically a never-ending series of planned power outages designed to take pressure off the ailing grid. Cities and towns are split into zones and depending on the current severity (there are eight stages), your place might be without power for anything from two to 12 hours a day (in two-hour slots). Larger hotels won’t be affected thanks to back-up generators, but if you’re staying in a guesthouse, hostel or private home, you are bound to encounter loadshedding at some point.
Many places come equipped with fail-safes: emergency lights, backup power for fridges and wi-fi and sometimes hefty generators. Your host will likely give you daily updates on when the power will be off, or there’s a handy app – Eskom se Push – that has all the details and comes with a handy 55-minute warning notification.
10. Driving in the emergency lane is standard practice
While greetings, table manners and general day-to-day etiquette will be largely familiar, the way South Africans drive is often a bit of a culture shock for visitors. One of the most idiosyncratic rules of the road is the “yellow line driving”. Many of South Africa’s national roads are single-lane highways so enterprising drivers use the emergency lane (hard shoulder) as a backup. If you’re on a highway and a car seems to want to get by, it’s expected that you briefly move into the yellow line to let them pass. If you don’t, you’re likely to find yourself privy to another driver favorite: tailgating. Drivers usually flash their hazard lights in thanks as they pass. Just be aware that obliging drivers aren’t the only thing to be found in the hard shoulder; make sure there’s good visibility before you pull over, for around the next corner you might find a troop of baboons, a stray cow or a bunch of school kids walking home.