Is South Africa safe for tourists? Here's everything you need to know
One of the most common questions we're asked is "how safe is South Africa for tourists?" From an overview of South Africa's history, to what safety issues to look out for and how to travel safely as a tourist here, this post answers that question.
20 years ago, Mark visited South Africa for the first time on a family holiday.
Despite all the wonderful things they saw; witnessing an elephant for the first time in Kruger National Park, standing on top of Table Mountain and gazing out over the stunning city of Cape Town, hiking along the Garden Route, there is one memory that stands out above all else; seeing the horrible disparity of wealth throughout the country, where townships exist less than 5kms from million-dollar homes.
It soon became pretty obvious to him that this country wasn’t the same as home in Australia. South Africa was a place where precautions were needed to stay safe; the gated communities and ultra-secure homes in which they were staying were testament to that. Wealthy homes were fitted with surveillance systems, fences laced with barbed wire - some that hummed with electricity. And in the shanty towns where there was no running water, tumble-down shacks made of iron sheeting and scrap material leant on each other for support. The lines between the 'have' and 'have nots', 'safe' and 'unsafe' felt pretty clear.
When we first told people we planned to visit Mark's family and spend quite a bit of time in South Africa on our travels in 2016, the responses ranged from mild concern to deep horror. Stories were recounted to us; friends of friends who'd been mugged, so-and-so's family member who'd been carjacked. It's "crime-riddled!" they'd exclaimed, "you'll get mugged... or worse!".
Yet travel to South Africa we did, spending 6 weeks living in the ultra hipster neighbourhood of Woodstock, Cape Town. We lapped up its wild natural beauty, swam in its sparkling bays, tried to understand its complex and colourful cultural fabric, wandered through expensive Camps Bay, the historic Bo Kaap area and the township of Imizamo Yethu. And we survived, as we expected, without a single incident that made us question our safety or decision.
That's not to say that everything in 'the rainbow nation' is rosy now, because it simply isn't. The disparity of wealth is still obvious - townships still exist, gated communities too. But much like Mark's trip 20 years ago, we came away with nothing but positive experiences in the country. In fact, we very nearly cancelled the rest of our travel plans to live there for the summer!
But how safe is South Africa for travellers, really?
IS SOUTH AFRICA safe FOR TOURISTS?
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: apartheid + Struggle
To talk about present day South Africa and it's struggles without looking back to its not-so-distant chequered past is simply impossible.
By now, you're probably aware of South Africa's apartheid era. But are you aware of how much this era of separation and racial divide shaped South Africa, and still impacts the country, 25 years later?
Though South Africa's people had been segregated along racial lines for many, many years prior, in 1948 the division was made official by the formal introduction of Apartheid. Citizens were split into four main racial groups - white, black, coloured, asian (note that in South Africa, 'black' or 'coloured' is the term widely used by these groups, and neither is considered racist) - and kept separate by law.
Apartheid stems from 'apart-hood', the act of being separated. And in these years of separation, the simplest definition was: whites benefit, non-whites do not. Moreso, non-whites were denied basic rights, denied the ability to vote, own land, enter certain areas, were forced to carry papers, removed from their houses and shifted to townships, and mixed marriage was outlawed entirely.
It was in this climate that a young Nelson Mandela created the youth league of the African National Congress (ANC), transforming the ANC into a nationwide grassroots movement. His activism sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1964 for sabotage and fomenting revolution, and he spent the better part of the next 18 years in the infamous Robben Island prison. But gradually, things started to shift. There were protests, including the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which caused 150+ student deaths, and sparked nationwide demonstrations, strikes, arrests and riots.
In late 1989, FW de Klerk gained power and announced a repeal of all discriminatory laws. He legalised outlawed political parties like the ANC, PAC and Communist Party. Mandela was released from prison and in 1991 he was elected president of the ANC. He continued to negotiate the abolishment of apartheid (which he has commenced in secret while in prison) and the end to minority rule. Eventually, Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with FW de Klerk and in 1994 was voted the country’s first democratically elected leader, “this is the time to heal the old wounds and build a new South Africa”, he said.
Although black South Africans were granted equal rights, the economic inequality which stemmed from decades of discrimination remained. During the apartheid years, separation went beyond money and legalities; mountains, along with the rivers, parklands, and roads that formed natural boundaries that divided a people and a nation into lines of us and them, desirable and untouchable, investment and neglect. It's a long, slow process to overcome these deep social and geographic divides, and heal the deep wounds. In 2012, South Africa’s first census in over ten years found that the average black family still only earned about one sixth of what an average white family earned.
Deep poverty, unemployment and inequality are still rife in the country, and it’s generally the back majority who continue to suffer. Gang warfare is also a huge problem within townships, leading to a huge homicide rate and rape culture.
travel safety in south africa: the vital statistics
Whichever source of information you listen to, whether its a concerned relative, a guidebook, or website; it indicates South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world.
Indeed, their homicide rate sits at 30 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, which ranks extremely high in comparison to Australia (1). But it's actually far less than Honduras (85), Baltimore (54) and New Orleans (41), and marginally more than Brazil (24).
This all paints a pretty grim picture of the country, but what you really have to understand as a traveller here is that 80% of all homicides happen within a specific social context, mostly between people who know each other in certain neighbourhoods. Often, this is gang violence that occurs in townships. For the most part, this violence doesn't spill into other areas, and when it does it tends to still occur between members who know each other - not random attacks on strangers.
For those who are tourists, the picture is actually far rosier. According to the UK Government travel advisory, the risk of violent crime in South Africa is generally low. It's wise to avoid entering townships or known neighbourhoods of trouble, unless you're accompanied by a guide who knows the area well. Like anywhere in the world, it's petty crime, credit card fraud, muggings and theft that you really need to look out for.
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VISITING AFRICA?: A TRAVELLER'S GUIDE TO LANGUAGES IN SOUTHERN AFRICA
how to stay safe in south africa
As a tourist in South Africa, it’s unlikely you’ll see or be the victim of crime. Indeed, we spent five weeks there in 2016 and never felt unsafe (although, annoyingly, we did have our credit card skimmed at a border town in our last few days in the country).
There are a few important things you need to look out for if you want to stay safe in South Africa:
AVOID PETTY THEFT
Although this is quite broad, petty theft is your main concern in South Africa. Bags may get snatched from the back of chairs, leaving your things unattended is generally unwise, and pickpockets operate in all major cities and tourist attractions. Like anywhere in the world, tourists are seen as easy prey so always be alert and take all the normal precautions you would in any major city. Keep valuables out of sight!
CREDIT CARD SKIMMING
Although this is a global problem, it is rife in South Africa. Credit card skimming usually takes place when a fraudster captures card data on devices similar to those used for legitimate point-of-sale or ATM transactions. These devices can fit nicely over an ATM card slot and some even have cameras to record your PIN code. Never let your card out of your sight and when entering your PIN, always cover the PIN pad.
NEVER LEAVE VALUABLES IN YOUR CAR
It was the first rule we were taught in South Africa: never leave ANYTHING valuable in a car. Windows are frequently smashed on cars to get to the valuables left behind on seats or the floor. In fact, it was suggested we don’t leave anything visible at all, just to play safe. Car break-ins are very common, so if you’re hiring a car, always take your stuff with you.
In most city streets, you'll find 'car guards', who will protect the safety of your car for a tip when you return to it. This doesn't grant you immunity from car theft or robbery, but can be a buffer - just make sure you only agree to have people wearing official 'bib' watch your car.
STAY CLEAR OF TOWNSHIPS
Townships are home for many South Africans, and as such they are treated that way. However, as we mentioned before, gang warfare and other social problems are rife within these areas, with upwards of 80% of crime occurring in townships. Quite simply, unless you’re on a guided tour (like the one we took through Imizamo Yethu), you shouldn’t be visiting these areas. Period.
DON'T HIKE ALONE
Always, always hike with another person, or better: a group. Take as few valuables as possible, but do carry your phone for any emergencies. If you're hiking around Cape Town, the weather can often change very rapidly - so make sure you have food, water, and some warm clothes too.
DON'T WALK AROUND AT NIGHT
Walking around after dark in South Africa is not a good idea as it provides a thief with an easy target. Just don’t do it. Uber is extremely cheap in South Africa so use it to get around. If you have to walk at night, place your belongings out of sight and be alert.
Always drive with your doors locked and window up in the city, and ignore people who approach your car at red lights or stop signs.
Distances in South Africa can be vast. Always fill your petrol tank when driving long distances and make sure your car's running smoothly, to avoid being stranded on isolated highways.
Don't stop for hitchhikers, or anyone else looking for attention on the open roads or motorways, but instead keep driving and call the police to report it (if it's warranted). Unfortunately criminal gangs have been known to set up 'roadblocks' to lure unsuspecting motorists in, so only stop at official police-manned blocks.
Carjackings are a problem around the northern parts of South Africa, including Johannesburg and Pretoria. Although it's unlikely you'll experience one as a tourist, always keep a safe distance between the cars around you, never stop for anyone unless you are sure it is safe, and if you are a victim agree to all demands.
The key to safety as a traveller in South Africa, is to be alert. Always be aware of your surroundings, and if you get that prickly feeling that something just 'isn't right'; listen to it, and move yourself or your belongings to a safer place. Don't stress about offending someone else by doing so - your safety is #1 priority.
SO, HOW SAFE IS SOUTH AFRICA FOR TOURISTS really?
In our experience, and the experiences of so many others we’ve met, South Africa is no more or less dangerous than most popular tourist destinations around the world.
At no time during our stay did we feel unsafe, although we did take a lot of precautions and we knew in advance what to look out for. We’d even go as far as saying it has the friendliest, most helpful people of anywhere we’ve ever visited.
South Africa is still a wealthy, prosperous country with brilliant tourism infrastructure and a highly functioning tourism industry. But what tourists need to remember is that poverty and inequality is still rife; and often these two factors breed desperation.
That’s not to say that the country IS safe, though. Many social issues still plague South Africa, and the economic stability of the country is volatile, leading to increased unemployment and further inequality. Petty crime like theft is a huge issue there and travellers must be aware of that, and take necessary precautions. Do that, and you’ll love it just as much as us, which is a lot.
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Have you visited South Africa? Did you find South Africa safe for tourists? Let us know in the comments, and if you've got any helpful hints, drop them below.