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?" 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 of stunning city of Cape Town, hiking along the Garden Route, there is one memory that stands out; 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, and 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.
Visiting again in 2016, on the surface, it seems not much has changed. The disparity of wealth is still obvious - townships still exist, gated communities too. But much like 20 years ago, we came away with nothing but positive experiences in the country.
So, how safe is South Africa really?
IS SOUTH AFRICA safe FOR TOURISTS?
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Heard of Nelson Mandela? He and his compatriots spent their life fighting against South Africa’s apartheid regime of minority rule. So what was apartheid, and how has it shaped South Africa today?
From 1948, people in South Africa were divided into four main racial groups ('black', 'white', 'coloured', and 'asian') and kept apart by law. The rules benefited the whites and most non-white (predominantly blacks) were denied basic rights. During this era, non-whites were not allowed to vote, own land, enter certain areas, were forced to carry papers/passes and mixed marriage was outlawed.
During this period, a young man by the name of Nelson Mandela created the youth league of the African National Congress (ANC), which turned the ANC into a nationwide grassroots movement. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for sabotage and fomenting revolution. He spent the better part of the next 18 years in the infamous Robben Island prison.
Gradually, things started to change. Many blacks started protesting, one of which included the the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The root cause of the Soweto Uprising stemmed from the use of Afrikaans (the language of the oppressor) as the main language in schools. 20,000 students protested and were met with fierce police brutality, leading to over 150+ deaths. It also sparked nationwide demonstrations, strikes, arrests and riots.
From this moment, young blacks committed themselves to a struggle against apartheid.In late 1989, FW de Klerk gained power and announced a repeal of all discriminatory laws; he also legalised political parties the ANC, PAC and Communist Party. Next, 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.
In 1993, he 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. In 2012, South Africa’s first census in over ten years found that the average black family 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.
THE VITAL STATISTICS
Whichever source of information you read, whether 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. While this is high in comparison to Australia (1), it’s 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, however it’s important to apply context - 80% of all homicides happen within a specific social context, mostly between people who know each other in certain neighbourhoods (often, this means townships). So, in other words, as a tourist, keeping clear of such neighbourhoods is a good idea.
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. Like anywhere in the world, it's petty crime, credit card fraud, muggings and theft you need to look out for.
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THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR AS A TOURIST 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 we did have our credit card skimmed.
There are a few important things you need to look out for if you want to stay safe in South Africa:
Although this is quite broad, petty theft is your main concern in South Africa. Pickpockets operate in all major cities and tourist attractions, and tourists are seen as easy prey. Don’t be silly and take all the normal precautions you would in any major city.
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.
Leaving valuables in your car
The first rule we ever learned in South Africa was to not leave ANY valuables in a car. In fact, it was suggested we don’t leave anything, just to play safe. Car break-ins are very common, so if you’re hiring a car, always take your stuff with you.
Staying clear of Townships
Townships are home for many South Africans, and as such they are treated that way. However, 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, you shouldn’t be visiting these areas. Period.
Walking 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.
Carjackings are a problem around the northern parts of South Africa, including Johannesburg and Pretoria. Although unlikely 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.
SO, HOW SAFE IS SOUTH AFRICA FOR TOURISTS?
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 five-week 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.
What tourists also need to remember is that, despite the huge inequality that exists, it's still a wealthy, prosperous country with brilliant tourism infrastructure and a highly functioning tourism industry.
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.
If you're concerned about travelling through South Africa independently,
When travelling to South Africa, travel insurance is super important. In the past, we've used World Nomads. We find they're the best when it comes to providing a good range and level of cover at affordable rates.
Have you visited? Did you find South Africa safe for tourists?
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