South Africa tops the list of must-visit travel destinations. It offers visitors once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see endangered animals in their natural habitats. Big cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban swirl with diverse people and cultures. From Table Mountain to Kruger National Park, South Africa’s landscapes impress even the most experienced naturalists. Plus, the country’s sprawling vineyards are intoxicating in more ways than one.
But while you’re busy on safari and sightseeing, it’s easy to forget that the presence of millions of visitors every year in South Africa makes a big impact -- for better or for worse -- on the country’s people, culture, and environment. When traveling to South Africa (or any developing country), making sensitive choices throughout your visit can ensure your trip is meaningful for both you and the destination -- without forcing you to sacrifice any part of your dream adventure. Here are some tips on how to travel to South Africa responsibly.
1. Connect With Locals From Many Cultures
South Africa has one of the most diverse populations in the world. Its nearly 58 million people represent a variety of cultures, from the English and Afrikaans to the Zulu, Sotho, and Xhosa. Furthermore, South Africa recognizes 11 different official languages. No wonder Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the country as a “rainbow nation.”
Responsible travelers to South Africa should strive to connect with locals from all walks of life. You can visit iSithumba, an authentic village that immerses travelers in the culture, food, and musical traditions of the Zulu people, on a day trip from Durban. In Stellenbosch, Dining With Locals is another great way to experience the culture of South Africa. You’ll enjoy a 2-hour dinner with locals, who will share their language, stories, and songs.
Meeting with people who represent South Africa’s rich heritage will give you a broader perspective and deeper appreciation of this rainbow nation.
2. Use Your Camera With Caution
The traditional clothing and customs you see in South Africa may look quite different from what you’re used to, depending on where you’re from. Ndebele men, for example, often wear beaded breastplates and aprons made of animal skin, while young, single Zulu women don beaded reed skirts and expose their chests. It’s fascinating, but while you may be tempted to reach for your camera, think about how you might feel if a tourist in your home country started photographing you going about your day. You might feel uncomfortable or insulted -- just like locals in other countries do when you photograph them. Try to avoid shoving cameras in people’s faces (trust me, there are plenty of other incredible sites to take pictures of in South Africa!), and at the very least, ask for permission before photographing anyone.
3. Don’t Give Treats To Children
If you visit a village in South Africa, you’re bound to see travelers giving local children pencils, candy, and even money. Don’t be one of them.
Giving treats to child beggars is “the least generous thing a tourist can do,” according to Slate. While the desire to give back (especially to children) is only natural, the practice of handing out gifts and trinkets can cause long-term problems. A child may skip school if they know that treat-bearing tourists are visiting their village, thus reducing the quality of their education and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Giving treats to kids can also disrupt their family dynamics, especially if their parents can’t afford to buy them similar treats. And finally, while it’s heartwarming to see a child’s face light up when you give them something, it’s unlikely you can carry enough treats for all the children in town. Inevitably, some will be left empty-handed and very disappointed.
If you really want to help, resist the instant gratification of giving gifts to village children and instead work with a reputable NGO to get kids, families, and schools the things they need most. Ubuntu Pathways, a 21-year-old NGO that has earned GuideStar’s Platinum Seal of Transparency, accepts donations to help further its mission of lifting vulnerable children in the townships of Port Elizabeth out of poverty. The nonprofit, along with many others in the country, can ensure your generosity truly helps those in need.
4. Be Mindful Of Limited Natural Resources
Many of us slack off on our good habits when we travel. We might use extra towels in our hotel room, take long showers, or leave the water running when we brush our teeth. However, those seemingly minor offenses can be a big deal in South Africa. The municipal water supply of Cape Town was predicted to run completely dry on April 12, 2018. While efforts by tourists and locals alike helped the city avert crisis, the water supply in Cape Town is still on shaky ground.
Respect this natural resource whenever you’re traveling in South Africa by limiting water waste. Some bathrooms in restaurants and bars have signs that read, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow,” so feel free to skip a flush. At hotels, reuse the same towel for a couple of days, keep your showers short, and let housekeeping know that they don’t have to provide fresh sheets every day. Doing your part is critical to keeping South Africa a great place to live and visit for years to come.
5. Know The History Of Apartheid
While apartheid ended 25 years ago, it’s impossible to separate modern-day South Africa from its tumultuous past. Apartheid perpetuated racism, violence, and social disparity, keeping black South Africans poor. The effects of this system of oppression still ripple through society today. The household income of the average white family is still six times higher than that of the average black family. And many black families still haven’t found a way to leave the poor townships they were forced to move to during apartheid.
Understanding the history of apartheid and its lingering impact is critical to responsible travel in South Africa. Before you visit the country, read Nelson Mandela’s biography, Long Walk to Freedom. It will offer valuable context for your trip and explain Mandela’s fight for justice. And once you land, make a point to spend an afternoon or two in one of South Africa’s apartheid museums. The main apartheid museum is in Johannesburg, but you can find similar institutions in Durban and Cape Town. You can also make a pilgrimage to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years behind bars.
You can use your travel budget to improve the lives of people who suffered under apartheid. A number of savvy entrepreneurs have set up experiences for travelers that will enrich your trip and drive dollars to the communities that need them most. Check out 4Roomed Ekasi Culture, a lovely restaurant that aims to stimulate the economy in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town township, and show off South African hospitality. You can also take one of Maboneng Township Arts Experience's innovative tours -- they have paired local artists with homeowners in a Cape Town township to convert their living rooms into gallery spaces. You’ll meet some of the most creative people in the community.
6. Choose A Safari That Focuses On Conservation
Seeing the “Big Five” game animals (lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, African elephants, and rhinos) will no doubt be one of the highlights of your trip to South Africa. It’s both humbling and awe-inspiring to see these creatures in their natural habitat. Where you choose to go on safari can make a difference in whether or not the magnificent animals (some of which are critically endangered) are around for future generations.
Seek out a safari camp in South Africa that has a passion for conservation. Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape Province has practiced conservation since the 1920s, reintroducing indigenous wildlife to the area, sourcing genetically resilient cheetahs for its reserve, and working to save rhinos. Similarly, Thanda Safari in KwaZulu-Natal combats rhino and elephant poaching and works with breeding programs for endangered animals.
Traveling responsibly in South Africa will not only ensure your trip makes a positive impact on the country, but it will show you sides of the destination that other visitors miss. Mindfulness pays off when it comes to seeing the world.