Transport and Driving in South Africa
Driving and public transport in South Africa is comparable to the United States. Public transport, even within the big cities, is very limited – although efforts to improve this have been made – and virtually all expats moving to South Africa purchase a car. However, there are other ways to get around the country.
Driving in South Africa
Cars in South Africa are rather expensive, even though petrol prices are still fairly low compared to Europe. Diesel is widely available and typically cheaper as well as more economical than regular petrol. Compared to the rest of Africa, South Africa’s road network is extensive and in good condition, but expats will still be amazed when what looked like a four-lane highway on the map turns out to be a two-lane potholed country road. Anyone planning on going on any self-drive safaris will travel their share of dirt roads, which makes purchasing a 4x4 vehicle a very good investment.
South Africans drive on the left side of the road. Traffic, especially in the big cities, might be a bit more chaotic than expats are used to, but still very tame when compared to countries like India or Egypt. People generally stick to their lanes, and when traffic lights (or 'robots' as they are referred to in South Africa) aren't functioning, which does occur on a regular basis, the ensuing four-way-stop traffic is usually quite orderly. Don’t be surprised, however, if minibus taxis illegally overtake on the left during heavy traffic.
It is legal for foreigners to drive in South Africa using their own country’s driving licence, as long as it has a photograph of the driver, is still valid in their home country, and is in English. Some traffic cops will try to tell unsuspecting expats otherwise in hopes of eliciting a bribe, but if they stay firm and know their rights, there is nothing to fear.
Renting a car in South AfricaWhile an expat is still in the process of buying a car, or whenever they are travelling in other cities, renting a car in South Africa is a fairly inexpensive option. Most of the major international car rental companies are represented at airports and throughout the main cities. There are also several local car rental companies that might offer more competitive prices, especially for longer-term rentals.
Air travel in South Africa
The easiest way to get around South Africa (and especially to its neighbouring countries) is by air. A domestic flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town takes two hours, compared to 16 hours by road or 24 hours by rail.
Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport is a modern and well-organised major hub for all of Southern Africa. Lanseria, a second, smaller airport on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, offers daily flights to several destinations, and Cape Town and Durban also have international airports.
If anyone is flying into the bush, transport by private plane is also an option. And if anyone has contemplated getting a private pilot’s licence, South Africa is the place to do it, with some of the best and most stable weather in the world, hardly any restricted airspace, and affordable instruction. South African Airways is the national carrier, while Kulula and Mango offer low-cost options between major cities.
Public transport in South Africa
BusesMetrobus is the official bus service provider in the Johannesburg area, but the routes are very limited. Unless someone lives in or near the city centre, which most expats stay away from, they will not be able to use the Metrobus system to get to work.
Cape Town has a relatively new rapid bus service called MyCiTi, which also offers a shuttle service from the airport to the city. Ordinary buses in Cape Town are run by Golden Arrow Bus Services and are not particularly reliable. Someone who is more interested in sightseeing than commuting should consider a bus tour. Cape Town's red Hop-on, Hop-off tour bus is a popular and inexpensive way to go sightseeing in Cape Town.
For intercity bus travel try companies such as Greyhound, Intercape and SA Roadlink.
Minibus taxisMinibus taxis represent a cross between a bus and taxi service, and are used by some locals as their only form of public transport. There is an informal route system, implemented by various hand signals given by people waiting by the roadside. Queues are often prohibitively long, space in the buses is very cramped, they often don’t look very roadworthy and are prone to accidents. As a result, they are rarely used by expats.
Commuter trainsThe high-speed Gautrain has been operating in the greater Johannesburg area since 2010 and has been a big success on the few routes available (between Sandton, Pretoria and O.R. Tambo International Airport) – it is clean, safe and on time. But unless one lives near one of the stations, it is not a viable form of city-wide transport yet. There is a bus link from Montecasino in the northern suburbs, but since Johannesburg buses don’t have dedicated lanes, they are subject to the same traffic jams as cars.
Cape Town’s Integrated Rapid Transit (IRT) has been operational for a number of years and its route network is extensive. MyCiti buses are designed to integrate with rail transport. IRT trains are not known for their punctuality but are inexpensive and take commuters along some of Cape Town’s most beautiful scenery.
Luxury trainsA wonderful way for expats to discover South Africa and its sweeping landscapes, if they have time, is by way of one of the luxury trains operating mainly between Johannesburg and Cape Town and a few other routes. It’s not the cheapest way to travel but a very comfortable one. Taking a car along is an option on some routes.
The Blue Train, Premier Classe and Rovos Rail are the most prominent luxury train providers.