Public transport in South Africa
Many tourists from overseas are accustomed to using public transport back home. So it's only natural that upon arriving in South Africa for a holiday, they're curious about the various public transport options available around the country and in the major cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
The problem is, it’s not extremely visible when tourists touch down in South Africa. Whereas in other destinations, airport arrival terminals are full of public transport information and ticketing machines, making it easy and straightforward to jump on a bus, tram or train into the city centre and to transfer between cities. And if things become unclear or signboards appear in a foreign language, they can simply plug an address into Google Maps, selecting the public transport option and follow seamless directions to their end-point.
In South Africa, tourists wishing to explore public transport options may not have the same ease as in other destinations. They must do a bit more research, planning routes carefully beforehand.
More than this, the biggest barrier lies in concerns over public transport safety and reliability. Confounding the issue is the fact that even amongst locals, you’re bound to get a real spread of advice, ranging from, ‘I would never take public transport’ to ‘I use it every day!’
As is so often the case, the truth is somewhere in between – and while there are several options for getting around, it is important to know what to expect and always remain vigilant, staying aware of your surroundings and keeping your belongings close.
Public transport in Cape Town
In Cape Town, the MyCiTi bus system is a convenient option for getting around the city centre and the Atlantic Seaboard. Launched in 2010 during the lead up to FIFA World Cup, the service now includes 51 routes with well-marked stops and stations – some of which portray inspiring local artwork.
Passengers must possess a myconnect card loaded with money. These are available at station kiosks. Cards cannot be issued or reloaded on the buses, so be sure to arrange this in advance. Fares vary with distances and time of day, but at less than R30 to travel 30km during peak hours, it’s a very affordable option for exploring Cape Town.
For information on routes and schedules, MyCiTi has an easy-to-use mobile app and is integrated into Google Maps. Its website explains everything you need to know about using the service and tips on exploring Cape Town using MyCiti, including the tourist attractions, heritage sites, and even hidden gems.
During peak hours, the frequency of buses ranges from 3 to 20 minutes. Its service between Cape Town International Airport and the Civic Centre runs every 20 minutes.
Public transport in Johannesburg
Also opened in 2010, the Gautrain is a reliable 80km commuter rail system that connects Johannesburg, Pretoria, and O.R. Tambo International Airport.
Gautrain’s two commuter lines – North/South and East/West – cut travel time down significantly. But it’s likely only the airport service between Sandton and O.R. Tambo in which tourists may be interested.
The airport service runs every 10 to 20 minutes depending on whether or not its peak hours. It’s a speedy 14-minute journey, but at a flat rate of R165, groups of travellers may find it more economical to take a taxi or Uber to the airport.
Passengers must travel with a Gautrain card, purchased for R17 at a self-help ticket vending machine or at a station ticket office. More information is available on the Gautrain website.
Alternatives to public transport
Private transfers, arranged through your travel agent or accommodation, are a good alternative to public transport in South Africa’s cities.
Able to accommodate a range of group sizes, private transfers are especially convenient for day excursions, e.g. exploring the Cradle of Humankind or the Cape’s premier wine regions – these highlights and more are just a quick transfer from the city centres of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Uber is also extremely accessible in urban areas. As is always advisable with Uber, be sure to check the licence plate number to ensure that it corresponds with your app before you get in.
For a transport-tourism combo, look into one of the City Sightseeing hop-on-hop-off buses that operate in Cape Town and Johannesburg. These tours will take you around to all the top attractions, allowing you the flexibility to curate your day as you see fit. There are various packages to choose – from a few hours to a multi-day. And in Cape Town, you can add in walking tours and canal or harbour cruises. All you need to worry about is remembering to apply the suncream if you choose to sit on the open top-deck.
If you wish to explore on your own two feet, find out from your accommodation or a local travel professional where it is safe and recommended to do so. Cape Town, for instance, has neighbourhoods where you'll see a lot of pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, and little shops to browse.
Jo’burg, on the other hand, has fewer designated areas around which to walk, although precincts such as Melrose Arch, Sandton and Maboneng do exist. As always – stay alert, keep your head up, belongings secure, and avoid walking anywhere at night.
Travelling between cities in South Africa
Travelling between cities in South African can be more difficult without an organised tour group or private car hire – both great experiences in their own right. But if you’re looking for something different, you can try a tourist train, intercity bus or backpacker shuttle.
You’re better off splurging for a luxury train like the Blue Train or Rovos Rail than tempting the Shosholoza Meyl – a tourist train with mixed reviews but a reputation for delays and security issues.
The Blue Train – a self-proclaimed window to the soul of Africa – is truly a 5-star experience in locomotion. During its 31-hour service between Cape Town and Pretoria, passengers are treated to the good life with around-the-clock butler service, fine dining and elegant quarters. A few times a year, often during the winter months, it carries on to Limpopo Province and Kruger National Park with very special ‘rail safari’ combination packages available.
Rovos Rail provides a similar slice of opulence. It operates on more routes, including Durban and Victoria Falls. Rovos transports passengers not only between destinations though, but also back to a bygone age of train-travel, with its restored, wood-panelling and period style coaches.
However, these train journeys, while unforgettable, will set you back R20 000 or more depending on your level of luxury. More affordable options to traverse South Africa are intercity buses or a backpacker shuttle.
Greyhound and Intercape buses operate widely across South Africa, offering safe, reliable and affordable service. Greyhound goes to all major South African cities, as well as into Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Intercape’s route network is even more vast both domestically and across the border, going as far as Northern Namibia and Malawi. Each company offers discounted tickets for children, students and pensioners; has 24-hour customer service; and thanks to the good road conditions in South Africa, gets you to your destination in reasonable time.
For a bit of fun and frivolity along the way, you could also try a backpacker shuttle like the Baz Bus. Operating in a similar fashion as the hop-on-hop-off buses, Baz Buz takes intrepid passengers from Cape Town, along the Garden Route and east coast to Durban, then up through the Drakensburg to Johannesburg. A one-way journey costs R6 900, but with no time limit, you’re free to take it easy and stretch your experience. There are activity and excursion packages along the way such as abseiling, surfing and safari – allowing you to pick and choose, stay in favoured destinations for as long as you wish, and design a truly bespoke holiday.
What to watch out for
Minibus taxis, often referred to simply as ‘taxis’, are hard to miss in South Africa. They follow set routes but without designated stops, picking up and dropping off people at irregular intervals. They also have the greatest penetration of any public transport option in the country.
But while minibus taxis a popular, and often the only, means of transport for many South Africans – they pose serious threats to passenger and road safety. They are notorious for driving recklessly, and local governments are faced with the major task of cracking down on drivers and vehicles operating without a permit or licence.
Tourists are strongly advised to avoid minibus taxis.
It is also important to watch out for unauthorised ‘normal’ taxis operating in Cape Town and other urban areas. They may target popular tourist areas in the hopes of picking up an unassuming passenger and grossly inflating the fare. But worse, in an unauthorised taxi, the risk of theft and other crime is much higher.
Fortunately, it is easy to spot these suspicious vehicles. They often lack signage (e.g. indicating a reputable taxi company) and meters. Some may have an unlit ‘Taxi’ sign mounted on the roof, merely serving as a decoy. Many are also unroadworthy.
As a general rule, only get into a taxi that you or someone you know has arranged by phoning a reputable taxi company or ordering an Uber. Do not ‘hail’ a taxi or grab one you see waiting on the road. And of course, if it doesn’t look safe or you get a bad feeling – it’s best to decline the ride and make a new plan.