When visiting South Africa, the self-driving option is a viable and enjoyable way to get around the country. South Africa has excellent road infrastructure, large vehicle hire fleets run by international and local rental companies, great weather and plenty of stunning scenery. If you’re thinking of taking the long way round, here are a few tips to enhance your trip.
Most international and reputable local car rental companies (see the links on the right) are represented at South Africa’s main airports and in most city centres. Vehicles may generally be picked up at one branch and dropped off at another branch at your destination. Please be aware of the terms and conditions of car-hire in South Africa, relevant to the company you use.
It is advisable to take out the insurance offered by the vehicle rental companies, unless you have specific travel insurance cover in place. All major credit cards are accepted.
Any valid driver’s licence is accepted in South Africa, provided it bears the photograph and signature of the holder and is printed or authenticated in English.
However, vehicle hire companies may also require an international driver’s licence. It is worth confirming requirements with your travel agent or the vehicle hire company when making your booking.
This holds for additional drivers as well, who must be identified when you hire your vehicle. Remember to carry all your documentation with you when you travel, as traffic officers will expect to see it if they stop you for any reason.
Keep left, buckle up and think in kilometres
‘Keep left, pass right’ is the general rule of driving in South Africa. This also applies to highway (freeway) driving. Cars in South Africa are right-hand drive vehicles, with the gear shift operated with the left hand. Distances, speed limits (therefore vehicle speedometers) are measured in kilometres, and fuel gauges in litres, so be aware of this when travelling long distances to avoid running out of fuel. The wearing of seat belts is compulsory for all front seats and back seats (if present). Using mobile phones and devices while driving is against the law. While using an in- car hands-free system is permitted, use cautiously if you are travelling in an unfamiliar area.
The general speed limit on South Africa’s national highways, urban freeways and other major routes is 120km/h (75mph). On secondary (rural) roads it is 100km/h (60mph). In built-up areas it is usually 60km/h (35mph), unless otherwise indicated by road signs. If you incur a speeding fine with a hired car, the rental company will pay the fine, passing on the charge to your account, with an admin fee.
Drinking and driving
Naturally, drinking alcohol before and while driving is against the law. The South African Road Traffic Act 93/96 has been in effect since March 1998. Whether you are driving in the city or on rural roads, these laws are extremely important to obey. These laws are in place to help protect the community and to make sure that drunk drivers are reprimanded.
- The legal blood alcohol limit in South Africa is less than 0.05 g per 100 ml
- The legal breath alcohol limit in South Africa is less than 0.24 mg in 1000 ml of breath
According to the Automobile Association of South Africa the rule of thumb when considering the minimum allowable amount of alcohol consumed before driving is a maximum of one unit of alcohol per hour, which constitutes 10ml of pure alcohol, based on an adult weighing 68kg. Our bodies can process only one unit of alcohol each hour. However, it is important to be aware that if you weigh less than 68kg your body will need more time to process the same amount of alcohol. In simple terms, this means that 2 drinks over the space of one hour will put you over the limit. Below is a breakdown of alcohol units per drink type:
- 1 x 75 ml glass of wine = 1 unit
- 1 x 250 ml glass of wine = 3.3 units
- 1 x shot/shooter = ½ unit in most instances
- 1 x spirit cooler = about 1.25 units
- 1 x beer = 1.5 units or possibly more
- 1 x cider = 2 units
- 1 x 25 ml tot of spirits = 1 unit
- 1 x cocktail = Between 2 and 4 units
Anything more would impede your driving ability. In general, it is advisable not to drink at all if you are planning on travelling long distances or in areas with which you may not be familiar.
The various types of petrol (gas) available in South Africa are: unleaded and lead replacement 97-, 95- or 93-octane (often referred to as “super” or “premium”). The 95- and 93-octane petrol is available at higher altitude (non-coastal, interior areas such as Gauteng and Mpumalanga), as well as 93-octane. While, at the coast, your choice is between 95- and 97-octane.
Diesel is available with 0.05% sulphur content and 0.005% sulphur content.
Most vehicles available from car-hire companies use unleaded petrol, and cars older than 10 years use the various octane types.
Fuel is sold per litre (1 US gallon is equivalent to 3.8 litres).
South African petrol stations are not self-help, with attendants to fill the car, check oil, water and tyre pressure, as well as offer to clean your windscreen, if required – these services more often than not enjoy a R2 or R5 gratuity, or according to your discretion.
Fuel stations are called ‘garages’ in South Africa, and can be found on both the main and country roads in urban and rural areas. Most are open 24 hours a day, although some rural stations may keep shorter hours. Be aware that distances between towns (and therefore between petrol stations) are considerable in some parts of the country, so remember to check the fuel gauge before passing up the opportunity to fill up.
Fuel can be paid for with cash or general credit and debit cards (MasterCard and Visa most often. NOT usually American Express or Diner’s Club.) Some smaller or more rural stations may always not accept cards. Check with the attendant before filling up on payment methods available. Most filling stations have on-site ATM banking facilities available.
Driving around the country
Our road infrastructure is excellent, so driving between cities and towns is a viable option – and, given the stunning scenery in many parts of the country, a highly enjoyable one.
However, South Africa is a huge country not easily traversed in a day, so plan your journeys carefully. If you’re not used to driving long distances, rather break the journey, as fatigue is a major contributing factor in motor vehicle accidents.
While most national roads are tarred and in good condition, the more rural the road, the more likely it is to be pot-holed and poorly surfaced.
Current information on the conditions of roads can be obtained through the Automobile Association of South Africa. The AA also provides invaluable guides for road users in the form of strip maps tailored for specific destinations and information for tourists on accommodation en route.
Traffic signs are generally pictorial or in English.
- Read more: Maps of South Africa
- See the Automobile Association’s route planner for maps, road reports and an online route planner
- See Arrive Alive’s handy guide to South Africa’s road signs
Toll roads and e-tolls
Before you set off, check your route. Many of the national roads between the major centres are toll roads. Check the fees before you leave, and make sure that you have either a credit card or cash to pay.
Toll fares for a light passenger vehicle vary from under R10 to around R200, depending on the toll plaza – and you may pass through three or four of these before you reach your destination.
Electronic toll collection (or e-tolls) is in place in Gauteng. Your car has to be identified electronically, via an e-tag for example, and a toll is deducted from a toll account. Visitors to Gauteng can register for an e-toll account, or buy day passes. Visit SA National Road Agency’s e-toll website for more info.
- See Automobile Association: Toll fees in South Africa – includes information on fees, locations, vehicle classifications and costs for frequently travelled routes.
- See South African National Road Agency: Open road tolling – includes information on what to do if you visit Gauteng, how to register as a e-toll user, how to fit an e-tag, and an e-toll calculator
South Africa has a high rate of traffic accidents so drive defensively and exercise caution when on the roads – especially at night – and keep a wary eye out for pedestrians and cyclists.
Drivers of minibuses and taxis can behave erratically, and often turn a blind eye to rules and road safety considerations.
In many of South Africa’s rural areas, the roads are not fenced, so watch out dogs, chickens, sheep and even horses or cows on the road. These can be particularly hazardous at night.
Large antelope crossing the road can also pose a danger in certain areas – if you see road signs depicting a leaping antelope, take it slowly, especially towards evening.
Never stop to feed wild animals – it is dangerous and you can incur a hefty fine if you do so.
In general, be aware and keep your wits about you. It’s a good idea to drive with your doors locked and windows up, especially in cities and at traffic lights.
Don’t ever stop to pick up hitchhikers. If you are worried about someone on the side of the road, report it to the police station in the next town.
Ensure your car is locked when you park it and do not leave anything in sight. Lock things away in the trunk – known as the boot here – or the glove compartment (cubbyhole).
Emergency numbers to save into your phone:
- ER24 paramedics: 084 124
- Police/Fire Department: 10111
- Ambulance: 10117
- Arrive Alive Call Centre: 0861 400 800
- Netcare Emergency: 082 911
- Read more: Safety tips for travellers
Reviewed: October 2015
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