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Useful Facts For Tourists

What facilities are open on public holidays?

In the major cities most stores, cinemas and restaurants are open on most public holidays. The exceptions are Christmas Day, 25 December and New Year's Day, 1 January.

Public Holidays

The following public holidays will be observed by this Mission during year 2011:

01 January (Saturday) New Year’s Day SA / Dutch
21 March (Monday) Human Rights Day SA
22 April (Friday) Good Friday SA / Dutch
25 April (Monday) Easter Monday SA / Dutch
27 April (Wednesday) Freedom Day SA
02 May (Monday) Workers Day* (01 May) SA
05 May (Thursday) Liberation Day Dutch
02 June (Thursday) Ascension Day Dutch
13 June (Monday) Whit Monday Dutch
16 June (Thursday) Youth Day SA
09 August (Tuesday) National Women’s Day SA
16 December (Friday) Day of Reconciliation / Boxing Day SA
26 December (Monday) Boxing Day SA / Dutch      

If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday following becomes a public holiday.

Where can I smoke?

The law prohibits smoking in most public spaces, including airports and railway stations. Most restaurants have designated smoking and non-smoking areas.

South African time

South Africa does not change its clocks during the year, and there are no regional variations within the country. South African Standard Time is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean (or Universal Standard) Time, one hour ahead of Central European Winter Time, and seven hours ahead of the USA's Eastern Standard Winter Time.

Tipping

Tipping is common practice in South Africa for a range of services. In restaurants the accepted standard is around 10% of the bill, although sometimes a gratuity will be included (often in the case of a large party). Barmen are tipped a similar percentage.

Petrol stations are manned by attendants who will expect a tip of two or three rands for filling up with petrol, checking oil, water and tyre pressure and cleaning windscreens. Hotel porters should be tipped two to five rands. It is also appropriate to tip taxi drivers, tour guides and even hairdressers.

If you park a car in a populated area such as near a shopping centre, street security guards will usually ask whether they can watch over your car and in return should be paid a small fee - anything from two rands upwards.

Language

We speak English

We are a multi-lingual country. Besides the 11 officially recognised languages, there are scores of others, because South Africa is the crossroads of southern Africa.

South Africa's Constitution recognises and guarantees equal status to 11 official languages to cater for the country’s diverse peoples and their cultures – so preserving our much-cherished heterogeneity. The 11 languages, in alphabetical order, are:

  • Afrikaans
  • English
  • Ndebele (properly, isiNdebele)
  • North Sotho (properly, seSotho saLebowa; formerly sePedi)
  • South Sotho (properly, seSotho)
  • Swati (properly, isiSwati)
  • Tsonga (properly, XiTsonga)
  • Tswana (properly, SeTswana)
  • Venda (properly, TshiVenda)
  • Xhosa (properly, isiXhosa)
  • Zulu (properly, isiZulu)

However, most of us speak English, so you'll have little trouble communicating.

Although English is generally understood across the country, it ranks only fifth as a spoken language. According to the 1996 Census, Zulu is the mother tongue of 22.9% of South Africa's estimated 40 million people, followed by Xhosa at 17.9%, Afrikaans at 14.4%, North Sotho - properly called seSotho saLebowa - at 9.2%, and English at 8.6%.

When we do speak "proper" English, it's the British rather than the American variety of English – although this is slowly changing, with many younger people being influenced by television and cinema.

isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiSwati and isiNdebele are collectively referred to as the Nguni languages, and have a lot of similarities in syntax and grammar. The Sotho languages - SeTswana, seSotho saLebowa and seSotho - also have much in common.

According to historical data, many of South Africa's indigenous tribes share a common ancestry. But as groupings and clans broke up in search of autonomy and greener pastures for their livestock, variations of the common languages evolved.

Afrikaans - initially spoken by descendants of the Dutch settlers, and similar in character to Dutch and Flemish - is no longer the exclusive language of Afrikaners. According to Statistics South Africa, the majority of South Africans who speak Afrikaans as their first language are not white. Unfortunately Spanish is not yet widely spoken outside of the major International Hotels and tourism centres, so please take along your English phrasebook just in case.

Climate

The seasons

  • Summer - mid-October to mid-February
  • Autumn - February to April
  • Winter - May to July
  • Spring - August to October

What's the weather like?

South Africa has a mostly temperate and pleasant climate, with lovely warm sunny days most of the year. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are opposite to those experienced in Europe and North America, so, yes we spend Christmas on the beach.

Summer

Generally, summer is from mid-October to mid-February, and over most of the country it is characterised by hot weather with afternoon thunderstorms which clear quickly, leaving a warm, earthy, uniquely African smell in the air. The Western Cape, with its Mediterranean climate, is the opposite and gets its rain in winter. Autumn (or fall) runs from February to April and offers probably the best weather. Very little rain falls over the whole country, and it is warm but not too hot, obviously getting colder as the season progresses. In Cape Town, autumn is fantastic, with hot sunny days and warm, balmy nights, which most people spend at outdoor cafés.

Winter (May to July)

Winter in the higher-lying areas is characterised by dry, bright, sunny, crisp days and cold nights. So it's a good idea to bring warm clothes. The Lowveld and the Maputaland Coast offer fantastic weather in winter with bright, sunny, warmish days and virtually no rain or wind. The Western Cape gets most of its rain in winter, and there may be a few days of grey, cloudy, rainy weather, but these are always interspersed with wonderful days to rival the best of a British summer. The high mountains of the Drakensberg and the Cape usually get snow – and you can even ski.

Spring (August to October)

Spring, like everywhere else in the world, is a time of renewal and rejoicing – when bright green buds appear on the trees and young grasses pop up from the veld, but nowhere is it more spectacular than in the Cape. Here the grey winter is forgotten as the bright green foliage of the south and east, and the sear browns of the north and west, give way to a riot of colour as thousands of small, otherwise insignificant plants cover the plains in an iridescent carpet of flowers. The journey to see the flowers of the Namaqualand in the Western and Northern Cape is an annual pilgrimage for many South Africans.

What’s the best time of the year to travel?

Tricky one. Depends on what you want to do. The best time for game watching is late spring, August to October. The southern right whales hang around off our coasts from about mid-June to the end of October. The diving is best in most of the area over winter (April to September), and so is the surfing (but that doesn't limit it to those times). Flowers are best in August and September. River rafting is better in the Cape at the end of winter and in KwaZulu-Natal in summer (late November to February). In Mpumalanga and Limpopo, it's not quite as time-dependent.

The shoulder seasons, spring and autumn, are best for hiking, as summer can be very hot all over. In the Drakensberg, summer thunderstorms are extremely dangerous and there is a good chance of snow in winter. In the Cape, the winters are wet, so hiking is a bit hardcore.

If you're a birder, the palaearctic migrants arrive in about November and the intra-African migrants usually by mid-October. If you fancy getting in some Southern Hemisphere skiing, there is guaranteed snow from June to August.
Of course, if you want to lounge around on the beaches, mid-summer is the best time – but everyone else will be there too. And – big bonus – the beaches of northern KwaZulu-Natal are warm and sunny even in midwinter.

Also, don't forget it's the Southern Hemisphere, so summer is mid-October to mid-February, autumn from February to April, winter May to July, and spring August to October.

Currency

Rands and cents

Our unit of currency is the rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Coins come in denominations of 1c, 2c, 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5, and notes in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200. All currency must be declared on entry.

Banking made easy

You’ll also find South Africa an easy destination. From the moment you step off the plane, you'll see that there are banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers almost everywhere. Generally speaking, banks are open from 9am to 3.30pm Mondays through Fridays, and 8.30am to 11am on Saturdays, but those at the airports adjust their hours of opening to accommodate all international flights. Major national banks have branches as well as automated teller machines (ATM’s) in most large towns. International banks have branches in the major cities. Thomas Cook (represented by Rennies Travel) and American Express foreign exchange offices are available in the major cities.

Credit cards and cash

All major credit cards can be used in South Africa, with American Express and Diners Club enjoying less universal acceptance than MasterCard and Visa. In some small towns, you may find you'll need to use cash. A rather strange anomaly in South Africa is that you may not purchase fuel with credit cards. South Africans have special fuel credit cards, known as garage or petrol cards, which can be used only at filling stations. You can, however, pay road tolls with Master or Visa cards.

Useful numbers

You may want to print out a list of these useful numbers before leaving home, in the event of theft or lost of your credit card. All numbers are written as you would dial them from within South Africa. The 0800 numbers are toll-free from a landline within South Africa – but not from a mobile phone.

  • American Express: (011) 359 0200
  • Diners Club: 0800 112 017
  • Master Card: 0800 990 418
  • Visa: 0800 990 475
  • Absa Bank: 0800 111 155
  • First National Bank: 0800 111722
  • Nedbank: 0800 555 111
  • Standard Bank: 0800 021 000

Value Added Tax

Value Added Tax (VAT) is levied on most goods and services but, as a foreign national, you may reclaim VAT on anything you bought to take out of the country unused. You need to do this before you embark on your flight home. VAT is currently charged at 14% and is generally included in the quoted price.

Tourists With Disabilities

Does South Africa cater for tourists with disabilities? South Africa is definitely a bit of a curate's egg in this respect – good in parts. Government has introduced legislation on this, so progress is being made. And many game reserves and places of interest have specially adapted accommodation and wheelchair-friendly facilities and walks. Many short trails also have Braille interpretation plaques.

You would be amazed what some wheelchair-dependent people have done in South Africa – abseiled off Table Mountain; dared the highest bungy jump in the world at Bloukrans Bridge; tubed the awesome Storms River Gorge; hiked most of the Outeniqua Trail (this was a hard one); flown a microlight; and learned to scuba dive. The sky's the limit. Oh yes, and skydived. (This was not all done by the same person!)