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South Africa

A Hub for Research, Programming, and Institutional Collaboration
Elevated Risk
A colorful street in Cape Town

Aaron Abai '22

GSS Country Snapshot

A brief overview of Harvard activities, safety & security, health, cultural, and outbound immigration considerations

South Africa is an increasingly popular location for Harvard affiliates to study, research, attend lectures, and collaborate. Since the 2017 opening of the Harvard University Center for African Studies (CAS) Africa office and Harvard Business School’s Africa Research Center in Johannesburg, it has consistently ranked in the top 25 registered destinations for Harvard travelers. Through our Harvard Global entity, we provide international office administration, employment, and gift administration to support the University’s academic research, study abroad programming, scholarships, and more in the region.

In Cambridge and in Johannesburg, CAS is a globally recognized, interdisciplinary body committed to broadening public and scholarly awareness about Africa, African experiences, and African perspectives. It supports programs that foster student and faculty engagement and creates opportunities for students and scholars to learn, research, and share knowledge.

The information below is intended as a high-level summary and is not all encompassing. Situations on the ground can change rapidly. We encourage you to review the additional resources and utilize your Harvard network to learn more. You can also schedule a consultation with us if you’d like to discuss the safety and security or operational matters unique to you and your travel or project. We’ll work with you to minimize risks and help you make informed decisions about your travel and activities.

“GSS continues to be a key partner in managing our center’s office operations, employing staff, and receiving and managing international gifts on our behalf to enable our programming.”

– Emmanuel Akyeampong, Oppenheimer Faculty Director, Harvard University Center for African Studies

Safety & Security

The Harvard GSS risk rating for South Africa is elevated risk. Note that, per the student travel policy, College students have additional pre-departure requirements for elevated-risk locations. Some of the factors that influence this rating for Harvard affiliates include violent crime, periodic social unrest, road safety conditions, and infrastructure concerns. For example, petty and violent crime are prevalent, especially in high-density, low-income locations, and muggings are common. ATM crimes are rampant, and carjacking is a concern in various locations around the country. There are reports of xenophobia in densely segregated areas. There is also a high incidence of sexual assault. Although there aren't any legal restrictions for the LQBTQ+ community, acceptance varies across South Africa. Corruption has been reported when conducting business in South Africa, including in government offices. Severe electric shortages also have been reported.

As with any country, you need to research and consider all factors in the context of your identity, your activities in country, and your familiarity with the country and its culture. If a security incident occurs, contact International SOS through the Assistance App or by dialing +1-617-998-0000.

Weather-related incidents can create safety risks in South Africa. The southern coast is prone to heavy rainfall from June-September, flash storms are common in the Gauteng province from November-April, and bush fires are common during dry seasons. Periods of drought have the potential to deplete water supplies and lead to severe rationing. Download the International SOS Assistance App to receive push alerts about incidents in your area.

There are numerous international and domestic airports, and domestic flights are the most efficient means of travel within South Africa. The road system is extensive, but adherence to rules of the road vary and traffic accidents are common throughout the country. Road safety is a concern nationwide. Travelers are advised not to self-drive because conditions may vary from what you’re used to. Public transit is available but not recommended for visitors due to security concerns. Using a licensed taxicab or hiring a prearranged car service are both preferable. Be mindful that traffic drives on the left.

The mobile phone network in South Africa is extensive. Internet cafes and wi-fi services are available in major cities and towns. Malicious software attacks are increasing in South Africa, including ransomware and SIM-swap fraud. Know how to keep your data safe abroad.

“I had a great experience in Johannesburg partly because I was very well informed about the city and the region before I left Cambridge. I would advise other students traveling internationally to research their destinations and to follow the GSS pre-departure advice seriously.”

– Harvard undergraduate student


Make sure you’re up-to-date on any recommended and required vaccines for South Africa. Health risks such as cholera, Covid-19, histoplasmosis, malaria, rabies, tick bite fever, tuberculosis, Yellow Fever, and West Nile virus may be present. If you're traveling with medication, check to see if your medications are legal and available in South Africa. Many common U.S. medications and supplements are illegal abroad or require special authorization. Visit your doctor or a travel clinic (such as Harvard University Health Services) at least a month before your departure to discuss all health risks and your individual health with a professional, to receive any vaccines or medications you’ll need, and to learn how to reduce your risk of infection or transmission.

All travelers have a small risk of developing traveler’s diarrhea in any country. If you’re in rural areas in South Africa, you’re advised to drink only bottled or boiled water and to avoid ice. Learn how to make safe food and drink choices.

In general, South Africa offers a high level of medical care. If you need any medical or mental health assistance while on a Harvard-related trip in South Africa, contact International SOS through the Assistance App or by dialing +1-617-998-0000. International SOS can direct you to the appropriate inpatient or outpatient care. Emergency and acute care events can be addressed throughout the country.


South Africa is a parliamentary republic comprised of nine provinces. It is an emerging market with well-developed communications, energy, financial, legal, and transport sectors, however unemployment, poverty, and inequality are among the highest in the world. Nearly 80% of the country identifies as Christian. Be mindful of culturally sensitive topics, including politics.

South Africa has 11 official languages, including English, Xhosa, Zulu, and Afrikaans, which are most common. In rural areas, Afrikaans and other local languages are generally more widely spoken. Sports (including cricket, rugby, and soccer) and local politics are common topics of conversation. Names and signage for cities and locations may differ as the government has renamed certain places that had apartheid-era connotations.

South Africa has a sophisticated banking system. ATMs are widely available, and most major credit cards are accepted throughout the country, although small shops and markets may only accept cash. Counterfeit currency is widely circulated, and you may notice currency tests at certain points of sale.

When booking travel or scheduling meetings, be mindful of South Africa’s holidays and festivals since businesses may be closed or have reduced hours.

Visas & Travel Documents

Before traveling to South Africa, make sure your passport is valid for at least 30 days from your intended date of departure, that you have two consecutive blank pages for entry stamps, and that you have an onward/return ticket. Valid passport holders are granted a temporary visitor's permit, which allows a stay of up to three months. Depending on your citizenship and reason for travel, you may need a visa to enter. Requirements are subject to change, so always check your visa and travel document requirements well in advance.

Quick Facts

  • Currency: South African Rand (R)
  • Tipping: common; 10-15% expected
  • Voltage & plug type: 230 Volts; Types C, M, and N
  • Telephone code: +27
  • Emergency numbers: 112 (fire), 10177 (ambulance), 10111 (police)
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