All measurements use the metric system; distances on road signs are in kilometres (1.6 km =1 mi) and fuel is sold in litres (3.8 litres=1 US gallon).
There are basically three ways to buy a car in South Africa: You can rent a car, buy one or use the so-called buy-back option. Renting a car is fairly easy and can be booked online and in all major cities, although you can get better rates by calling some of the smaller providers. Buying a car involves a bit more hassle (road registration, car registration, insurance), but there is a vibrant used car market in South Africa. The third option is a combination of both, as you buy a car with a guarantee that the rental company will buy your car back at the end of the contract.
Most cars in South Africa have a manual transmission and the choice of used automatics can be limited.
Rent a car through South Africa rates vary from US$15 daily to US$200 daily, in accordance with vehicle group, geographic location as well as availability.. The car rental companies have branches throughout South Africa, including in smaller towns and in game reserves and national parks.
Most rental fleets in South Africa have mostly manual transmissions and vehicles with automatic transmissions are limited and tend to be much more expensive. Renting a vehicle with a full no-claims clause (as available in the US) is expensive and hard to find; most agencies only offer reduced liability releases or releases for certain types of damage, such as to glass and tyres. If you plan to drive on unpaved roads in South Africa, check with the rental agency, whether this is permitted for the vehicle you intend to rent and do your own research to determine whether the vehicle(s) offered are suitable for the expected driving conditions.
Rules of the road
In South Africa ( as well as its neighboring countries), driving on the left side of the road.
Be sure to familiarise yourself with and understand South African road signs. South Africa used to use an unusual system of street signage that combined American fonts with English and German design elements. This was problematic because the American fonts were not designed for the long place names typical of Afrikaans. Since 1994, South Africa has adopted a system of street signs that is almost identical to the German system, with appropriate modifications for local conditions (German, like Afrikaans, also has long place names). Although, many of those old signs remain in use even today.
A special type of intersection is the “four-way intersection”, where the vehicle that stops first has the right of way.
You won’t encounter many roundabouts, but when you do, you should be extra careful as the general attitude of South African drivers is that roundabouts are not a traffic-regulating roadway structure. They do not use their turn signals in a safe and predictable manner, if at all.
Some South Africans are notorious for ignoring the speed limit. They tend to engage in selfish or aggressive driving behaviour, such as tailgating and honking. On multi-lane carriageways, the principle of “keep left, pass right” is often disregarded. On two-lane carriageways, cars often overtake slower vehicles in the middle of the carriageway despite oncoming traffic. Cars are expected to move into the hard shoulder as much as possible to allow overtaking in the middle, even in heavy traffic.
Turning left (or right) on red at traffic lights is prohibited. However, you will find traffic lights and “four-way stops” where a right-of-way sign explicitly allows left turns.
Wearing seat belts is compulsory. Occupants in the front seats of a car are required to wear seat belts while driving, and for your own safety, it is recommended that occupants in the back seats do the same. If you are caught without doing so, you will be fined.
The use of mobile phones while driving a vehicle is prohibited. If you must talk on your mobile phone, either use a phone attachment in the vehicle or a hands-free device. Or better still (and safer), pull off the road and stop. NOTE: Only pull off the road at safe places, such as a petrol station. Pulling over and stopping at the side of the road can be dangerous. Most petrol stations are open around the clock.
Traffic accident frequency is high in South Africa. You should drive extra carefully at all times, especially at night in urban areas. Watch out for unsafe drivers (minibus taxis), poor lighting, cyclists (many of whom do not seem to know the “left-hand traffic” rule) and pedestrians (who are the cause of many accidents, especially at night). South African pedestrians generally tend to be quite aggressive, like pedestrians from some southern European countries, and you need to watch out for pedestrians who step into traffic and expect you to stop or avoid them.
You will also encounter a great many people walking along or across the motorways simply because it is the quickest way on foot to their destination and they cannot afford a car. Watch out for South Africa’s notorious taxi and minibus drivers who sometimes even stop on the freeways to pick up or drop off passengers.
When driving outside the big cities, you will often encounter animals, wild and domestic, on or beside the roadway. Most of the locals have a tendency to graze their cows and goats nearby the road. If you see an animal on or beside the road, slow down as they are unpredictable. Do not stop to feed wild animals!
If you are waiting at a red light late at night in an area where you do not feel safe, you could cross the red light (illegally) after first carefully checking that there is no other traffic. If you receive a traffic light camera fine, you can sometimes get it waived by writing a letter to the traffic department or the court explaining that you crossed the light safely and on purpose for safety reasons. The fact remains that you have, for whatever reason, broken the law. Do not make a habit of this.
When you stop at traffic lights at night, always leave enough space between your car and the car in front of you so that you can drive around it. Boxing up a car is a common hijacking technique.This is especially common in the suburbs of Johannesburg.
As far as possible, and especially when driving in urban areas, try not to have any objects visible in the car – keep them out of sight in the glove compartments or the boot. That applies as well, and it even applies more when you park your car. It is also considered safe practice to drive in urban areas with car windows closed and doors locked. These simple precautions make things less attractive to potential thieves and criminals.
As in any other country, you should always be alert when driving. The safest thing to do is to drive defensively and assume that the other driver is about to do something stupid / dangerous / illegal.
Speed limits are usually clearly indicated. As a rule, the speed limits are 120 km/h on motorways, 100 km/h on main roads outside built-up areas, 80 km/h on main roads inside built-up areas and 60 km/h on normal city roads. But be careful – in some areas the speed limits indicated can change suddenly and unexpectedly.
Roads within South Africa, connecting most major cities, and between immediate neighbouring countries are very good. There are many national and regional roads connecting cities and major centres, including the N1, which runs from Cape Town to Harare, Zimbabwe, via Johannesburg and Pretoria; the N2, which runs from Cape Town to Durban and passes through the world-famous Garden Route at Knysna; and the N3 between Durban and Johannesburg.
Some sections of the national roads are two-lane limited access highways (the N3 between Johannesburg and Durban is almost continuously a highway) and some sections are also toll roads with emergency call boxes every few kilometres. Toll roads usually have two or more lanes in each direction.
The major fuel companies have rest stops every 200-300 km along these motorways where you can refuel, eat at a restaurant, buy takeaways, shop or just stretch your legs. The toilets at these facilities are well maintained and clean. The majority ( although not all ) have ATMs at these rest stops as well.
Some main roads have only one lane in each direction, especially away from urban areas. On such roads, it is customary to flash your hazard lights only once if a truck or other slow-moving vehicle turns onto the hard shoulder (usually indicated by yellow lines).This is seen as a thank you and you will most likely receive a “My Pleasure” response in the form of a single flash of the slow vehicle’s headlights. Remember that it is both illegal and dangerous to drive on the hard shoulder – although many people do.
In many rural areas you will find unpaved “gravel roads”. Most of them are perfectly suitable for a normal car, although reduced speed might often be advisable. Special care is required when driving on these roads, especially if you encounter other traffic – broken windscreens and lights caused by flying stones are not uncommon.
Even though it is not yet mandatory, more and more drivers are driving with their headlights on. This significantly increases visibility for other road users.
The petrol stations offer a full service with unleaded petrol, lead substitute petrol and diesel. The petrol attendants offer to wash your windscreen and check your oil and water, in addition to just filling up your car. It is customary to tip the petrol attendant about R5 – if you don’t have change, fill up with e.g. R195 and let the attendant keep the change, it’s a polite idea. Most fuel stations operate 24 hours a day.
If you plan to use these two highways, it is advisable to avoid the two days after school closes and the two days before school starts. School holiday calendars for South Africa can be found here. [www]
There is usually a motorway customer service line on the N3 at 0800 203 950 during peak hours, which can be used to enquire about faults, accidents and general route information. Current tolls, road and traffic conditions can also be found on the N3 website [www].
Historically, South African petrol stations were cash only, which was and still is stated in many guidebooks. After a period when petrol stations only accepted their own credit cards, the government authorised the acceptance of major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard in 2009. Since 2011, some smaller petrol stations only accept cash, but most petrol stations accept major credit cards. So you don’t need to carry large amounts of cash to pay for fuel, unless you are absolutely sure you need to buy fuel in a rural area that does not yet support credit cards.
Law enforcement (speeding and other violations) is usually done through portable or stationary, radar or laser cameras. Local police forces, especially in rural areas, focus much of their efforts on fining motorists (to generate revenue, not to improve road safety). If you see an oncoming car flashing its lights, it is likely to warn you of an impending speed camera that it has just passed. Portable radar and laser systems that are not cameras are also used and you may be stopped for speeding (or other offences) and receive a written penalty notice. Fines can be sent to the registered address of the vehicle you are driving, but it is also common to pay fines on the spot. Usually the police officer will hold your licence while you go to the local police station to pay the fine, you get a receipt and drive back to where you were stopped, hand the receipt to the police officer and get your licence back – this can take a good hour or more, which can be a bigger hassle than the R400 fine.
In general, the police are quite honest, but they respond to politeness and respect for their authority. If you are stopped by a traffic policeman, he may ask you for a rather ridiculous piece of paperwork (a letter from the ministry…. the car’s roadworthiness certificate…) and that you will get into a lot of trouble if you don’t have it – be firm, cool and friendly and explain that you understand that you only need a driving licence etc. Generally, police officers want an easy life and don’t feel like arguing for a long time if they think you won’t “tip”.
South Africa does not currently have a merit system and does not exchange information on traffic violations with other nations.
If your driver’s licence is issued in one of South Africa’s 11 official languages (e.g. English) and a photograph and your signature are included in the licence document, then it is legally acceptable as a valid driver’s licence in South Africa. However, some car rental companies and insurance companies may still insist that you present an international driving licence.
It is generally best practice to obtain an international driving licence in your country of origin before you start your journey, whether or not your licence is legal.
Be aware that the police may ask for a bribe (between R200 and R600) if you present
a foreign driving licence . Do not pay it, ask for and show the name and ID number.