Misconceptions tourists have of South Africa

  • 08 January 2015 | Roela Hattingh
The San are southern Africa's first people. Image courtesy of South African Tourism

The term ‘Big Five’ originates from big-game hunters referring to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot.

We’ve compiled a list of the ‘Big Five’ misconceptions tourists have of South Africa and are suggesting a few answers. Being in the business of tourism, you have most probably heard hundreds of similar tales and know how difficult it is to bite your tongue – or maybe not.

1. Language

‘You speak English, don’t you?’

‘How do you say “I love you” in African/South African/Zulu/Swahili/Yoruba?’  

Answer: ‘There are 6 909 living languages in the world, 2 110 (30.5%) of them African.’

Explain that African and South African are not languages. They are adjectives referring to a continent and to a country. Even though 11 official languages are recognised in our country, 28 languages are spoken.

Get your guests to look at these 19 awesome infographics about Africa, that will shed light on the complexity of our continent.

2. Culture

Nelson Mandela. Image courtesy of Domenico

Charlize Theron. Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore

‘South Africa has Indians? Like red Indians?’

‘You must be a missionary in Africa?’

‘I thought there were only black people in South Africa.’

A list of famous South Africans might come in handy here: Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Chris Barnard, Charlize Theron, Oliver Tambo, JM Coetzee, Helen Suzman, Miriam Makeba, Nadine Gordimer, Steve Biko, Francois Pienaar, Marlene Dumas, Gerard Sekoto, Esther Mahlangu, etc.

Then go on to explain that South Africa’s diversity is a result of different cultures and people interacting and migrating, colonial expansion and immigration.

Visitors might find it intriguing that there have been descendants of southern Africa’s first people, the San, in our country for centuries.

Tell them of the beautiful cave paintings, art, and artists, amazing sporting heroes, musicians and dancers who have developed in our country. Kitty Phetla, for instance, one of the 21 South African Icons who have been honoured for stories of courage, heart and determination. Just show them all the seasons of this remarkable project.

Best get them to visit the Cradle of Humankind and the Apartheid Museum, too.

3. Distance

‘Oh, you’re from Africa. We have friends in Tanzania (insert name). Do you know them?’

Answer: ‘According to the Guardian African Network, there are about 1.13-billion people on the continent. Unfortunately, I don’t know most of them.’

‘Could we travel to Lesotho tomorrow morning and be back for lunch?’

Here it would be helpful to then direct them to the AA distance calculator, and remind them that there are speed limits on all our roads.

Set their minds at ease about our transport system. We have roads that are tarred and tolled, but also dirt roads and plenty of rugged, off-road trails for 4x4 expeditions.

Explain about our public transport, minibus taxis, buses and trains. Tell them about ReaVaya and the Gautrain in Gauteng, and MyCiti in Cape Town.

The Gautrain. Image courtesy of Nithin bolar k


‘Are there lions in the street?’

Refrain from saying: ‘No. The lions are scared of the elephants we ride to work.’

Just send them to any of our national parks or to their websites. 

Or to the zoo


‘South Africa is dangerous.’

Two possible answers:

‘Look, most South Africans are friendly, peace-loving people. Let’s talk about “the Ubuntu girl”, Sonja Kruse, who set off on a countrywide journey with little more than a backpack, camera, phone and R100 to prove that the spirit of ubuntu (“human-ness”) in South Africa is alive.’

Then get them to buy her book or go to her Facebook page.

‘This is true. But all the world is dangerous. Be careful wherever you are.’

If all else fails, just smile and wave.