Responsible volunteering in South Africa starts with research to ensure your time and energy is going to a worthy cause – and that you are the right person for the job. Expect to be vetted, ask about long term objectives, and find a project that suits you.
As the population grows and development spreads, animals are coming into closer conflict with humans, as both parties battle for crops and fight over natural habitats. Schools in underprivileged city suburbs and rural township communities are also being pushed to breaking point. A lack of classroom assistants and teachers impacts on overcrowded classrooms, where physical education, art and music are extracurricular activities that are often ignored. Volunteers in South Africa can make a huge difference. Teachers, sports coaches and teaching assistants; skilled and manual labourers; volunteers with experience or just a positive attitude; volunteering can be an experience that can change your life and the lives of others.


Our stance on volunteer teaching and coaching placements is simple: don’t participate in any voluntary activities overseas that you would not be allowed or qualified to do in your home country.
If you want to volunteer as a teacher or sports coach in South Africa you must have a TEFL certificate, a PGCE, a sports coaching qualification or an equivalent qualification related to youth work. Teaching and coaching assistants don’t need the same level of qualifications, although it's still important to demonstrate why you're a suitable candidate to work with underprivileged children in South Africa. References and background checks such as a DBS check (the Disclosure and Barring Service which replaces the CRB, Criminal Records Bureau) will be required for all volunteers working with children as well as an informal telephone interview. If they’re not – alarm bells should ring.
Do your research when it comes to choosing a tour operator. Find out more about the school, and the area, where you will be teaching, coaching or assisting teachers. If there's no vetting process then you need to question whether the organisation has the students’ best interests at heart. Although qualified teachers are always welcome, make sure you won't be replacing a local member of staff. Working alongside qualified teachers and local members of school staff allows volunteers to share skills and teaching techniques as well as offering the chance to find out more about the local culture and what kids are going through out of school as well as in.
Ask questions; find out what a volunteer programme has achieved in the past and what their plans are for the future. Will you have the right level of support? Where you will be staying? How long will you be working each day? Who else will you be living with? Just do as much research as possible to ensure your skills and experience will be put to the best use possible.
If you are an experienced teacher, ask if you can set up skills-sharing sessions with local teachers; you can suggest new classroom ideas or improve their language skills, while they can give insights into the local culture and share teaching tips of their own. This has a longer term impact, and supports local staff, rather than competing with them. It’s also vital that pupils look to members of their own community for education and skills, rather than assuming these are best learned from foreigners.
For more information, see our guidelines for volunteer teachers and coaches.
Gemma Lay, volunteer specialist at our supplier Pod Volunteer:

"When selecting a volunteer placement you should assess the long term aims, how volunteers assist the project and the support you will receive throughout your volunteer placement."

Wildlife & environment

Cuddled to be killed

Anyone looking for a volunteer placement with captive animals should be aware that not all sanctuaries and wildlife centers in South Africa are as they seem. Some unscrupulous owners have cottoned on to the fact that letting people volunteer with animals brings in the Rand. Big cats, especially, are often bred in captivity in order to be shot by trophy hunters. This practice, which is legal in South Africa, is known as 'canned hunting'. Lions and leopards are played with as cubs, which makes them sitting ducks for hunters who pay big bucks for the privilege of shooting a 'prize trophy'. Most hunting in South Africa takes place on private game reserves, and hunters pay a ‘species fee’ for the privilege of hunting, shooting and taking home a ‘prize trophy’. Hunting permits, licences, ammunition, trophy handling, food, accommodation, travel and additional tours all add up to trophy hunting being very big business in South Africa, which is why the government still allows it to take place. Although cuddling, feeding and playing with baby lions can seem like an attractive and worthwhile experience – you're helping animals after all, right? – the truth is much, much darker. There's a huge abuse of a volunteer's time, money and trust, not to mention the ethical impacts of raising an animal purely so it can be shot in the name of sport
What you can do
If you see offers of walking big cats on a lead or cuddling cubs as part of your day-to-day role, think: what's in it for the animals? Learn about a rehabilitation center's ethos, accreditation and their success rate in returning animals to the wild. Are you just going to be signing up to a glorified zoo or, worse still, a volunteer placing big cats on a conveyor belt for trophy hunters?
See our Wildlife conservation volunteering guide for more information about the issues surrounding handling wildlife and choosing legitimate placements.

Drought and erosion

Cape Town has seen its worst ever drought in recorded memory. Consecutively low annual rainfall has caused many communities living in surrounding suburbs to have to queue for hours to collect water from taps. Restrictions on Cape Town residents in 2018 limited each household to 50 litres of water per day. Although these rationing exercises provide a short term fix there's still a very long way to go if the drought issue on the Western Cape is to be fully addressed. The lack of water not only affects South Africa’s urban population; rural communities are also put under increasing strain, too. Rainfall is essential for maintaining agriculture and already erosion is a huge environmental issue. The impact on wildlife is huge with the constant fight for water bringing farmers and wild animals into greater conflict. Volunteering projects that take place outside of South Africa's national parks and game reserves often aim to protect ecosystems and preserve the natural environment as well as monitoring and counting animals. Erosion patrols and taking out invasive plants are some of the daily duties you can expect if you're volunteering in the wild. And although you may not be encountering the Big Five on a daily basis, or feeding orphaned monkeys, you will be contributing your time and energy to tackling one of the most significant environmental problems South Africa has ever had to face.
What you can do
No matter where you volunteer in South Africa, limiting your water consumption and not wasting water is vital for helping to address the drought. Take care when washing, drinking and cooking with water. Use hand gel as an alternative, wherever possible. If you're trekking or working in the wild make sure you stick to marked trails or designated areas. In this way you'll be helping to prevent further erosion taking place on already desperately dry landscapes. Also, have some empathy for what urban and rural communities are going through and don’t be too demanding when it comes to fitting in with local lifestyles.


Find a volunteer placement that’s run by a reputable company. We have spent a great deal of time ensuring the tour operators that we promote in South Africa place conservation, education, community issues and the welfare of wildlife, first. Find out what a volunteer tour operator’s long term goals are and ask questions. Where will your money be going? What has the organisation achieved so far? And who you will be working with? It’s important when volunteering to make sure you’re not taking the job of a local person or entering a revolving door of short term placements, particularly if working with children and vulnerable young people. For ethical and child protection reasons, we do not promote orphanage volunteering placements. If you do want to volunteer with vulnerable children, relevant qualifications (in teaching or social work), background checks and experience are essential – as is a commitment of at least one month, to ensure a positive impact is made. Volunteers should also be aware that, due to recent negative publicity surrounding orphanage volunteering, some organisations refer to themselves as ‘children’s homes’ – so do your research to find out exactly what this refers to. Find out more about the issues surrounding orphanage volunteering vacations.
If you’re volunteering with wildlife or as part of a conservation team, find out more about the researchers, the guides, and the experts who are responsible for the project. Discuss responsible wildlife policies and what guidelines need to be adhered to. The emphasis of a volunteering placement should be on what you can offer to the destination, rather than just another vacation, or even what you can add to your CV. You’ll get time off for fun and games, don’t worry, however, often, it’s the working week that will prove to be the most memorable, more worthwhile. Respect local traditions and, wherever possible, get to know local people, both at work and in the community. This is one of the best ways to learn more about the real South Africa and not just what you’ll see through the eyes of a typical tourist. Your expectations should be managed honestly so you know what you’re letting yourself in for. Volunteering with primates, for example, requires a lot of food prep at the start of each and every day; it’s not all about feeding and cuddling baby monkeys; although there are lots of opportunities to do that too. If you’re volunteering in a school, ask your organisation which items might be of use to donate – it’s not always pens and exercise books! Newspapers, magazines, comics, photographs and things from back home can make for really useful teaching aids. If stationery, books, art supplies and sports equipment are requested, buy them once you arrive in South Africa to support local businesses.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Frontier Official] [Smiling children: Randy OHC] [People and culture: Frontier Official] [Cuddled to be killed: Frontier Official] [Drought and erosion: Michael Mayer] [Responsible tips: Frontier Official]