There is one question that people always ask me before travelling to South Africa:
“Is it safe to travel to South Africa?”
Over the years South Africa has gained a reputation of being a dangerous country with a high rate of violence and crime. Unfortunately the stigma of Apartheid still exists as sad reminder of a murky past. In addition a high rate of unemployment and poverty enhances crime as well.
However it can also be said that it is definitely not the most unsafe destination to travel to. Yes, crime and violence takes place, but as a tourist you will unlikely experience such. Most of the criminality occurs in the local townships and unfortunately mostly local residents will be a victim of crime. Tourists are not specifically targetted. After having travelled in South Africa for 6 years on and off, I can say (touch wood) that I have hardly experienced crime first hand. I have heard the stories of local residents and sadly enough they are true. But at the same time, I have hardly heard these stories told by tourists.
That said, one should definitely take some precautions when travelling in South Africa in order to avoid problems, however these tips will surely count in many other tourist destinations as well.
Getting around in South Africa
- Avoid walking around at night except in more busy and tourist areas. Avoid at all times dark alleys or neighbourhoods. For example in Cape Town, Longstreet or the Waterfront area are perfectly fine to walk around, just avoid the side alleys which are hardly lit and with less or no people around.
- When moving from one area to another at night, call a taxi. In Cape Town you’ll find free phones in most accommodations which connects you directly to the Rikkis. It’s a door to door taxi service operating only in Cape Town, especially handy to use in the evening. When taking a taxi on the street, go to an official taxi stand.
- In Johannesburg, avoid by all means the downtown business district in the evening.
- In Durban, the same for Cape Town is valid, certain areas are fine to walk around (like the sea side), but just be careful in some other areas (like Point Road). The staff at your accommodation can give you specific advice where to go and what to avoid.
- Avoid public transport in Johannesburg. It might sound adventurous to travel like a local, but don’t. First of all, it’s complicated and second it’s dangerous.
- Intercity busses between the main cities are fine to use. Also Cape Town has a very good public transport system, called myCiTi.
- When using the famous Shosholoza train from Cape Town to Joburg or reverse, be aware of your belongings.
- When travelling solo or when you don’t want to rent a car, the BazBus is the best option to get around in South Africa. They work with various hop on hop off tickets and bring you directly to your accommodation without first having to go to the central bus station.
Driving in South Africa
- Don’t leave any valuables visible in your car, when driving or when your car is parked. Rather put your items in the trunk, where it cannot be seen.
- When driving around in cities keep your doors locked and the same for your windows. You can leave it down a bit to get some fresh air, but I would not drive around with the window completely open. It makes it so much easier for someone to try to snatch something from the car.
- When parking your car on the street or at a shopping mall most of the times you will see park guards around. They will keep an eye on your car. When you see the one responsible for your parking area, make eye contact. And when you leave, give them a small tip of a few rand. Call it job creation, but at least it keeps your car safe.
- Plan your trip, the distances in South Africa are long. Make sure you know where you go, although the road signs are pretty good and clear. But make sure you have a map with you or a GPS.
- Check your fuel consumption and plan your trip accordingly. There are lot’s of petrol stations around, but make sure that you don’t drive the fuel right to the end. You would not want to get stuck next to the road.
- Don’t pick up hitchhikers, you might feel good helping out someone. But rather not in South Africa, you never know. Don’t let your holiday be spoiled by this.
Money and valuables
- Even though plastic money is widely accepted in most tourist places, always have some cash money with you (you never know when you need it). Just make sure the money is well tucked away. Don’t put a lot of bank notes in your wallet which people might see when you pay somewhere.
- ATM’s: there are lot’s of them. You really find them almost at every street corner from various banks. Try to be with at least 2 persons when withdrawing money from the ATM, less chance to get mugged and better to protect what you are doing. Make sure there are people around, not somewhere lost and in the middle of nowhere. Also try to avoid very busy fuel stations in local villages. I have heard stories of scams there.
- ATM’s: Never ever accept any help from anyone. Therefor it is always better to use an ATM by a bank. If your card get’s stuck, go inside to ask for help while one person stays with the ATM. You cannot imagine how many people I have met that have let themselves be helped by a stranger when facing problems. Don’t!!!
- When walking around after checking in to your accommodation, leave your valuables locked up in the safe. For example when taking a stroll in Cape Town only take some money you might need and copies of your passport. It’s a hassle when your passport gets stolen, and that time you might as well spend enjoying this beautiful country.
- Don’t walk around with all your nice jewellery and valuables exposed. Rather keep it in your hotel room or leave it at home.
- Always keep some change in your pocket for when you would get involved with petty theft. Just hand it over and as you have given something they’ll go away. Never fight it, it’s not worth it.
- Just at all times be aware of your belongings, but this goes for every destination you will travel to. For example, when sitting on the beach in Durban, make sure 1 person stays behind with your personal stuff when taking a swim and keep your bags close to you. Don’t go for a nice swim in the water all together, you will end up going back to your hotel in swimwear.
- When walking around, make sure you keep an eye on your backpack. For example, carrying a backpack with a zipper on your back is asking to get robbed. Rather carry it on your chest.
After all, I can say that for a tourist to travel in South Africa it is not more unsafe than travelling in many other popular places around the world. I have spent quite some time in South Africa and (touch wood) never anything really happened. I have heard of people getting robbed in Cape Town, but mostly it was at night, they had a bit to drink and it was in a dark alley.
Definitely don’t let all the horror stories put you off and make you nervous for your trip to South Africa. It’s a beautiful country with plenty of nice things to see and do and lovely people to meet.
For more detailed information about travelling in South Africa, the Lonely Planet of South Africa is an interesting and useful guide book. A new version will be out in November 2015.
How was your experience travelling in South Africa?
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