13 Things You'll Only Learn if You Visit South Africa

Beautiful Cape Town at Sunset | © donvictorio/Shutterstock
Beautiful Cape Town at Sunset | © donvictorio/Shutterstock
Photo of Andrew Thompson
Freelance Writer - Instagram.com/andrewthompsonsa14 September 2017

Thanks in a large part to its accessible wildlife, beautiful scenery, competitive prices, and friendly, welcoming population, South Africa has become a top global tourist destination since the advent of democracy. There are some things that many visitors don’t know until they actually spend some time engaging with the country on an extended visit, so here are 13 things tourists will learn during a trip to South Africa.

South Africa is still grappling with the legacy of Apartheid

It may seem surprising to anyone who watched South Africa’s transition to democracy that the country is still grappling with the legacy of this oppressive political system. Though the country embraced the notion of ‘The Rainbow Nation’, a visit to the country will reveal that it takes more than 23 years to correct the wrongs of a multi-generational oppressive regime.

The country’s constitution is the most inclusionary in the world

South Africa’s constitution is one of the most progressive and inclusionary in the world. It was the first constitution to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. The country was also the fifth in the world—and still the only one in Africa—to legalise same-sex marriage. On paper, this makes it one of the most open and progressive nations. Learn more about the Constitution at Constitution Hill.

Constitution Hill, 11 Kotze Street, Johannesburg, South Africa, +27 11 381 3100

South Africans defending their values | © Aqua Images/Shutterstock

South Africans defending their values | © Aqua Images/Shutterstock

South Africans speak 11 official languages (and plenty of unofficial ones)

Well, not all South Africans. Most business is still conducted in English or Afrikaans. But as an acknowledgment to the country’s diversity, the new constitution recognises 11 official languages. Though English is the most commonly spoken language both officially and commercially, it’s only the fifth most spoken home language. The languages visitors will hear most often depends on where they are—many are dominant only in certain provinces.

Famous landmark of the Afrikaans Language | © Sean Nel/Shutterstock

(Some) sport is very important

South Africans take their sport very seriously. Soccer, rugby, and cricket have religion-like statuses in some circles around the country, and it’s not uncommon for cities to come to a standstill over big games. Soccer—or football—is the most popular sport by a long way though historically, the country’s cricket and rugby teams perform better on the world stage.

Cape Town's stunning aerial views | © Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Braaing is not the same as barbecuing

South Africa produces more beef than any other African country, and its population consumes vast quantities of meat each year. Much of this is cooked on an open flame, or braai, that any local will say is a process unique to the country. Though it resembles a traditional barbecue, there are several small variations and traditions that make braaing a matter of national pride.

A South African Braai | © Dewald Kirsten/Shutterstock

We have a crime issue, but it’s not as bad as international press make out

Crime is an issue in South Africa. Muggings, hijackings, and other violent crimes have made headlines locally and around the world. However, the reality is that the country is not as unsafe as many people think. Gang and domestic violence have caused crime figures to remain problematically high in certain parts of the country, but tourists are most often victims of the type of petty crime common in big cities around the world.

South Africa is large and getting around can take time

South Africa is a big country—it takes an almost two-hour flight or a full day of driving to travel between Cape Town and Pretoria. Travelling at rush hour will also alert tourists that the country’s big cities have a bit of a traffic problem. With limited public transport options, it pays to rent a vehicle, but our roads, signage, and general infrastructure is world class.

Cape of Good Hope at the very tip of South Africa | © HandmadePictures/Shutterstock

There’s one street that was home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners

Vilakazi Street in Soweto was home to two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both played pivotal roles in South Africa’s transition to democracy and both lived on this street in the country’s biggest township. Today, visitors from around the world pay homage to these two leaders by walking the street and frequenting businesses in the area that attempt to preserve its legacy.

Vilakazi Street, Soweto, South Africa

The famous graffitied cooling towers of Soweto, Johannesburg | © Gil.K/Shutterstock

The famous graffitied cooling towers of Soweto, Johannesburg | © Gil.K/Shutterstock

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world

The divide between the rich and poor in South Africa is large, and it’s one of the most unequal societies in the world. Poverty is still an issue throughout the country, and many South Africans still live in informal houses on the outskirts of big urban centres. Though the government is making an effort to provide housing to all residents, it will take many years to reverse the issues Apartheid’s land and housing policies towards black people caused.

The country has the longest wine route in the world

South Africa is a major player in the global wine industry. Though South Africa is only the eighth largest wine producer in the world, the country is home to the longest wine route. It stretches along the southern coast—from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth—and is 850 kilometres (528.2 miles) long.

Vineyard in Stellenbosch, South Africa | © Vladislav Gajic/Shutterstock

South Africa is a major mining hub (but many assets have left our shores)

South Africa is a major producer of gold, diamonds, and platinum. The most famous of these resources happens to be the largest gem-quality rough-cut diamond ever found. It weighed in at 3,106.75 carats (621.35 g). Today, the diamonds cut from the original stone are on display in the Tower of London as part of Britain’s crown jewels. Learn more about South Africa’s mining history at several museums located throughout the country.

Historic Kimberley diamond mind, the largest man made hole on Earth, South Africa | © Vladislav Gajic/Shutterstock

The first heart and penis transplants were conducted in South Africa

South Africa has a proud medical record when it comes to world firsts. In 1967, surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful human heart transplant in the world at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. Almost 50 years later, another South African doctor, André van der Merwe, successfully completed another world medical first when he successfully transplanted a penis from a deceased donor onto an amputee. Learn more about the first heart transplant at the Heart of Cape Town Museum.

Heart of Cape Town Museum, Groote Schuur Drive, Observatory, Cape Town, South Africa, +27 21 404 1967

Minibus taxis are the main way South Africans get around, and they’re unlike any other form of public transport

Though a fully integrated part of many South African lives, the necessary but often reviled minibus taxis are truly unique. Established as a means of informal public transport to help people get to work from Apartheid-created townships on the outskirts of cities, these converted vans and minibuses help residents get to and from work via complex networks and usually with their own set of rules. They’ll stop pretty much anywhere to pick up and offload passengers, and many drivers are selective about which rules of the road to follow. Though many are unsafe and overwhelming, these are a fascinating essential service at their core that people will only start to understand when they visit South Africa.

Bus station in Soweto, Johannesburg, full of minibuses | © Attila JANDI/Shutterstock