VSA has been working in South Africa since 1993. Our volunteer programme supports partners working on the country’s Reconstruction and Development Programme, primarily in the Eastern Cape. Currently we have volunteers in East London, Grahamstown, Mthatha, Tshani Village and Johannesburg. VSA has a field office in East London, staffed by a Country Programme Manager and an Administrator. Please note: As of March 2011, VSA is no longer recruiting for long term assignments in South Africa.
Anna Reid worked as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer on VSA’s UniVol programme, working at Restless Development in South Africa. She completed her assignment in December 2010. View Profile
South Africa’s turbulent, apartheid history left it with many economic, social and education problems. Since Nelson Mandela was inaugurated in 1994 as President, the country has experienced a social and political transformation that has ushered in participatory democracy, and more inclusive social services. However, it is still plagued with large socioeconomic inequalities.
South Africa’s rich and varied culture is seen in everything from food to music. Its population has diverse origins, cultures, languages and beliefs with nine of the country's 11 official languages being African and reflecting a variety of tribal/cultural groupings. About two-thirds of South Africans are Christian and belong to a variety of churches, including those that combine Christian and traditional African beliefs.
South Africa has the most advanced economy on the African continent and, since 1994, has grown rapidly. Mining, manufacturing and agriculture are its most important contributors. As the 20th largest economy in the world which contributes 38 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa's GDP, it has moved from an economy driven by government to one propelled by the private sector.
The country is plagued with large socioeconomic inequalities resulting from the apartheid regime, visible in high unemployment rates, widescale poverty and crime. An informal economic sector has developed, due to unemployment, and this poses another challenge to the country’s economic development. A number of the working age population were denied access to education during the apartheid era and this has reduced the effectiveness of the South African economy with a lack of a skilled labour force. Social and health problems, such as crime, corruption and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, continue to disrupt development initiatives and act as deterrents to foreign investment.
VSA assignments usually last two years, so local language training is useful. Most business is conducted in English and the need to learn the local language varies, depending on where your assignment is. VSA will contribute to the cost of language training if it is necessary for your assignment. Volunteers need to be prepared for a rich and varied cultural experience in South Africa. Culture shock can strike on a daily basis as you move between a wealthy suburban living environment to a poor environment in townships or rural areas. In larger towns, such as East London, many facilities and services are in place, but maintenance is lacking and delivery is not always up to New Zealand standards.
East London and Grahamstown-based volunteers typically enjoy a suburban living environment. Single volunteers will normally be accommodated in modest rented one or two bedroom flats, equipped with basic furnishings. Although these areas experience power outages or load shedding from time to time, generators are not required. If you are based in East London, you’ll live in one of the inner suburbs of the city.
East London offers most of the consumer services you would get in New Zealand with the exception of a good local public transport system. Shopping malls, restaurants, libraries, medical and dental services are all of a good standard. Grahamstown is a university town, and is smaller than East London, so the range of shops and services available is more limited.
These vary depending on the type of partner organisation and the nature of your volunteer role. In general, the South Africa work environment is more formal than in New Zealand but few organisations have strict dress codes.
South Africa has a reasonably healthy environment and few volunteers get seriously ill. East London has plenty of doctors, dentists, specialists, pharmacies etc. Malaria isn’t a problem in the Eastern Cape but if you are travelling north of Johannesburg or Durban you will need to take precautions. AIDS and HIV are both prevalent in South Africa as is tick bite fever. TB is endemic, with drug-resistant strains becoming a problem. If you intend to travel north in Africa you will need to be immunised for yellow fever.
We provide all volunteers with a thorough security briefing and specific local issues are covered during your in-country orientation. Living in East London is similar to living in a provincial town in New Zealand but the major difference is the level of security around homes. Although by South African standards, safety and security are not big issues, you’ll need to pay more attention than in New Zealand. But by exercising good judgment and common sense, the likelihood of any problems occurring is minimal. Take sensible precautions, such as keeping yourself safe in vehicles (there is always the possibility of car hijackings), and keeping away from areas where personal assaults motivated by robbery are common.
We assist volunteers in opening a First National Bank account once they arrive, where monthly living allowances are paid into. ATM's are widely available, particularly in urban areas, and debit cards are a cost-effective way of making purchases at most larger shops and chain stores. Access to ATMs is limited in rural areas, and in some cases debit card purchases are hindered by inadequate telephone connections and power outages. Local currency is the Rand. Visit XE.com for current exchange rates.
Cell phones are widely used in South Africa and you can bring or purchase a GSM phone (phones with an interchangeable SIM card). Volunteer accommodation is rarely equipped with a landline phone, and they are costly to have installed. Broadband internet is available but the infrequency of landlines limit options. Cellular-based internet connections are available on both contract and pre-paid basis if you are prepared to pay for them. There are a number of internet cafes in East London, and some restaurants provide Wi-Fi access.