How do I apply to join a volunteer project in South Africa?
The hardest part is deciding what you would like to do! You can combine any number of volunteer projects during your stay, subject to the minimum duration for each one. Almost any combination of projects is possible, so you can create an experience that’s right for you. Applying is quick and simple, here's how:
Step 1: Review our full range of ethical volunteer projects
Step 2: Choose your project(s), think about when you would like to join us, and for how long you would like to stay
Step 3: Submit your application using our online booking form
What happen next?
Do I need travel insurance?
Yes. Whether you are joining us for one week or one year, you must have adequate cover before your journey begins.
Insurance is an essential part of your preparation, and will allow help you enjoy your volunteering adventure safe in the knowledge that you have the cover you need. You can choose from hundreds of options available online, or you can save time and get a quick quote for Travel Insurance from World Nomads
We have partnered with World Nomads to provide you with affordable and reliable global travel insurance that's perfectly suited to volunteer travel. Their insurance focuses on what's important: emergency medical and evacuation assistance and 24/7 support when you need it most.
They also provide cover for a range of adventure sports and activities, your baggage, cancellation costs, dental and liability, depending on your country of permanent residence.
World Nomads gives you the flexibility to buy, extend and claim online, even while travelling.
How do I get started if I want to do some fundraising for my trip?
Every year, thousands of volunteers raise funds to help pay for their volunteering trip overseas. The cost of your international flights, project fee and personal expenses often seem daunting at first, but with a little time and effort, it's surprising what you can achieve in a short space of time.
To help with your fundraising efforts we have partnered with Volunteer Forever, who are committed to helping you overcome the financial obstacles to volunteering abroad.
Volunteer Forever offers a crowdfunding platform where you can create a customized page highlighting your project and fundraising needs and receive online donations towards your trip. The Volunteer Forever crowdfunding tool allows you to tap into the power of social media and your extended networks to reach out to as many people as possible. The donation process is simple and even allows for donors to share your campaign with their own networks.
How can I get a good deal on flights?
If you're willing to put in a little effort, you could save big on your flight costs and earn yourself some extra time in South Africa too.
Although we have recommended arrival and departure dates for our projects, there's nothing stopping you from arriving earlier, or departing later. We can arrange extra accommodation for you too, and this will often cost less than the amount you save on your flights.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Do I need a Visa to enter South Africa?
Citizens from most countries can enter South Africa and stay for a period of up to 90 days without the need to apply for a Visa. When you land in South Africa your passport will be stamped with a 'Visitors Permit'.
If you are not sure, you can check the latest list of exempt countries on the Home Affairs web site here. If you are a citizen of one of these countries you will not need to apply for a Visa for a stay of 90 days or less:
If you are planning to stay in South Africa for longer than 90 days, it is often worthwhile applying for a Visa through your nearest South African embassy or consulate a few months before you travel to South Africa.
If you are a citizen of a country that is not exempt, then you will need to apply for a Visa in any case.
If you have confirmed a volunteer placement with us and need to apply for a Visa, we can supply you with a letter of support and simple guidelines for completing your application form.
Can I bring donations for any of the children's homes?
You are welcome to bring donations if you have room in your suitcase, but if you have been fundraising it is more cost effective to bring these funds with you.
In this way you can either make a direct donation to the children's home while you are here, or you can find out exactly what is needed at the time and purchase the goods they need in South Africa at better prices than you will get at home. In either case you will then have receipts if you need to show sponsors what you have spent the funds on.
Aside from the regular challenges of providing enough food for all the children, major needs at the children's homes always include nappies and toiletries. School shoes and uniforms, educational toys, stationary, books and similar items also feature on the needs list.
Whatever contribution you make, you can be sure that it will be gratefully received and put to good use.
How much should I budget for food and drinks?
You should find that South Africa provides great value for money when shopping for food, drinks and general groceries.
It's worth noting that many volunteer projects and internships already include some or all of your meals:
You can check out prices at our major supermarkets here:
You might also like to look at Woolworths who are more expensive, but well known for their food quality. They are almost identical to Marks & Spencers in the UK.
Are there any health risks I need to be aware of?
Here is some useful information about Malaria, HIV & drinking water.
There is no risk of malaria in Cape Town, the rest of the Western Cape or for most of South Africa. Since we started arranging placements for international volunteers in 2003, we have not had a single incident of a volunteer contracting malaria.
Malaria, which is only carried by mosquitoes, is prevalent throughout the year in many of the game-viewing areas of Mpumalanga, Limpopo and northern KwaZulu-Natal provinces. The old adage ‘prevention is the best cure’ holds true. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts, shoes and socks should be worn in the evenings when mosquitoes are at their busiest, and relevant bug spray should be used. If you wish to take preventative medication for malaria, you should consult a healthcare professional at least a month before leaving home.
What are the symptoms of malaria? If you develop a bad headache, have aching joints and recurring fevers and chills, you should go to a doctor immediately and explain that you have been in a malarial area. Malaria symptoms can be confused with flu symptoms, so be alert.
HIV and Aids
HIV/Aids: There is no danger of you contracting this syndrome unless you have unprotected sex, use an old syringe, or exchange bodily fluids in some other way. If you are volunteering with children that may have HIV/Aids, you will be briefed on safety precautions for dealing with open cuts or wounds, and provided with disposable medical gloves as required.
South Africa has some of the cleanest tap water in the world, and it is treated and safe to drink, except perhaps in very rural areas. It’s quite safe to have ice in drinks and to eat salads. Unless you are in one of the few areas where drinking water is not of good quality, buying bottled water is an unnecessary expense.
Do I need to learn another language?
South Africa has 11 official languages, but if you can speak and understand English then you will be perfectly at home here. You will certainly encounter locals who speak Xhosa, Afrikaans, Zulu and many others, but for the most part you will find that nearly everyone you meet speaks English too.
If you are joining the Fikelela Child and Youth Care Centre, Baphumelele Children's Home or Masigcine Children's Home, you might find it useful to learn a few words of Xhosa, the first language of most of the children, and also Nelson Mandela. The children will be surprised and delighted when you greet them with 'Molweni' (Hello!), and it's always nice to be able to ask someone how they are (Unjani?).
Learn101 provide a Free Online Xhosa Course where you can learn some basic words and phrases. Have some fun with this and you will be 'clicking' like a local in no time.
What's South Africa like?
Roughly the size of Spain and France combined, or Texas, South Africa is situated at the very southern tip of Africa. The Atlantic and the Indian Oceans wash its shores and meet at Cape Agulhas - one of the only places in the world where a person can watch two oceans meet.
People who have never been to Africa often think of Africa as a homogenous whole, like the United States, for example. In reality, the continent of Africa is made up of 54 very different and separate African states.
South Africa may be at the bottom of Africa, but it’s widely regarded as being top in terms of its superb infrastructure, its legendary sunny climate, and its incredible geographic diversity - expect superb beaches, dramatic mountain ranges, sophisticated cities, quaint villages, historic battlefields, oceans, valleys, bushveld teeming with game, hundreds of species of birds, great and small semi-deserts, wide open spaces... and much more.
That’s why South Africa offers something for every potential visitor. South Africa is a dream destination in so many ways because of its incredible geographical diversity, its superb infrastructure, its legendary sunny weather, its super-friendly people and its affordability.
South Africa has nine provinces. Probably the best known to international visitors are the Western Cape, home of Cape Town and the Cape Winelands; Mpumalanga, famous for its spectacular scenery and the Kruger National Park; and KwaZulu-Natal, with its capital city, Durban, historic battlefields and wonderful beaches.
South Africa, since its first democratic election in 1994 after which Nelson Mandela became president, is a fully integrated society of more than 50-million people with a rich, fascinating mix of cultures ranging from Zulu and Xhosa (pronounced koh-sa), to Afrikaans and English and many, many more. There are 11 official languages - but don’t worry, nearly everybody in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ understands and speaks English.
Why is South Africa such a popular destination for international volunteers?
South Africa is the perfect volunteering destination offering a vibrant mix of culture, wildlife, warm & friendly people, sunshine, spectacular scenery, beaches and an endless variety of unique experiences and adventures to suit every taste and pocket.
With a young and thriving democracy, South Africa is an exciting place to be, and as a volunteer you can play an important role in our ongoing transformation towards a better life for our children, the conservation of some of the world's most important habitats, and the care and rehabilitation of remarkable African wildlife.
South Africa offers you excellent value for money and whether it be relaxing in the wilderness, filling your days with adventurous activities, or enjoying great South African food and hospitality, you will never be short of things to do. For example, Table Mountain in Cape Town is one of the world's iconic landmarks - you can enjoy a stunning 2 hour hike to the top for free!
During your stay you can...
These are just some of the experiences and memories that you can take home from your trip to South Africa, not to mention new friends made, photographs and stories to share with family and friends back home, and a new found sense of self that will stay with you long after your journey ends.
Can you give me a brief history of South Africa?
Between 200 000 and 100 000 years ago, modern humans began to evolve throughout Africa - including South Africa. They became the San, who later met up with south-bound Khoi pastoralists from the north and became known collectively as the KhoiSan.
The San were South Africa's first people
The KhoiSan drifted down into the Western Cape at about the same time (300AD) that early Iron Age groups crossed the Limpopo - whose descendants, about 1 000 years later, formed the African kingdom of Mapungubwe and began to trade with India, Arabia and China.
In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck and his 90-strong party arrived from The Netherlands and set up a ship-refuelling station at Cape Town - an important stop both geographically and politically, as it was on the only early trade route from Europe and the Americas to India, the 'Spice Islands' of the East Indies, and the East. Over the next 200 years, various waves of other European and Indian settlers also arrived.
Subsequently, the Dutch, British and to an extent, the French, fought for control of the Cape, with the British finally triumphant in 1806. Dutch Boers prepared to trek into the hinterland to escape British rule.
This was also the start of the Mfecane ('the scattering, the crushing') of Africans that began in Zululand, crossed the Drakensberg and swept through the present Free State province. Spurred on by the Zulu warrior king Shaka's growing militarism, it became a confusing maelstrom of movement and massacre. Adding the land-hungry Voortrekkers and the newly arrived 1820 British Settlers into this mix brought further conflict.
The late 1800s saw the discovery of South Africa's immense gold and diamond wealth, and later, the great platinum finds.
The 20th century saw the end of the South African War (also known as the Second Anglo-Boer War), which was fought from 1899 to 1902; the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910; the involvement in World War I and World War II on the side of the Allies; a narrow victory for the mostly Afrikaner National Party in 1948; and, in the years to come, the formulation of apartheid.
Apartheid was a nearly 50-year period of institutionalised racism and the suppression of non-whites, during which the African National Congress was banned and its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, banished to prison on Robben Island.
The unbanning of the ANC, the release of Mandela and his fellow prisoners, and the 1994 democratic elections heralded the birth of the new South Africa.
Can I use my mobile phone in South Africa?
South Africa has excellent mobile phone (cellphone) service providers. If you want to use your phone, you should contact your own service provider to set up international roaming before you travel to South Africa. Alternatively, you can unlock your Sim card before you travel and use a South African Sim card for cheaper local calls here.
If you're landing in Cape Town, we can help you to have a Sim card fitted soon after you arrive. It's easy to add airtime (for phone calls) and data (for internet, socil media etc) duing your stay, so you can control your costs and avoid any surprise bills when you return home.
Network coverage is fairly widespread, except deep in the bush or in very rural areas.
Wi-Fi is widely available in backpackers, lodges, hotels, cafes and restaurants throughout the country.
What do I need to know about using money and credit cards in South Africa?
South Africa has one of the most advanced banking systems in the world. Its banks and financial systems use world-class technology and facilities, and instant cash is available with major credit cards from hundreds of ATMs throughout the country. There are also forex booths at airports and shopping malls.
South Africa’s currency is the Rand which is great value against major international currencies.
There are a range of coins (10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R5), and notes in denominations of R10, R50, R100 and R200 (all with Nelson Mandela’s face on them).
Banking hours are 09:00 to 15:30 on weekdays, and Saturdays 09:00 to 11:00, although it’s much quicker and simpler to use the readily available countrywide ATMs, which are open 24/7. ATMs are the best to use due to their speed and accessibility.
Major credit cards are accepted throughout the country, but it is advisable to have cash (including some smaller denominations) when doing roadside shopping, or when in a small village or rural area.
It's always a good idea to inform your bank if you're planning to use your credit card overseas. Many of them will routinely block international transactions as a fraud prevention measure if you don't let them know.
Tipping is at a customer’s discretion, although 10% to 15% of the bill is customary.
What are South Africa's medical facilities like?
South Africa has been at the forefront of medical care and services ever since Professor Christiaan Barnard made world medical history in 1967 with the first-ever human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. (If you are interested, there's a fascinating little 'Heart of Cape Town' museum at the hospital that relives that moment.)
There are public hospitals throughout South Africa, but as in many other countries, generally speaking you will get quicker and better care at a private hospital or clinic than a government one. Well-qualified doctors are to be found in every town and city. If you develop a toothache, don’t worry, there are also plenty of well-qualified dentists.
If you need medical care during your stay you will be in good hands, and we will be on hand to assist you if you need to see a doctor or visit a hospital.
What's the weather like?
Average day temperatures in summer are about 28°C (82°F), with peaks of 35 to 40°C (95 to 104°F). In winter, average day temperatures are about 20°C (68°F). Cape Town winters tend to see more rain, but there are still plenty of sunny days with clear blue skies. Winter in Mpumalanga and Limpopo is dry and cold at night but sunny and warm in the day, perfect for spotting game because the vegetation is low and game is forced to drink at waterholes.
South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, so it’s summer here when it’s winter up north.
What about crime?
Crime is normally a major concern for international visitors, but in reality it is very unlikely to be a feature of your trip. We advise you to take sensible precautions when travelling around as you would anywhere in the world. Try to avoid walking alone at night, avoid wearing obviously flashy jewellery and expensive cameras around your neck, don't leave valuables unattended and so on.
UK business travellers voted Cape Town as the safest long haul travel destination. Cape Town is also known for being the most open-minded and relaxed city in South Africa and perhaps the safest city in Africa for international visitors.
It is worth noting that South Africa has successfully hosted more international sporting events than any other nation in the past 19 years, and is the only country in the world to have hosted the Football, Rugby & Cricket World Cups.
Unless you were on an another planet (or have an aversion to football/soccer), you will hopefully have seen plenty of footage of Cape Town and the rest of South Africa during the 2010 FIFA Football World Cup. Despite the normal shock horror predictions made by many representatives of the international media, the event was hailed as the most successful and safest World Cup ever. This will have come as no surprise to the many millions of tourists that visit South Africa safely every year.
What are the top reasons for visiting South Africa?
As a visitor to South Africa you can expect a wealth of unique sights and experiences. Here are the top 10 reasons for visiting South Africa as compiled by South African Tourism:
What are South Africa's top experiences?
Choosing a top 10 list is almost impossible, but this run down of favourites might help!
Can you recommend any books about South Africa?
If you're an avid bookworm, you'll find plenty of reading material covering everything from South African history, culture, wildlife, politics and people.
Here's a selection of fiction and non-fiction to get you started. The Via Volunteers team can personally vouch for each one of these great reads.
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- The Mind of South Africa by Alistair Sparks
- In a Different Time by Peter Harris
- Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith - visit his web site for information about all his South African based novels
- The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
- A History of South Africa by Frank Welsh
- A Lion in the Bedroom by Pat Cavendish O'Neill
What are the best things to do in Cape Town?
There are so many things to do in Cape Town throughout the year that you will struggle to fit everything in during one visit. As with many volunteers before, you may find yourself returning to Cape Town again and again.
The Via Volunteers team are here to help make your time in Cape Town the best it can be, with advice about where to go, what to do and how to get there.
To get you started we've prepared an album with photos of Fun things to do in Cape Town.
You can also check out our quick guide to the Best Things to do in Cape Town.
What is the weather like in Cape Town?
Cape Town is never out of season, so you will always have plenty to do whenever you arrive during the year.
As Cape Town is in the southern hemisphere, our seasons are in reverse when compared to the northern hemisphere. Cape Town’s unique location and Mediterranean climate also give rise to an unusual pattern of seasons that make it ideal for visitors year round. Download our quick weather guide below:
Where can I find more information about Cape Town?
Cape Town is the quintessential melting pot: it is a city alive with creativity, colour, sounds and tastes.
While walking through the city’s streets and meeting its people, you will fall in love with its natural beauty, creative freedom and incredible spirit. Cape Town is a city where the unexpected is always just around the corner and the beautiful province of the Western Cape lies ready to be explored across the city border.
Check out the official Cape Town Tourism web site for a comprehensive overview of attractions, experiences and events, follow the Via Volunteers Facebook Page for regular updates and news, and have a look at photos of Cape Town and Table Mountain on our web site for inspiration and ideas.
Cape Town is a city that you will want to spend more time in, and a city that volunteers return to again and again.
What is Ethical Volunteering?
Being an ethical volunteer is a mindset; it's about having a realistic understanding of what you can achieve during your placement, and it's about honestly appraising your own motivations for volunteering in the first place. We encourage every volunteer to consider the following points. Not only will it help you to manage your own expectations, but it will also help you to make the most of your experience, and enable you to make an impact where it matters.
Why do you want to volunteer?
You might want to experience working with a community or conservation project before you commit to studies or a career in that field. Perhaps you are taking a well-deserved Gap Year to broaden your horizons and develop new skills, or a career break to try something completely different from your normal routine.
You might have a passion for children, education, conservation or wildlife, or simply enjoy the rewards that volunteering brings, and the satisfaction of helping where help is needed. These are all great reasons to volunteer, and with the right motivation you are already on your way to having a wonderful volunteering experience. Combined with all the other activities and adventures you can enjoy in your free time, volunteering in this way will be a life changing experience that you will remember forever.
What if you're volunteering because you want to get a really cool new cover photo for your Facebook page, or want to regale friends back home with tales of how you saved Africa after spending a few weeks holding a baby in an orphanage? What if you're more interested in partying as much as possible, but this was the only way Mum & Dad would agree to let you loose on the world? Seriously though, the vast majority of volunteers come for the right reasons, but if you are one of the small percentage that fall into this paragraph, you might want to consider an alternative experience for your holidays.
Will you be taking jobs away from local people?
There can be few things more disheartening than spending time at a project only to discover that they could have employed a local person to do the same job. It can be difficult to spot disingenuous projects that have been created to attract volunteers, so it's worth doing some research first.
We work from the project's perspective and respond to their needs and priorities first. If the project is genuine, only then will we look to see if it is suitable for international volunteers. Our evaluation process is exhaustive, but essential if we are to ensure that everybody involved is to have a beneficial experience. That includes the project, the children or wildlife in their care, and you.
Will you have a negative impact on vulnerable children?
A constant stream of short term volunteers that try and fill a parental role for orphaned, abandoned or abused children will very often do more harm than good. Even with the best intentions and all the enthusiasm in the world, a project that involves you hugging babies at an orphanage all day is not going to benefit the children, and will leave you feeling all the worse when you realise that the children will likely be confused and traumatised when you are replaced with another short term mum a few weeks later.
We only work with community projects where you provide a support role to permanent care workers, rather than becoming a central parental figure. We also ensure that you will have a meaningful role to play with structured activities that really help.
For example, at Fikelela Children's Home, you will assist qualified teachers with structured lessons twice a week. The children come from backgounds where education has not been a priority, so these lessons are designed to help the children improve their Maths and English fluency, improve their fine motor & gross motor skills, build confidence, and improve self-esteem. You will also be involved in helping the children when they get home from school, assisting the staff to serve food, folding laundry, preparing the babies and older children for bath time and getting them ready for bed with a relaxing activity or story. Throughout your stay, you are encouraged to interact with the children in a beneficial way which promotes learning through play.
If you find a project which involves sitting with a baby on your lap all day, be aware of the negative impacts before you consider committing to something like this.
Is the project linked to the mistreatment of wildlife in any way?
There are many projects that offer appealing experiences like close contact with lion cubs and tame elephants, but there is no conservation value in these activities. They provide a lucrative income stream for the owners, and often involve physical and emotional abuse of the animals. If you are tempted by something like this, do your research first and make sure you don't become an unwitting contributor to the canned lion hunting industry, or a supporter of an organisation that uses cruel training techniques to tame elephants so that they can be used as a tourist attraction.
Is the project right for you?
Are the project's aims close to your heart, something you are passionate about, and something that you are equipped for physically and emotionally? Are you happy to get your hands dirty, use your initiative in a responsible manner, and willing to relate to people from all nationalities and walks of life?
Matching your expectations with reality is an important part of your experience, so it's important to read the project information we provide carefully. It's good to know about any areas that might be challenging for you before you get here, which is why we tell you that at one project, penguin guano smells, and at another that you will be using an open air cold water shower in the African bush.
It's also good to be honest about your ability to commit and see things through. If your luggage gets diverted to Cairo, would you be overcome with panic and want to return home straight away, or would you happily carry on and get by with the change of clothes you packed in your hand luggage for a couple of days? You get nipped by a penguin the first time you feed one. Do you stop right there and leave the project, or stay and practise until you get it just right?
What are you expecting to achieve during your placement?
Be realistic. If you're expecting to join a project and save the world in under two weeks, you are going to be disappointed. This applies to many projects where it takes time to settle in, learn the ropes, get used to routines, appreciate cultural differences, and get to know the people on the ground. Generally, the longer you stay at a project the better, particularly where the project invests a lot of time in your training and supervision. This is why we have longer minimum durations at some projects.
For example, you will need to commit to a minimum of 6 weeks if you want to help rehabilitate African penguins. Your first week or two is a steep learning curve, but by week three of four, you will be able to make a really useful contribution. Compare this with a shorter stay, and imagine how disappointed you would be if you were leaving just as you had got the hang of things.
By adopting the role of learner, you will find rich rewards as you look for opportunities to gain new insights, see life from someone else's perspective, and become immersed in another culture.
What do you know about South Africa?
A little preparation goes a long way, and is always time well spent. Learn a little about South Africa's history, culture, climate and geography before you arrive. Read some of our book recommendations if you have the time, check out maps of Cape Town and read a little about all the things you would like to experience during your stay. Locals will be impressed if you have taken the time to learn about their culture and can say a few words of Xhosa or Afrikaans, and you will feel more confident as you're settling in.
Why don't you offer projects where I can interact with lions, lion cubs or elephants?
The opportunity to cuddle lion cubs and feed them has an understandable appeal, and the promise of this experience attracts thousands of volunteers to South Africa every year.
They might be incredibly cute, and the organisations offering lion cub petting and volunteering might have a seemingly plausible reason as to why they have the cubs, but the reality is that by petting a lion cub, you will be contributing to the illegal canned lion hunting industry.
Please read this article about the Campaign Against Canned Hunting to make sure you're informed before you are tempted by one of these operators.
There are, sadly, still too many organisations in Africa that claim to be sanctuaries, but are nothing of the sort. A real sanctuary does not allow human interaction with the animals, nor do they allow for the animals to be bred, or sold. We joined the campaign to ban unethical activities like lion-cub petting, walking with lions, canned hunting, and elephant riding many years ago. Awareness is increasing, but there are still volunteers joining these places for the chance to have their photo taken with these animals.
Please avoid any organisations that offer ‘lion cub petting’ or opportunities to 'walk with lions' or elephant riding.
There is no conservation value in these activities, which provide a lucrative income stream for the owners, and often involve physical and emotional abuse of the animals.
If you want to experience African wildlife, it is far more rewarding and ethical to join an organized safari or spend time in the African bush where you can see them in their natural habitat. Our wildlife and conservation projects are 100% ethical, and enable you as a volunteer to make a positive difference to the future well-being of a wide range of wildlife.
Do you offer Medical & Teaching placements?
We believe it is unethical for organisations to offer medical or teaching placements to volunteers who have no experience or qualifications in these areas. It is one thing to ask a normal volunteer to assist a qualified teacher, but it is another thing entirely (and a complete waste of everyone’s time) to put that same volunteer in front of a class and expecting them to be able to teach.
At Fikelela & Baphumelele Children’s Homes, volunteers often assist the medical staff, but they will never be asked to, or expected to carry out any medical procedures.
At Fikelela Children’s Home, volunteers assist qualified teachers with lessons twice a week. At Baphumelele Children’s Home, volunteers can assist qualified teachers every morning in the Grade-R classrooms.
Although we don’t offer specific medical and teaching placements, we can arrange for you to put your skill sets to good use if you are a teacher, nurse, doctor or medical student. This can be arranged with the relevant teaching/medical staff at Baphumelele & Fikelela.
Is it ethical to work with children’s homes for less than three months?
We have seen a lot of headlines and views circulated in the media about volunteer placements with children’s homes, especially relating to volunteer skills, and claims that volunteers should stay for a minimum of three months or more.
We have worked with many children’s homes in the Cape Town area over the last 15 years, and have evaluated many others. In our experience, it is a fallacy to suggest that volunteer placements should be a minimum of three months, or that skilled volunteers alone are the only ones that can help. A bit of background might help to put our view into context.
These homes normally begin life as small projects run by well-meaning members of the public who recognise a need in their community. As they grow, and become registered with the Department of Social Development (DSD), these homes become eligible for a basic government grant towards each child’s upkeep. This covers very little, and is barely enough to feed and clothe the child, never mind put them through school or cater for activities, counselling etc.
As non-profit organisations with minimal government support, most of the staff at these homes are living on poverty level salaries, and do what they do because they love the children. It’s important to note that In South Africa, the government does not provide facilities for children that have been abused, abandoned, neglected or orphaned – all facilities are as described above, and none of them could survive without help from local and international donors and volunteers.
When Social Services intervenes to rescue a child from one of these situations (normally in conjunction with the police), a court order will be issued to assign the child to a registered place of safety (Children’s Home) for a period of 3, 6, or 9 months, depending on the severity of the situation, and the likelihood of resolving the issues that put the child at risk.
Because of the backgrounds that these children come from, they are often malnourished, or are affected by HIV, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (with associated learning difficulties), or disadvantaged from missing out on schooling. In some cases, children aged between 7-11 have arrived who have never been to school.
At each home, groups of children are assigned to one or more carers, who fulfil the central parental role in their life, whether they are at the home for a few weeks, a few months, or even years in some cases. With limited funding, staffing levels are barely just enough to make sure all the washing, cleaning, cooking, feeding, bathing etc are covered.
Few homes have the luxury of having carers that also have time to play with the children, or give them one-on-one time. Without extra help from volunteers, children and babies are left to their own devices for much of the day.
Each home has one or more onsite social workers who liaise with each child’s external social worker to progress their case. It might be that there is an abusive parent who is using drugs or abusing alcohol, or a single mother who isn’t coping with looking after her children, or children that have been orphaned, or abandoned and left on the streets to fend for themselves.
Whatever the reason, Social Services work towards reuniting the children with their family (having resolved any issues with the parents), looking for other members of the family that are willing to look after the child (a grandmother, auntie etc), finding foster homes, or adoption. The main aim is to get these children back into a family environment as soon (and as safely) as possible. Each court order is reviewed, and extended as required, depending on progress made.
It is important to recognise that no children’s home will claim to be a better alternative to the healthy emotional growth that a stable family environment can provide. A well-run children’s home though, is the next best thing, and is a far better alternative than having children continue to live in terrible conditions, or enduring various kinds of abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents. This isn’t a need that is going to end any time soon. South Africa has an alarming number of orphans and children in need of welfare assistance, the unwilling legacy of Apartheid, and a society with a huge difference in living standards between the very wealthy, and the very poor.
We work closely with many children’s homes in the Cape Town area and have excellent relations with each of them. Each home is registered with the Department of Social Development, and have management boards, steering committees and policies in place that comply with the Children’s Act in South Africa.
We don’t allow volunteers to pop in and out, or join for a few days, and insist on a minimum 4-week commitment. Most of our volunteers stay for longer, but in our experience, this minimum period works very well for the homes and the children. Our volunteer programmes are well structured, and we do not have volunteers fulfilling any kind of parental role during their stay – rather, they are here to support the carers, so that they can have more time to provide that role. Because the children already have a central parental figure in the form of the carers, we avoid emotional attachment issues that could occur if volunteers were placed to fill that role. Our volunteers are not here to be a temporary mom or dad, and we include a thorough brief on these issues for all volunteers joining our community projects.
Most of the volunteer activities can be carried out with little or no training (helping with dishes, laundry, washing bottles, preparing meals, feeding, painting, arts & crafts etc), so we are able to provide every volunteer with plenty to do.
When we have volunteers with additional skills, they are assigned to an appropriate staff member during their stay for supervision and guidance. Some of our volunteers have been qualified social workers, nurses, nursing students, doctors and teachers.
At one of the children's homes we work with, Heather (Via Volunteers Co-Founder) runs an educational enrichment programme. She is a very experienced teacher, and has done an amazing job with these children. She prepares a daily reading programme and supervises the volunteers to make sure they understand what is required to do this effectively. She also prepares daily one-on-one lessons for any child that is not in school, and works with volunteers who are capable of assisting with these. We have one boy aged 8 who has never been to school – when he arrived, he could not read or write, or recognise numbers. He was angry, violent, frustrated, and generally a very unhappy little boy. A year later, and he is calm, gaining confidence all the time, helpful, and willing to learn. He can now read and write at a basic level, recognises his numbers, and is catching up quickly with his numeracy skills. The difference is astounding, and all of this was made possible by Heather, with assistance from volunteers, most of whom had been here for 4 weeks only.
Heather also creates a weekly lesson for the Grade 1-3 children, which includes maths & English literacy, singing, dancing and other activities to promote fine and gross motor skills. Our volunteers assist with these lessons too, and are essential for enabling us to provide on-the-go positive encouragement to children at each table. We have been working with these children for nearly four years now, and we have seen amazing improvements in children who were once insecure, anxious and suffering from low self-esteem. This has been noticed at school level too, where improvements in maths and English have been attributed to our programme.
At each home we work with, our volunteers are an asset that is welcomed by the homes and the children alike. With every volunteer fee, we also include a weekly donation to each home. This funding goes towards improving the children’s otherwise very basic diet, clothing, school supplies, maintenance and many other things that help improve the lives of the children. With very few exceptions, every volunteer has carried out fundraising before, during, or after their stay – we don’t ask them to do this, so it’s always a welcome surprise for the home they are working with.
These donations have enabled some children’s homes to survive through very tough times, and enabled them to develop a more stable base for future growth. When Ed (Via Volunteers Co-Founder) first visited Baphumelele Children’s Home in 2004, it was operating on a shoe string, with babies and children in cramped quarters, basic repetitive food, and only a handful of unpaid helpers working with Mama Rosie to keep on top of things. With very limited funds, they were doing the best that they could. Now, Baphumelele employs about 60 local people full-time, has an Educare & Creche facility for 230 children, a respite centre for babies and toddlers with HIV/AIDs, a specialised baby house, cluster homes for children aged 5-18, and a community outreach that assists child-headed homes. In 2017, Mama Rosie was awarded the status of ‘CNN Hero’ for her work, and as she will tell you herself, Baphumelele would not be here without the assistance and funding provided by local and international volunteers.
Another positive result from our volunteers has been our outings and sleepover programme. All children’s homes are regarded as places of safety by the court. For this reason, the children cannot play out on the street, stay over with a friend from school, or make plans to interact with other children outside of the home. They spend their time either within the confines of the home, school, hospital, clinic, or travelling between these locations.
With assistance from volunteers (hands and funds), we have been able to organise a huge variety of outings for the children from various children’s homes over many years. This has been a wonderful addition to their development, but it can’t compare to normal family life, or learning about things that most children in the world learn through interacting with their parents.
In early 2015, Heather & Ed from Via Volunteers started (with permission from management and social services) taking small groups of children (2 or 3 at a time) for outings every other weekend, with the idea being that they could enjoy something closer to family time, with more individual attention, and an opportunity to learn more about the world outside their walls. Thanks to support from volunteers, Heather & Ed were soon able to expand these outings to a full weekend, and have been doing this ever since.
Since then, Heather & Ed have had groups of 2/3 children to stay at their home every second or third weekend, and it’s been an amazing success. The children all look forward to when their turn comes around for a weekend of normal family time, with outings and activities planned each day. Through this, the children have learned a wide variety of social skills, and have been introduced to the wonders of the natural world, as well as improving their confidence and abilities in many areas. Most of these children didn’t know what it was like to go shopping, push a trolley (shopping cart), go to the movies, go to a restaurant, or even how to play with toys. The Via Volunteers Sleepover Programme is an established part of the children's life now, and there is no doubt that it has enriched the children’s lives immeasurably. Again, this wouldn’t be possible without all the volunteers that came for 4 weeks or more.
We are confounded by the opinions expressed by some, who suggest that vulnerable children are being subjected to ‘waves of abandonment’ when volunteers leave, and that this is the worst thing that could happen to them. Having worked closely with these children and their social workers for many years, it is all too evident that the psychological damage to these children occurred when they were being sexually abused, abandoned, neglected, beaten or burned by their parents or other family members. In the children’s homes we work with, the children do not get attached to the volunteers in a parental way, and we have had no issues with children experiencing trauma when our volunteers leave. On the contrary, the lives of these children, and the staff at the homes, have been greatly enriched by volunteer involvement.
We are aware of fake orphanages in other parts of the world like India and Cambodia, but we have nothing like that in South Africa. It would also be incorrect to refer to any children's home in South Africa as an orphanage - whilst some of the children are orphans, there are many more children in each home that come from backgrounds of abuse, neglect and abandonment.
Children’s Homes in South Africa have benefitted greatly from volunteer involvement, and whilst it would be wonderful if all volunteers could stay for three months or more, the implementation of this as a minimum would see the demise of many of them, as only a small percentage of volunteers have the freedom and resources to commit to longer stays. The campaigns that aim to ban orphanage volunteering worldwide are irresponsible at best, and take no account of the devastating effects this would have on the children's homes, or the children that would be forced to endure unimaginable hardships and abuse without the protection they provide.
Why choose Via Volunteers?
If you're considering volunteering abroad, here are a few of the many good reasons to choose Via Volunteers.
How do Via Volunteers keep their fees so low?
Affordable volunteering is one of the cornerstones of the Via Volunteers approach.
We don't carry unnecessary overheads, and we have invested a great deal of time to ensure that everything we do is cost effective without compromising on safety or quality.
Being based in South Africa means that we don't have expensive offices to maintain overseas, so your volunteer fee will go where it's supposed to. Whilst our team works very hard to ensure you have the best experience possible, we only include modest administration fees to cover banking, marketing and salaries.
Value for money is an important concept for us. We would rather you become an ambassador for us when you return home, than have you tell no one and feel that you have been taken advantage of. Ex-volunteers are incredibly effective at spreading the word about our amazing volunteer opportunities, but that's not the only reason why we believe it is important to look after your best interests.
The fee we quote to you includes everything you need for getting to and from your project, so you won't have any hidden extras to organise yourself. Once you have landed in Cape Town or Johannesburg, everything else is taken care of. Your airport transfers, pre-project accommodation and transport will have been booked and confirmed in advance of your arrival, so you can relax and enjoy your journey to South Africa.
We're so confident that you won't find a better combination of value and service elsewhere, that we offer a Price Guarantee with every booking. If you can find a similar experience for less, we will match it. If you do find something cheaper, look more closely to see what's included, and more importantly what isn't.
What's included in my volunteer fee?
With any Via Volunteers placement, your volunteer fee covers some or all of the following:
Where are the volunteer projects located in South Africa?
Check out this handy map to see where our projects and courses are located:
All our projects include transfers to and from the nearest international airport so you won't have any problems trying to find your own way around the country.
You can combine as many projects as you like during your stay, and we can help you with booking the best priced domestic flights if you need to travel between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Are there any terms and conditions I need to be aware of?
Nobody likes to read the small print, but we encourage you to read ours. These conditions are here to guide and protect you, and act as the basis for our relationship with you.
For ease of reading we have written this document in simple plain English wherever possible. If there is anything you do not understand please ask us and we will do our best to assist you.
Does Via Volunteers have any Social Media links?
We are very social and would love for you to join us for regular updates, unique photos and useful information about volunteering in South Africa.
Please don't stop there. Share us with your family and friends and help us to support a wide range of community and wildlife based projects in South Africa.
Is Via Volunteers accredited with other reputable organisations?
Yes. Via Volunteers are full members of Cape Town Tourism and the South African Youth Travel Confederation. You can view our membership listings and certificates here: