The Freelancer’s Guide to South Africa
Storyhunter South African journalists Aletta Harrison, Julia Jaki, and Sifiso Khanyile contributed to the writing and information in this article.
South Africa lies at the southern tip of the African continent, bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. Its other borders are made up of the coastline stretching along the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans.
South Africa is home to 54.9 million people with an area of 1,221,037 square kilometers, making it the 25th largest in area and 24th most populous country in the world. While South Africa has no legally defined capital city, Pretoria serves as the country’s executive capital, Bloemfontein as the judicial capital, and Cape Town as the legislative capital. The largest city in South Africa is the Johannesburg greater metro area with a population of over eight million.
South Africa has eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. While English is only the fourth most spoken language, it is recognized as the primary language for business.
In Cape Town, the major languages are Afrikaans, English, and Xhosa, though most speak English at least as a second language. In Johannesburg, you will mostly hear English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Sotho, and Tswana.
If I only speak English, will I need a fixer?
While most people speak English, you may need a fixer depending on where you’re traveling in the country and what your story is on. In more rural areas, you may need a translator or a local guide to show you around and ensure that you’re not wandering into unsafe areas with crime and violence. If you’re mainly working in the cities, you can usually get by with English.
A fixer could be well attuned to cultural nuances and can exist as a language/culture consultant and validate information being exchanged. — Sifiso Khanyile
Journalists working in the country for under 90 days must apply for a visitor’s visa with short term work authorization. If you plan to work there for more than three months, you should apply for a long stay visitor visa.
International journalists an apply for a visa here.
Press card requirement:
You aren’t required to get a press ID, but you may want to get one just in case. If you think you will need special permission to cover particular stories or shoot in specific locations, just make sure you cover your bases and secure the proper permits or ID.
Foreign journalists can request accreditation from the Director of Media Engagement at the government communications department. You will be required to provide:
- A letter from a media organization requesting accreditation for you that’s signed by the editor or bureau chief
- A certified copy of your passport, which can be done at police stations or post offices
- Valid work permit from the South African Department of Home Affairs
- Two identical photos of you
- A brief description of the your role as a journalist and areas of specialization
The major press club in the region is the Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa (FCA). You can apply for membership with the FCA here.
Filming permit requirements:
Small shoots in public spaces won’t generally require a filming permit, but large productions may have strict regulations. If planning to film in the Table Mountain National Park or any other South African national parks, you will have to apply for a permit from the Parks board.
Drone requirements have also gotten stricter in the last couple years. Julia Jaki suggests checking out the drone regulations from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who require a licensed drone operator to film commercial footage.
Government press office:
The Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) department of South Africa regulates and provides information services for the country’s local and foreign press.
South Africa has a high crime rate and theft is fairly common, with a quarter of the population unemployed or living below the poverty line. The country is in the top ten nations in the world for the highest income inequality. South Africa also experiences frequent civil unrest and demonstrations or protests can form rapidly. If you’re covering civil unrest, you may want to take extra security precautions as there have been recent incidents of people targeting or threatening the media.
The Fees Must Fall protests also saw some general hostility towards the media and I’m aware of journalist colleagues who have been targeted by protesters. — Aletta Harrison
Because of the high rate of theft and car-jackings, purchase insurance for your valuable camera gear before you go and don’t leave it in your car or put it on display. Take all possible precautions and avoid walking around unfamiliar areas when carrying your gear. Both Julia and Aletta Harrison say you should not go into townships and film without a trusted, local fixer.
Sifiso Khanyile also suggests checking with the FCA, local authorities, or news to see whether you’re headed to a high-risk area and, if you are, possibly hiring security.
Some of the best views and vistas of Johannesburg are in isolated parks. You may want to take sunset shots with the city as your backdrop, but may need to hire one or two security personnel to look after crew and equipment. — Sifiso K.
10111: Police (landline) | 112: Police (cell phone) | 10177: Ambulance
Because the national number for the South African Police Service is known to be unreliable, you should find the local emergency numbers for where you are staying. Some cities, such as Cape Town, have their own emergency hotlines.
There are plenty of ways to get around South Africa, but not all of them are safe. Public transportation is generally unreliable and dangerous, with trains, in particular, getting a bad reputation as hotspots for crime. The safest ways to get around is renting a car or taking taxis.
Taxis and cars: There are a number of car rental companies in the metro areas, but if you hire a car make sure to keep the doors locked at all times and not to leave your valuables in it. For taxis, Uber is popular and reliable in the cities. However, there have been instances of metered taxi drivers attacking Uber drivers, so be cautious and aware of your surroundings.
Buses: Cape Town has a new bus service called MyCiTi, which Aletta says is fairly reliable but doesn’t go everywhere yet as they are still rolling out the routes.
Bikes: Drivers in South Africa aren’t used to watching for cyclists on the road, so while you can rent a bike, it can be dangerous. And the cities are only just beginning to institute bike lanes.
79.8% of South Africans identify as Christian followed by 15% who claim no affiliation, 1.5% Islam, and 1.2% Hindu. A small portion of the population practices Judaism or a traditional African religion. Despite most not practicing an African religion, there are about 200,000 indigenous healers in the country, which 60% of the population consults with.
How is religion visible in day-to-day life?
South Africa has vibrant and diverse religious customs and traditions that make it a prominent part of everyday life. Sifiso says that you will see Christians on Sundays, hybrid traditional/Christian churches observing on Saturdays, and Muslims practicing on Fridays — their big prayer day. On Fridays, almost all Muslim-owned businesses will be closed or at least shut down for a couple hours at noon.
Cape Town is a fascinating example for the co-existence of different religions: Bo Kaap on the slopes of Signal Hill is the colourful Muslim quarter with South Africa’s oldest mosque (Awwal Mosque on Dorp Street). You can hear the muezzin’s call for prayer five times a day. Only a few kilometres away, on the other side of Signal Hill, Sea Point is home to Cape Town’s Jewish community with supermarkets and stores offering traditional food such as gefilte fish. — Julia J.
Things you’ll find here that you won’t find anywhere else:
South Africa is full of beautiful natural landscapes, parks, and wildlife — often only a short drive away from the major cities. Besides nature, many of the cities capture the diversity of the country, bringing many cultures together at once.
In terms of the people we have an incredibly diverse population which comes together in a melting pot of cultures — this results in some great food, fashion and art. In Cape Town, there’s a historical harmony between muslim and non-muslim communities, which is pretty special. South Africa is unique on the continent in terms of the standards of infrastructure — but still has plenty of authentic characteristics, wild spaces, and grapples with many of the same issues as other African nations. — Aletta H.
In Johannesburg, you can find traditional medicine stores, the largest man-made urban forest in the world, and the highest commercial bungee jump in the world. And with Cape Town, Julia says it is unique in that it has both a breathtaking mountain and the sea right at your doorstep.
South Africa has a history of racial conflict and segregation — only ending apartheid in the 1990s. With that in recent public memory and a rising number of conversations around race, racial sensitivity is extremely important. South Africa is also one of the most unequal countries in the world with 47% of black South Africans living in poverty.
Along with being sensitive to topics on race, you should be aware of religious issues as well, and stray towards keeping any jokes or inappropriate remarks on these to yourself.
Are there restrictions to working as a male or female journalist?
There aren’t any restrictions, but safety is a concern for journalists, especially for women. There may also be some superstitious or cultural contexts where women may not be welcome. For example, Aletta says that she once encountered a superstition against allowing women on fishing boats.
How to blend in:
Aletta suggests avoiding ‘adventure clothing’ and fanny packs if you don’t want to look like a vulnerable tourist. While Cape Town is a mix of ethnicities and cultures, making it easy to blend in, you’ll be pegged as a foreigner when going into townships or small villages. In Cape Town, many of the neighborhoods are still segregated, so if you’re a white journalist going into a predominantly black area, you will stick out. You’ll also find it difficult to blend in — as you would anywhere — when carrying a bunch of camera equipment.
Airbnb is already an extremely popular option in South Africa along with plenty of hotels, bed and breakfasts, and hostels or backpackers. It might be more of a challenge to find good places to stay in rural areas. If you’re going to Cape Town, Julia suggests checking out backpackers on Long Street and Kloof Street. Or if you’re looking for a quieter night, to try Rouge&Rose Boutique Hotel or La Rose B&B in Bo-Kaap.
Great places to work from:
Cape Town has a number of amazing coffee shops and cafes with free wifi as well as some new co-working spaces moving into the city. If you’re looking for a quiet or inspiring spot, Julia suggests checking out The Company’s Garden or Haas Coffee on Buitenkant Street.
In Johannesburg, Sifiso recommends coffee shops in Melville, Rosebank, and the Maboneng Precinct.
Equipment rental shops:
Cape Town and Johannesburg both have a number of shops where you can rent camera equipment.
- Orms: Photography franchise that rents out Nikon, Canon, and Fujifilm brands
- Photo Hire: Video and photography rentals
- Flash Photo: Studio and video rental house
- Visual Impact: Studio and video rental house
- Zootee Studios: An all female-run rental house
- Outdoor Photo: Camera sales and rental house
- Magic Lightbox Company: Camera sales and rental house
- Digital Film Service: Rental house
- Puma Video: Rental house
- The Cameraman: Rental house
Internet access isn’t reliable everywhere, but Cape Town has been rolling out fibre cables, making it faster. When you’re not on fibre, video uploads are slow, generally taking longer than in the US or Europe. However, many cafes, malls, hotels, and public spaces offer free wifi. And when that isn’t an option, you can use mobile data. Just keep in mind that it isn’t cheap. Aletta also says to take note that the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) requires SIM cards to be registered with the user’s ID.
South Africa’s standard voltage is 220V-230V running at 50HZ. Most plugs are fifteen amp with 3-prongs or five amp with 2-prongs and round pins.
Local currency is the South African rand, which converts from 13.2 ZAR to 1 USD. Most major international banks have locations throughout the country.
Bars and restaurants where expat journalists tend to gather:
- The Power and the Glory: Located in Tamboerskloof, Aletta says this hipster stronghold attracts creative types.
- Xai Xai Lounge: A cozy bar located on the trendy 7th Street, Melville.
- Pablo Eggs-Go-Bar: Located in Melville, this bar offers breakfast, lunch, and cocktails.
- SIX Cocktail Bar: A busy, cosmopolitan bar that offers over 60 different cocktails.
Best local restaurants and bars:
Cape Town: Bree Street, Kloof Street, and Sea Point offer some of the best culinary spots and watering holes.
- The Stack: A sophisticated restaurant and bar with great drinks and French cuisine.
- Clarke’s: Located on Bree Street, this restaurant has great burgers and a hip crowd.
- True Italic: Another Bree Street spot, this restaurant offers authentic Italian fare.
- Pesce Azzurro: A trendy seafood Italian bistro in Woodstock.
- The Orbit: A jazz club and bistro offering live music and delicious eats.
- Kitchener’s Carvery Bar: This hotspot calls itself a local pub by day and a club by night.
- Shakers Bar: Located in Maboneng, this bar offers a cozy atmosphere and cocktails.
- The Living Room: A garden rooftop bar and cafe calling itself an urban oasis.
- Sakhumzi: A restaurant offering authentic Soweto cuisine.
Not-to-be missed places in Cape Town:
If you want some great views of Cape Town, Table Mountain, and the sea, walk up to Lion’s Head to take in the 360° view. Julia suggests going early and on a weekday to avoid the crowds. You won’t want to miss these places either:
- The Sea Point Promenade will take you along the coast on a long, beautiful walk where you can see beaches, playgrounds, an Olympic-sized pool, public art, and more.
- Take a swim through tranquil seas or soak in the sun on Camps Bay Beach’s white sand.
- Chapman’s Peak Drive is a scenic route along South Africa’s coastline.
- Table Mountain is a prominent landmark in the Table Mountain National Park, where you can go hiking and see a large array of wildlife.
- The winelands are vineyards and wine farms not far from Cape Town.
- Boulders Beach is a sheltered beach home to a penguin colony.
- Muizenberg Beach is a popular beach for surfers.
- Once a run down neighborhood, Woodstock has undergone a dramatic change into a vibrant community with a mix of diversity and cultures.
- Adderley Street is a famous street in Cape Town’s business district, hosting night markets, offices, and many shops and restaurants.
Helpful resources for journalists:
Sites: The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Southern Africa
TV & News: Radio 702, Eyewitness News, and Screen Africa are all great places to watch, read, or listen to local news for Johannesburg and beyond.
Magazines: The Callsheet is a monthly magazine focusing on Africa’s film industry.
Storyhunter freelancers who collaborated on this:
Aletta Harrison is a Cape Town-based multimedia journalist who specialises in video and photojournalistic reporting. With a background in radio, she has also worked as a broadcast journalist, radio producer, and news anchor. For the past seven years she has reported on general news and current affairs in South Africa and abroad, as well as producing video features and interactive online stories. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @alettaharrison.
Julia Jaki is a freelance producer and video journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa, since 2012. She researches, produces and edits short reports in English and German for TV and web and works as a producer/director for longer reports and documentaries. Prior to moving to South Africa, Julia worked as a producer at production houses in Munich and Hamburg. In 2007, she graduated from Hamburg University with a master’s degree in Political and Middle Eastern Sciences. Follow her on Instagram at @_jakirama.
Sifiso Khanyile is a Producer/Director for Anaphora Films. He has worked as writer, content producer, and director on SABC shows such as Imagine Afrika(2007), Zooming In on Men, Talk SA, and Hatch (2008). After studying Film & TV at Monash University, Khanyile directed Spiderman and Romeo (2008), a ground breaking short documentary about the thrills and dangers of train surfing on the notorious Metrorail Soweto line. Khanyile also worked as local producer on foreign productions and has directed four music videos, one of which was nominated for Channel O music video award. He has been the South African producer for ABC News, is a judge for the South African Film and Television Awards (SAFTA), as well as a jury member for the International Emmy’s.