South Africa does not have an efficient subway system. As a foreigner wanting to get from place to place, you’re therefore likely to be driving in South Africa.
Roads in South Africa are well maintained and easy to navigate, so you shouldn’t have any problems. However, there are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare for your adventure in South Africa.
South Africa is a developing country. There are crimes that involve driving, but this can be completely avoided by staying away from dodgy areas, and always being cautious.
South Africans drive on the left side of the road. Most other driving rules apply.
In the USA, you can turn right at a red traffic light, provided it is safe. This rule does not apply to turning left on South African roads.
There are many two-lane highways in South Africa. As such, you will need to overtake other drivers, and they make overtake you.
According to the AA (Automobile Association Of South Africa),
When overtaking, check if the road markings allow for this. If there is no solid white line preventing overtaking, check for oncoming traffic before signalling your intent to pass and overtake. Keep your indicator on, until you have passed, and then indicate your intention to move in front of the vehicle you have passed. Do not overtake on a blind rise, or if you cannot see far enough ahead to make a proper judgement of timing. Remember, your life is more important than reaching your destination five minutes early.
If you are driving behind someone who is slower than you, you will notice that they may pull over to the side of the road (on the shoulder,) allowing you room to pass. If it is safe for you to pass, put on your blinker (indicator), accelerate and pass them – as shown in this video.
Once you’ve passed, you can say thank you by lifting your right hand to wave, or put on your hazard lights for a few seconds. These two gestures are acceptable to say thank you.
South Africans think it’s rude if you don’t say thank you. If they have gone to the trouble of getting out of your way, it’s polite to say thanks.
If you are the slow driver and someone is behind you on a 2-lane highway, move over into the shoulder lane of the road (if it is safe to do so,) until the car has passed you. Don’t pull over if you’re near a sharp bend, close to the edge of a cliff, on a tight street, or if you don’t feel safe.
If you get behind a big truck, they may not be able to move into the shoulder lane to allow you to pass, . Don’t worry, you will not be stuck behind the truck. The trucker will usually put on his right turn signal. This is usually an indication that it is safe for you to pass. Move carefully into the opposite lane. Once you also believe it is safe, accelerate past the truck.
When passing into the opposite lane to overtake someone, stay alert, check your rear-view mirrors, and watch out for blind spots.
Always use your best judgment. Never speed up for the satisfaction of the driver behind you.
Traffic circles & four-way stops
In South Africa, traffic circles work as a four-way-stop.
Four-way stops are common in South Africa. The first car to arrive at the stop has the right of way. Pay attention and wait for your turn to avoid a possible collision.
In South African, you slow down and move to the side when an ambulance is approaching. In the USA, you pull over to the side and stop. Remember the distinction when you are driving in South Africa.
If you are driving in South Africa through rural areas, there may be few or no street signs and road markings. It’s also not uncommon to find roads that are not marked on a map, or for street numbers and addresses to be completely different from what you expected. You would be best advised to use GPS instead of a physical map. They are usually available from cell phone suppliers like Vodacom and MTN. (Find them in most malls.)
Minibus taxis are a popular way for locals to get around in South Africa. You will find many of them in big cities.
They cannot be avoided but do be wary of them. They can be dangerous. There are hundreds of accidents involving minibus taxis every year. That’s because they are often overloaded, and taxi drivers speed. The more trips they can take and the more people they can get into the taxis, the more money they make.
Taxi drivers are aggressive. Know this, accept it, and let them go. (My attitude is – I get out of their way so that if there is going to be an accident, it will not be with me.)
As a traveler, you are generally better off renting your own car or taking metered taxis. Be sure to use an accredited taxi service. (At this time, there are ongoing tensions between Uber drivers and taxi drivers, which sometimes escalate into violence. Avoid it altogether by renting your own car.)
Pedestrians on South African streets
There are no jaywalking laws in South Africa. As such, pedestrians will cross the roads wherever they please. For local drives, this is not an issue – they are used to it. For foreigners driving in South Africa, it can be very unnerving when someone suddenly runs across the street.
Also, consider school children. They often have long walks to and from school, and may carelessly wander into the road.
Wildlife on South African roads
If you’re driving through game parks and reserves, you may encounter the local wildlife. Here’s how to handle it:
- Stay calm. Give the animals the space they need.
- Never leave your car unless you are at a designated rest stop.
- Turn off your car, close your windows, and be quiet. No talking, no music, no radio. Simply wait for the animals to pass.
- Don’t interact with the wild animals. Animals who feel threatened can become dangerous, especially if they have young ones in tow.
- Avoid driving at dawn or dusk – this is when most animals are out to feed. If you do want to see the animals at these times, go with a guided tour.
- The animals will usually go their way. However, if they linger and you get worried, call the emergency number in South Africa (10111). If you have no reception, the best thing you can do is wait in your car with the windows up, and try not to panic.
- Never feed the animals from your vehicle. This disrupts their natural diet, and it can place you in danger. Baboons, in particular, are attracted by food and can become aggressive. (Baboons are common in certain parts of Cape Town.)
- Always follow any reserve or game park signage or displayed rules.
Livestock on rural roads
If you are driving on small rural roads, be cautious. Some farmers do not fence their animals.
Parking your car / Parking attendants
Whenever possible, park in a parking garage, a parking lot, or a busy and well-lit area. At many of these places, you will find parking attendants.
Because carjacking does happen in South Africa, you’ll find volunteer Parking Attendants around the parking lots to “watch your car.” This is often the only way they can make money, so they do appreciate any tips you can offer.
You are not obliged to tip but a R2 tip will be much appreciated. $2 is approximately $0.15 at the time of this writing, so it will not cost you much to help someone out.
Do not overtip car watchers. Overtipping makes you appear like a Mr or Mrs moneybags, and some people may want to relieve you of it.
When parking your vehicle, keep it locked with the windows closed. Make sure all valuables are completely out of sight.