Volunteering in South Africa – things to consider

For travelers wanting to volunteer overseas, South Africa often comes up in searches. It’s very popular for volunteers, gap year students, service learners or interns looking for a great experience.

South Africa has a notorious colonial history. It still has widespread socioeconomic issues born from that era. It’s also known for its large Westernised cities, well-developed infrastructure, and relative comfort and safety for travelers. Let’s not forget about the amazing wildlife, beaches and outdoor experiences!

In fact, South Africa might well be the ideal destination for both tourists and volunteers. It has all the “mystique” of the larger African continent. It also has its very own specific attractions for travelers who want to combine sightseeing and adventure with the desire to give back. 

To make a real difference, there are some crucial things you should consider before deciding to volunteer in South Africa.

Think about your use of social media

This isn’t the number one most super-important consideration for volunteering in South Africa, but it’s worth noting! The average age of most volunteers is early to mid-20s, and social media plays a huge part in our lives these days.

There are so many pictures online of volunteers working in South Africa and other African countries. The voluntourism industry relies on these images to promote and sustain itself in Western countries.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these pictures. Everyone wants to record their experiences, and they should. Take all the pictures you want! Just think about your own motives, and what you’re saying to the world. This is especially important when volunteering with children.

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If you have genuine motives and a desire to help, you don’t want people to think you’re just trying to get attention with your posts and photos.

To share photos in a good and positive way, volunteers in South Africa should think about the overall message they want to send on social media. Do you want to draw attention to the fantastic project you’re working on? Do you want to show the world the great friends you made? Do you want people to realise how hard local South Africans work to help their own communities?

Think hard about what you want to say. Then let your social media speak for you, and the people you worked with.

Volunteer at projects that help South African communities

You might keep reading or hearing the word “sustainability” when it comes to volunteering in South Africa, or any developing country. What does it mean?

Sustainability refers to projects that are organised in a way that the local community can run the project to the same standard, after volunteers have left. Volunteers in South Africa should not expect to perform some miracle and change many lives in a week or two. Your main goal should be that of a responsible traveler. You should look for projects that are being well-run by locals, before you get there. You get there to help out in any way you can, and the projects will be fine after you leave.

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You’re at a volunteer project to help the local community and people, not to be “in charge”. You don’t want to throw gifts and donations at people that might not know how to use them. The people you assist in running a project will know their society better than you. It’s important that you take their lead.

Be realistic about your skills as a volunteer

We all want to learn new things, and volunteering in South Africa is a great way to do this. If you have a passion in life, such as teaching, medicine or wildlife conservation, you can be a great help to projects that offer these experiences.

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Be realistic and remember that you only have a certain amount of time as a volunteer. You’re not going to be a head teacher, a social worker, a special-needs expert, or a game ranger in a week or two. You’re there to learn, assist and experience. Volunteers in South Africa who expect to take charge of a very challenging project and make fundamental changes, are in for a disappointment!

If you come to South Africa as a volunteer and develop a true love for its people, and are prepared to devote your life to it, that’s fantastic. After all, that’s how Khaya Volunteer Projects came into existence

Ideally, volunteers to South Africa want to learn about its people and help in whatever way they can. You can certainly share things about your own culture and experiences but that shouldn’t be your end goal.

Respect other cultures you volunteer with

In the early days of volunteering, many people had a religious sense of duty to society. Some were privileged enough to be able to travel for pleasure. They came to countries like South Africa so that their “superior” culture would benefit the people they met. They saw these interactions as a one-way deal.

These days, we are far more enlightened about the world and its people. We know that no culture is inherently better than another. Societal advantages and technological developments don’t make anyone superior.

Volunteering in South Africa, or any developing country, means that you are meeting your cousins from a branch of your human family. They are your cousins who grew up in a different town!

If you visit a country like South Africa you might be surprised or even shocked by things you encounter, for example in a township environment. Don’t worry, this is a perfectly normal reaction. After all, you traveled to get out of your comfort zone. This means that some things might be strange to you. Just keep an open mind about your experiences, and allow them to broaden your horizons and change your life!

Enjoy yourself in South Africa!

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So far we’ve mentioned ethics, sustainability, realism and respect when volunteering in South Africa. Having fun is just as important as these things. You’ll meet great people and have a life-changing experience in one of the world’s friendliest and most amazing countries.

Hope to see you in South Africa soon!


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