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Volunteer in Johannesburg, South Africa

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Johannesburg is one of the biggest and most vibrant destinations in Africa, and by far one of the most culturally diverse and intense places on this amazing continent. Born around the gold exploration started in the late 19th century, the City of Gold is the capital of the Gauteng province, and is seen as the South African industrial and economical capital. Touring around downtown and the suburbs presents several powerful contrasts of ultra-modern buildings and enterprises with traditional selling stalls, of wildlife conservation with modern arts, all causing amazement to any visitor.

Johannesburg also presents powerful social contrasts, and is still very divided and scared by the Apartheid years. Reminders are everywhere, some confined to museums that remind locals and visitors of how many changes have already taken place, but some in the streets, as a constant reminder of the hard social integration work still ahead. Johannesburg is also highly affected by crime (petty, violent, gender and race-based), severe economic differences, poverty, and health issues (such as high numbers of cases of HIV/AIDS).

Volunteers are mainly needed to improve local living standards, provide due medical and educational care to local communities, raise awareness about illnesses and their consequences, and help protect the wildlife. Social volunteering programs are located mainly in the townships (under Apartheid, townships meant residential areas for non-whites) around the city, whilst wildlife programs are located outside the city. These programs and their location will give volunteers a unique opportunity to improve the local communities and scenery, understand a very complex society, and discover one of the most modern cities in Africa.

Photo credit: Paul Saad.

Health: South Africa, and in particular Johannesburg and its townships, has an incredible high number of HIV/AIDS cases (in fact, on the highest in the continent, despite the level of development of the country with respect to its neighbors). This is due mainly to inadequate awareness of the disease and its effects, the influence of local healers, and shear reluctance to change behaviors. HIV/AIDS is particularly affecting children, who either are infected with the virus, or are abandoned by parents with AIDS, or simply lose their parents to the disease.

The inadequate living and hygiene conditions in many of the poorest areas of the city also play an important role in the origin and spread of other diseases beyond HIV/AIDS. Volunteers are in very high demand to organize and run awareness raising campaigns (not only about HIV/AIDS, but also about basic hygiene behaviors that can help prevent debases from spreading) and volunteers with a medical background are very sought after to provide the constant care and attention needed by sick children and adults.

Community Development: There are several townships around Johannesburg (the most well known being the Soweto and Alexandra) where extreme poverty and inadequate living conditions are very much the norm. Even in the city centre you will see a contrasting image of modern developments with small “neighborhoods” of extremely poor people. In 2004, almost 40% of the city’s population was living below the poverty line, although it is estimated that this value is higher.

As mentioned, these inadequate living conditions also have a serious impact in people’s health, and the containment of diseases. Volunteers are needed to increase the quality of life of these people, and are usually involved in small maintenance and/or construction activities, like painting, brick and furniture building, etc.

Youth Development and Education: One of the biggest gaps between rich and poor in Johannesburg is seen in the education of the children and young adults. Although Apartheid has ended many years ago, its social divide left a very profound scar in the city, and in particular townships, which are constantly neglected.

Teachers, and teaching and financial resources are scarce in the townships, meaning that youth education is insufficient and inadequate. This in turn means that it is quite easy for young people to drop from the educational system either to work to help financially their families, or to join a life of crime, as way of getting financial resources or some empowerment they could not reach anyway else.

Likewise, some of these young people do not have enough emotional care, attention and affection at home, so it is quite easy for them to feel there is no point in anything they do. Therefore, it is vital for volunteers to create and join activities that can somehow mitigate these issues and prove to the local youth that there is a brighter tomorrow. These activities will mainly be assisting teachers in class, do the teaching yourself (mainly will be teaching English) or organizing after school activities (like reading clubs, and workshops).

Gender and Race Equality: Johannesburg (like all South Africa) is plagued with two major social issues: domestic violence against women, and racial divides. One is the result of a still very-male dominated society, the other the result of decades of oppression of a social group that is now empowered and feels revenge is only natural. The local and national governments go to great lengths to fight these issues, but these problems are still very much part of the city’s landscape. Although it is unlikely that volunteers will be involved with a specific program dealing with these issues, the way they deal and react to these issues can influence the local communities, and promote some much-needed social change.

Wildlife: There are a lot of ongoing efforts and initiatives from the South African government to ensure that the uniqueness and beauty of the country’s wildlife remains for many years to come. Johannesburg is not an exception to such initiatives, and although offerings in the city itself are somewhat limited, on the outskirts (about 2h by car), there are several projects focused on wildlife welfare, conservation and rehabilitation. These are usually offered by well established and known game reserves or animal sanctuaries, and provide very close interactions with animals like lions, antelopes and rhinos.

Volunteer Support: Volunteer organizations in Johannesburg will be usually well prepared and equipped to receive volunteers, in terms of providing adequate accommodation, knowing what to do in emergencies, how to keep you safe, how to tackle emotional issues that may arise through your volunteering experience, and how to make the most of your experience on and off projects. Most countries have an embassy/consulate available either in Pretoria (about 2h away by car) or Johannesburg itself, where you should be able to find support in case of more serious problems, as a lost passport or visa issues. Generally, asking for help or assistance is quite easy, since English is one of the official languages in South Africa.

To Know Before You Go:
  • If your passport is not from the UK or Ireland and you would like to stay for longer than 90 days you will need a visa. Although these can be obtained at the airport after you arrive, it is advisable to obtain one from your local South African embassy before departure.
  • Projects in townships and smaller communities will expose you to situations (extreme poverty, inequality, racial confrontations, crime, etc.) that can be somewhat shocking and cause some emotional overflow in the first few days.
  • At some point, you will feel that what you are doing is too small to make a difference; always remember, you may not be doing a difference to the world, but you are definitely making a difference in someone’s world.
  • Children crave quite a lot of a attention and physical interaction, so do not be afraid of seeing a somewhat large number of children around you and touching you at all times. In fact, give them as much affection as possible, and avoid choosing favorites.
  • When going on barbeques or dinners organized by South Africans, meat will always be present in large quantities; so if you are a vegetarian, make sure provisions are available for you.
  • To save money while volunteering, avoid ATM’s and banks with transaction fees. Also, try to get your souvenirs from local shops (not big chains, or at the airport) because you can get really nice products at a lower cost and in some cases you will be helping the makers directly.
Health and Safety of Volunteers in Johannesburg:

Although Johannesburg does not require any special vaccinations, some are recommended, like hepatitis A and B, and typhoid. Malaria vaccinations are only required if you are planning to visit the North and Eastern parts of South Africa. It is also suggested to bring pain relievers and diarrhea medicines. Double-check with your medical provider the kind of vaccinations and other medical care that you will need prior to departure. Johannesburg has very good medical centers, but all medical care must be paid for, so travel insurance is advisable. Pharmacies are very well stocked, and can be easily found around the city; a few all-night pharmacies are available.

Johannesburg has the highest crime rates in South Africa, and crime is not specific to township. Theft, armed assault, rapes and carjacking are the major crimes committed. Try, as much as possible, to travel with someone else, and always be careful when traveling alone. It is strongly recommended not to go outside at night on your own. When in townships, it is strongly recommended you always have some companion, be it day or night. Try to leave any valuables (such as cameras, phones, jewelry, laptops, tablets, etc.) and your passport safely in the accommodation provided, and if do take them with you, avoid displaying them. Do not carry too much money with you. Always be vigilant in ATM machines, as these are hotspots for petty crimes, especially against tourists/foreigners. Finally, when using a map, be as discrete as possible, and try to behave casually.

Contributed by Tiago Oliveira

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