Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and home to some of the country’s best features: a wonderfully diverse population, a thriving arts and cultural scene, tasty food, and fascinating historical sights. It is one of Africa’s most exciting cities, with many positive changes happening in the 20 years since the end of apartheid.
However, some social and economic problems persist in the city, particularly due to the stark inequality that remains apartheid’s most noticeable legacy. This means there are many ways in which volunteers can make a real difference in Johannesburg, whether it be by addressing poverty, education, health, or even wildlife conservation.
Volunteering in Johannesburg will allow you to see another side of Africa than the one most Westerners imagine. An opportunity here will place you at the heart of South Africa’s breakneck modernization and development, but it will also give you a chance to ensure this progress benefits all levels of society.
South Africa is a rapidly developing country and is currently undergoing a period of economic, social, and political change. However, there are still plenty of areas in which volunteers can make a big difference, especially in the deprived townships of Johannesburg.
South Africa has the highest incidence of AIDS in the world, containing 19% of all people currently living with HIV. There has been significant progress in fighting the AIDS epidemic in recent years, mainly due to the work of various charities and NGOs around the country.
As a volunteer in one of these organizations, you can help in awareness and sex education projects or work in a more hands-on capacity if you have medical experience. Volunteering in Johannesburg with an AIDS charity could also overlap with work in other areas, such as women's groups and supporting abandoned children.
Beyond this, the hygiene and living conditions in certain townships can often cause other diseases to spread. This means there is a high overall demand for health volunteers in Johannesburg to deliver medical care and education in the city's poorer areas.
South Africa is famed for its wildlife, but many of the country’s most incredible species -- such as lions, cheetahs, zebras, and rhinos -- are endangered. Many wildlife conservation projects throughout the country work to rescue and support these dwindling populations.
While most wildlife conservation projects are based in more remote areas, there is still a number of projects near Johannesburg. These tend to be based in towns around the city, meaning you have all the excitement of Jo'burg at arm’s length while staying somewhere quieter and less chaotic.
If you want to work with animals but prefer to stay in the middle of it all, there are also several charities that rescue abandoned, abused, or homeless city animals such as dogs and cats. While you will not be working with exciting exotic species, you would be making a real difference in the lives of many animals as well as the people who will get to adopt them into a loving home.
Education & Youth Outreach
One of the most common forms of volunteering in South Africa is education, with teachers being in especially high demand in the poorer townships. This type of opportunity is best suited to volunteers with qualifications or experience in teaching to ensure the kids are provided with the highest possible quality of education.
If you do not have teaching experience, there is still plenty you can do to help Johannesburg’s underprivileged children. Volunteer opportunities exist in NGOs ranging from shelters for homeless or abused kids to arts programs that encourage children from deprived areas to develop creative skills.
Planning Your Trip
In most cases, your volunteer program will take care of the logistics of your trip. If you are liaising directly with a charity or NGO you may have to do more of the work yourself, but they should still be able to provide support and advice.
Housing & Accommodation
Many volunteering placements in Johannesburg will include shared accommodation with other volunteers, especially those organized through volunteering organizations. This will tend to be in a safer area of the city, with daily transfers to the more impoverished townships where you will be working.
If your volunteer placement does not include housing, the organization should be able to help you find somewhere to live. Short-term accommodation in the Johannesburg is often advertised on web portals such as Gumtree, but stay safe and always bring someone if you are going to visit a flat you’ve seen online. More regulated websites like Airbnb with user reviews can be a better idea, or you could negotiate a good rate with a hostel if you are going for a few weeks.
Language Requirement & Tips
For most volunteer placements in Johannesburg, knowledge of English is enough. English is one of the country’s 11 official languages and is probably the most commonly spoken across the country. The vast majority of people you will encounter will speak English, even if it is not their first language.
That said, some knowledge of local languages is always appreciated. The main difficulty in South Africa is knowing which one, with Afrikaans, Xhosa, Sotho, Northen Sotho, and Zulu being just a few of the languages spoken. Learning some basic words in a few of these languages can be a fun way to familiarize yourself with the cultural diversity of the "Rainbow Nation".
Johannesburg has dry hot weather most of the year, so pack plenty of light, comfortable, breathable clothing. It can get chilly in winter and in the mornings, so do bring a jacket and some warmer clothes. If you are going during the rainy season (October-April), pack an umbrella or rain jacket.
Some volunteer placements will cover all your daily expenses including food and transport, while others will give you a stipend for this. If you have to arrange your own transport, it’s better to opt for private cars or shared taxis rather than public transportation, which can be unsafe for foreigners.
Volunteers will need to apply for a long-term stay visa for any placement that is longer than three months. If you are staying for under three months, you may not need a visa -- your volunteer organization will be able to point you in the right direction.
Health & Safety
Johannesburg has a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and this is not entirely unwarranted. However, most visitors do not experience any issues and you can keep yourself safe by staying smart and alert.
Johannesburg is a developed city with good hospitals, but these can be expensive so make sure you have good travel insurance. There are no vaccination requirements and no particular illnesses to watch out for. Tap water is generally clean and safe to drink.
Safety can be a concern for many visitors to Johannesburg due to the city’s high crime rate, but some common sense will go a long way in keeping you safe. Keep the below tips in mind as a guide, and remember that there are plenty of safe areas to explore as a volunteer in Johannesburg.
- Do not walk around the city at night
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times to avoid wandering into dangerous areas
- Do not flash cash or expensive goods
- Rely on the knowledge of trusted locals to inform your decisions around the city
- If you are mugged, simply give your valuables to the robber without making eye contact
- Female travelers should be particularly careful and avoid being alone unless they are in a crowded area