Volunteer Abroad in South Africa | Overseas Volunteer Programs

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If you’re looking for great volunteer abroad opportunities in South Africa, then look no further! Author and former international volunteer, Melissa Haynes, shares her personal story volunteering abroad in South Africa. Since then, her life has been forever changed. She’s gone on to write about her volunteering experience in a book titled “Learning to Play with a Lion’s Testicles”, which has appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Ellen Show. Melissa also discusses several worthwhile projects to consider for those who want to volunteer abroad in South Africa.

It started with a fascination for what lie between the pages of National Geographic magazine from a pre-school age. Fire-blazon sunsets and equally impressive sunrises, pulse-racing photos of prehistoric mammals, graphic predator kill scenes and tribal warriors with painted masks and terrifying spears. These were the images that lay the foundation for dreams I would inevitably chase in adulthood. The dream wasn’t one I easily captured; it would take a major career change and life altering circumstances to make the decision that volunteering was perhaps an important life choice, just as, if not more important than any other. It was necessary.

I found a reputable company and signed up for a Big Five volunteer experience in South Africa, dang, just writing that still gives me chills. I left behind all the creature comforts of home (that I would soon learn were unimportant) and traded in my private office for a pair of butter-yellow leather, work gloves and a canvas tent. Best decision ever. I was lulled to sleep every night by the roar of lions and awoken at dawn by the screech of the Hadeeda bird overhead. My neighbors were elephants, cheetah, rhinoceros, and wildebeest – just to name a few. Every day I had a purpose to fulfill, my work had meaning – meaning that went beyond the bottom line. I wasn’t being paid yet I had never felt wealthier.

Meals were simple yet nourishing, the rangers gracious and eager to share knowledge and ensure I had a life enriching experience. It wasn’t long before I realized I was no longer living life vicariously through the pages of National Geographic magazine, I was writing the words myself, from my daily adventures. A lifetime of nearly forgotten dreams was now a reality and I was the one behind the camera lens, and the one holding the pen.

Perhaps the greatest gift of all that came from volunteering was learning the magic of giving itself. Every day I gave sweat, tears and everything I had of myself – yet the more I gave, the more I received. I tried desperately to even out the balance sheet but I couldn’t, I felt indebted for all I was receiving. I received clarity, knowledge, a deep and profound sense of meaning, important life lessons, and answers to questions that before seemed unanswerable.

Maybe it’s the idea of awakening to the sound of elephant trumpets or falling asleep to the roar of lions that is calling you to South Africa. Or perhaps it’s the genuine smile of a disadvantaged child when you share your compassion and knowledge that has you researching volunteer opportunities. Whatever your insatiable passion is: teaching English abroad, global health care, conservation abroad or international community service, you’ll find a way to quench it in South Africa.

President Nelson Mandela coined this great country as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ because it’s diverse and colorful in every way. From white sand beaches with awesome surf to grass plains and tabletop mountains, South Africa has something for everyone. The volunteer organizations allow and even encourage volunteers to take free time to experience it all.

Enjoy your South African volunteering adventure of a lifetime with one of these highly recommended and reputable organizations. For example, our friends at Pod Volunteer offers a wide range of opportunities from rescuing cheetahs to working with active research teams to better understand how to protect elephants.

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Global Vision International (GVI)

Program Name: Global Vision International

Volunteer Review by Amy Smith:

This really was a trip of a life time. My 6 week stay in South Africa was the first time I had done anything like this and certainly the first time I had been abroad on my own. I had a great time and experienced so much whilst out in the bush. The sights and sounds of the Africa bush are something you can never forget, nearly 3 years on and the memories are so vivid its like i was there last week. The staff both in the UK and in the field were excellent- very supportive, enthusiastic and clearly loved their jobs. In fact I have never met such passionate people and they really made me determined to finish my degree and follow in their footsteps. Overall it was an amazing trip, worth every penny, and I would 100% do it all over again!

Types of programs offered:

  1. Wildlife conservation
  2. Working with children
  3. Teaching sports and surfing
  4. Marine Conservation
  5. Healthcare
  6. Construction

Where they work:

South Africa. Other countries include: Costa RicaFijiGreeceIndiaLaosMexico, Nepal, SeychellesThailand.

How long:

Most programs are 2 – 24 weeks in length.

Who can join:

Volunteers 18+ years of age if travelling without a parent/guardian. Family and student programs are also available.

Know before you go:

Vaccinations may be required, check with your doctor. Travel medical insurance is required and the responsibility of the volunteer. Participants must be in reasonable physical condition. Meals and accommodation are provided. Accommodations are dorm style in volunteer houses. Weekends are free for sightseeing and activities. Long weekends/extra days can also be taken to explore.

Naturally Africa Volunteers (NAV)

Program Name: Naturally Africa Volunteers

Volunteer Review by Louis Irishman

The whole team at Naturally Africa were fantastic. So welcoming and really went out of their way to make me feel welcome. The program was well run and there are obvious close ties with the community. Not once in my stay did I feel uncomfortable and I really felt like I was making a small difference to the school. On the social side, all of the excursions were really well organised and all of the prices were clearly explained so you could budget easily. The house is clean, the food is delicious (Irish potatoes!) and all of the staff are friendly and helpful. I could not have asked for a better volunteering experience.

Types of programs offered:

  1. Veterinary and wildlife conservation
  2. Working with children
  3. Teaching sports and coaching
  4. Teach abroad
  5. Healthcare

Where they work:

South Africa. Other countries include: Malawi, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia.

How long:

Most programs are 2 – 24 weeks in length.

Who can join:

Volunteers 18+ years of age if travelling without a parent/guardian.

Know before you go:

All Naturally Africa Volunteers (NAV) projects have a local management team to ensure their projects are meeting the needs of the local community and to provide you 24/7 on-the-ground support. NAV keeps their program fees as low as possible in order to provide maximum support to the host community, with at least 70% of program fees going to the in-country partner. NAV selects its projects to meet unmet needs in the community where local resources or expertise does not exist, ensuring that volunteers do not take jobs from the local community.

Volunteer Eco Students Abroad (VESA)

Program Name: Volunteer Eco Students Abroad

Volunteer Review by James McDowell

I went on the first Africa Unearthed program ever held just a few days after I graduated from university. My experiences as a volunteer and as a tour leader of the African program really opened my eyes and gave me a much better perspective of the world. I really feel that I’ve made an impact in KZN (South Africa)

Types of programs offered:

The VESA South Africa program operates in St. Lucia and Swaziland. The St Lucia area is a world heritage status wetland region surrounded by local communities. The multi-faceted volunteer programs include:

Conservation and Environment

  1. Working in the wetlands region; the capture and release of crocodiles, the counting of crocodile eggs as well as feeding and cleaning the enclosures of the smaller crocs and alligators.
  2. Cheetahs and Leopards rehabilitation, breeding and release program; preparing the food, feeding the cats and constructing new enclosures for the breeding pairs.

Orphanage volunteer

  1. Teaching English, basic sanitation, hygiene and nutrition.
  2. Renovate and revitalize facilities.

Farming and Entrepreneurship

  1. Build and install sustainable farming units for families and single mothers to manage as a microbusiness.

Where they work:

St. Lucia, South Africa and Swaziland. Other regions include; South AmericaFijiSouth East Asia.

How long:

Two weeks.

Who can join:

Volunteers aged 18 years or older.

Know before you go:

A tourist visa is required to travel to South Africa. Some vaccines may be required – check with your doctor. Workdays are generally Monday – Friday, 8am – 4pm. All meals are included except on the final day transfer to Johannesburg. Travel medical insurance is required and the responsibility of participant. Accommodation is included in a secure dorm-style setting separated male/female, internet is available in lobby. Arrive to Durban airport and be met by VESA staff, departure from Johannesburg airport. All in-country transportation is provided. All activities are included except optional extras. Activities include sightseeing, river tour, and village tours.

International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ)

Program Name: International Volunteer HQ

Volunteer Review by Sarah Rayner

How to begin! Finding IVHQ was the best thing I’ve ever discovered. They’re overall a great organization to deal with, have loads of programs, even more countries to choose from and offer affordable prices compared to other organization. A killer trio if you ask me. After the initial stress of applying to a certain program IVHQ supports and follows you through your application process. All the pre departure information was very helpful and prepared you in some what of way for your arrival (they can’t prepare you for everything!). And then its take off time!! As you arrive IVHQ and the local organization you’re working with are with you the whole way. From picking you up from the airport, driving you to the local volunteer house, undergoing the orientation day and to all the other details they’re there the whole way. My program was amazing and the people I met were even greater. This trip was absolutely the best decision and the best trip I’ve ever done in my life! The experience and the stories you bring back home will be with you for the rest of your life. Living with local families is the way to become part of the community and to adopt the local culture. I would recommend this organization to everyone that wants to travel a little differently while making a sustainable change. And one thing is for sure this is not my last trip with IVHQ! Love IVHQ. So what are you waiting for….check IVHQ now!

Types of programs offered:

Teaching programs at public schools

  1. Tutor struggling students and work alongside local teachers or other volunteers.
  2. Subjects include English, Mathematics, Life Skills, Social Studies, Art and Physical studies however there is a heavy emphasis on English.
  3. Volunteers may also be asked to help organize other activities for the students, including sports.
  4. Volunteers do not need to be qualified or experienced teachers.

Surf Outreach

  1. Facilitate local children (9-15 years old) in learning how to surf, after school, while teaching them valuable life skills.
  2. Planning activities and teaching the children how to surf or play beach games, cleaning wetsuits, cleaning the Surf Development Center, preparing sandwiches for the students.
  3. Three days per week surfing and one day per week teaching beach games and one day per week in a local school to see how the students are performing in an academic setting, as surfing outside of school hours is treated as a privilege.
  4. Volunteers have the opportunity to learn how to surf with an instructor and have access to the surf equipment in the morning, while the students are at school.
  5. Volunteers do not need to know how to surf.

Sport Development

  1. Work with children from Grade 1 to Grade 7 and are responsible for the planning and delivery of creative and innovative Physical Education lessons which link directly to the Learning Outcomes and Curriculum set out by the Western Cape Education Department.

Childcare

  1. Volunteers are placed in day care centers attended by children from poor backgrounds and broken homes.
  2. In addition to teaching and caring for these children, volunteers on this project are also involved in organizing games and activities, and helping with general duties of the center, including cooking and feeding the children.

Computer Training

  1. Teach basic computer skills, providing local children with access to the Internet and the opportunity to up-skill and improve their future employment prospects.

Where they work:

Capricorn/Vrygrond community in Muizenberg (about 30 minutes from central Cape Town), South Africa. Other places include: Argentina, Bali, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Fiji, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Laos, Madagascar, Mexico, MoroccoNepalPeru, Philippines, Romania/Moldova, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Uganda, Vietnam, Zambia, Zimbabwe

How long:

Most programs are 1 – 24 weeks in length.

Who can join:

Volunteers must be 18 years or older at the beginning of the volunteer program and must provide a criminal background check to IVHQ partner staff on arrival in South Africa. Surf Outreach project volunteers must be competent swimmers. Computer Teaching project volunteers must be computer literate.

International Student Volunteers (ISV)

Program Name: International Student Volunteers

Volunteer Review by Tanya

I had a wonderfully positive experience with ISV, right from the start by keeping me up to date on deadlines, providing me with resources and ideas for fundraising and always being accessible through email on telephone. Once I went to Africa, it continued to be a positive, educational, safe and enjoyable experience. Ever since I have been back I have been thinking of ways to get back there and participate in a wonderful adventure with this organization again and its a good thing they have resources to help me earn another trip because I will put in the effort for such a great cause and experience.

Types of programs offered:

ISV offers volunteer/adventure programs in South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique. ISV is unique in that they offer two-week volunteer programs with the option of adding on a two-week adventure tour. Types of volunteer programs offered:

Environmental Management

  1. Employ environmental management techniques to protect the country’s natural and vulnerable areas.

Conservation

  1. Wildlife care and rehabilitation programs
  2. Education

Children’s programs

  1. Assisting children in need

Community Development

Where they work:

South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique. Other countries include; Australia, Botswana, Costa RicaDominican Republic, Fiji, Mozambique, New ZealandSouth Africa, Swaziland, Thailand, Vietnam, Zambia.

How long:

Two-week volunteer project with the option of adding a two-week adventure tour.

Who can join:

Volunteers aged 18 years or older, however there is also a special program for volunteers aged 15 – 18.

Know before you go:

A tourist visa is required to travel to South Africa. Some vaccines may be required – check with your doctor. Travel and medical insurance is required and the responsibility of participant. Accommodation is included, all meals are included during the volunteer program and about half the meals are included during the optional adventure program. ISV has been in business since 2002 and has had more than 30,000 volunteers on hundreds of projects. More than 310 universities grant academic credit for participation in ISV programs, check with your local university. You will be travelling with a group of 25-50 other volunteers.

Projects Abroad

Program Name: Projects Abroad

Volunteer Review by Nicole Biz

I had a wonderful time volunteering in South Africa with Projects Abroad, and I actually plan to go back to South African next year. I took a career break to work on a business project in a Cape Town township to help an educare centre (an early childhood school) with its business planning. The opportunity was simply amazing! We worked during the day from Monday to Friday and had ample opportunities to travel and site-see around town and the country.

Types of programs offered:

Projects Abroad has a variety of volunteer projects in Cape Town, South Africa. Programs offered include:

Conservation and Environment

  1. Live and work in a game reserve helping to conserve African animals and plant life.

Child Care

  1. work with children aged 3 – 6 in orphanages.

Teaching

  1. Volunteer as a teaching assistant or teach IT and literacy in the Cape Flats area.

Medicine and Healthcare

  1. Volunteer at a health clinic and help vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS.

Law and Human Rights

  1. A typical day includes meeting with clients, research and reviewing cases.

Teach physical education at Cape Town schools

Surfing

  1. Help teach surfing, swimming and general life skills to at-risk children.

Journalism

  1. Work alongside journalists in Cape town in every phase of magazine production from concept to finished product.

Building

  1. Help construct better quality homes and classrooms.

International Development

  1. Work alongside NGOs in Cape Town tackling the country’s big issues: unemployment, crime, domestic abuse and alcoholism.

Veterinary Medicine and Animal Care

Where they work:

Cape Town, South Africa. Other countries include; Argentina, Bolivia, Botswana, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Fiji, Ghana, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, Romania/Moldova, Samoa, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Vietnam.

How long:

Most projects are four weeks in length. Projects run year round (check local holidays) and volunteers can generally start any day of the week.

Who can join:

Volunteers aged 16 years or older for high school programs, 18 years or older for individual programs.

Know before you go:

A tourist visa is required to travel to South Africa. Some vaccines may be required – check with your doctor. Workdays are generally Monday – Friday, weekends are free for sight seeing, etc. Projects Abroad arranges for a local Host Family to provide living accommodations and meals during the Project Period (included in program cost). Program fees also include medical insurance.

African Impact

Program Name: African Impact

Volunteer Review by bgdsend

I headed out to South Africa as a Cape Town Teaching volunteer. It really was amazing. The sun, the sea, the communities and projects, the backdrop, Cape Town is an incredible place. The first day got me so excited for the trip a comprehensive tour of the areas I’d be working in. I made friend with people of all ages from all over the world, and because of the friendly atmosphere created by the project managers, everyone got on well and it was a good laugh too. I ended up staying for 3 months – all the people I met there that booked for 2,3 or 4 weeks were gutted they didn’t book for longer. You get looked after so well at the house too – laundry, meals, accommodation, all top-notch. Met some amazing people and loved working at the schools and community projects. Booking the trip was maybe the best decision I’ve ever made. DO. IT.

Types of programs offered:

African Impact offers a range of volunteer programs in South Africa. Projects include:

Conservation Projects

  1. Wildlife refuges
  2. Marine conservation
  3. Lion rehabilitation
  4. Photography
  5. Veterinary and wildlife research

Community Volunteering

  1. Building and development
  2. Healthcare and medical
  3. HIV/Aids support
  4. Sports and coaching
  5. Teaching and education
  6. Orphanage and vulnerable children

Internships

Where they work:

South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Madagascar, Uganda, Seychelles.

How long:

Most programs run for 2 – 12 weeks. Custom options are also available.

Who can join:

Volunteers aged 18+.

Know before you go:

A traveller’s visa is required for South Africa. Some vaccinations also may be required, check with your doctor. Fees include all meals during project work times (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and accommodation as well as transfer to/from project site. Volunteer accommodation usually takes the form of a free-standing house, chalet, or in some cases, a backpackers lodge. Volunteers usually stay in rooms with 2-6 beds (bunks) with clean duvets and bedding. There are separate rooms for males and females. The volunteer accommodation often has access to a swimming pool, lounge and entertainment area as well as a resource room where they can plan for the next day’s projects or learn about other African Impact projects and initiatives. Evenings and weekends are free time for local excursions. Excursions are an additional cost. Travel medical insurance is required for all volunteers.

Volunteers who were able to volunteer abroad for free by successfully fundraising on Volunteer Forever for African Impact projects:

Lori Heisler, USA. Raised $5555 to volunteer on a Community Development Project in Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa.

Serena Roffo, USA. Raised $5515 to teach orphaned children in Zimbabwe.

Brooke, USA. Raised $2065 to volunteer at a children’s program in Kenya.

Wildlife Act

Program Name: Wildlife ACT

Volunteer Review by Dominique

I would like to thank all the Wildlife ACT team for the amazing time I had in Africa.

I can truly say that the experience changed my life forever. Before the trip I had no idea what I wanted to do and didn’t know what good could come from my university course, which is Advertising. And now, Wildlife ACT inspired me to used it for a good cause. I have been trying to get involved in Brazilian conservation organizations and have been more interested in my country’s wildlife which is huge!

At both Tembe Elephant Park and Hluhluwe I met the most amazing people and I know I made friends for life. The work you guys are doing is incredible and I would like to help in anyway I could. Please let me know if you guys ever need anything! I’m planning on coming back in July of next year. I cannot wait.

Types of programs offered:

Conservation projects on game reserves. Specific projects include:

Endangered Species Conservation.

  1. Tracking and monitoring animals such as Cheetah, African Wild Dog, Rhino, Lion, Elephant and Leopard.

Leopard Conservation Census

  1. Wildlife ACT will conduct a number of exciting, short-term Leopard Population Surveys using remote camera trapping survey methods. The survey is the largest on leopards of its kind in the world.

Film-making and photography specialist volunteer programs

Where they work:

Zululand, South Africa.

How long:

Most programs are 2 – 16 weeks in length. Extended stay options available.

Who can join:

Volunteers 18+ years of age.

Know before you go:

Vaccinations may be required, check with your doctor. Travel medical insurance is required and the responsibility of the volunteer. Participants must be in reasonable physical condition. Housing is provided in a ranger’s station with bathroom and kitchen facilities. Meals are included but prepared by the volunteers. A maximum of five volunteers are accepted at a time. Wildlife ACT is supported by, and works with high profile conservation organizations including WWF, Endangered Wildlife Trust and Pantera.

Interested in volunteering abroad in other areas of Africa? Check out our Volunteer Abroad in Africa article! Also, if you’re looking for low-cost volunteer opportunities, check out our article on cheap and affordable volunteer programs.

P.S. If you’re still looking for a volunteer opportunity, check out our list of best volunteer abroad programs and recommended volunteer projects in AfricaCentral America, and Thailand. You can also read about 7 Great Medical and Veterinary Volunteer Abroad Projects10 Dental Volunteer Abroad Program and Medical Mission Tips for Pre Dental Students, and nursing volunteer abroad projects for students and nurse professionals. Or, if medical volunteer projects aren’t for you, be sure to read about our sports and coaching volunteer abroadwildlife conservation and veterinary abroad, teach abroad, and intern abroadprograms. Lastly, if you’re under 18, you may be interested in a teen volunteer abroad program from one of our many great partners.

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