Crime in South Africa: A Traveler's Survival Guide

From breathtaking scenery and incredible wildlife to rich, deep-seated culture and exhilarating nightlife, there's so much to do and see in South Africa, it's almost impossible to fit it all in.

If you're planning a journey to this incredible country, however, you should know that there's a serious threat of crime to watch out for.

Types of Crime in South Africa

Recent years have seen a steady increase in serious crime in South Africa, both violent and non-violent in nature. Here are some of the more common types of crime to look out for during your stay. Among the more violent crimes:

  • Muggings and armed robbery are sadly not uncommon. Theft is typically the motive, however rape also occurs from time to time so female tourists should be particularly cautious.
  • Protests can turn violent resulting in clashes with the local police, people ending up injured and killed. South Africans hold protests frequently with most staying non violent.
  • Food and drink spiking has been reported, with victims often assaulted and robbed following the incident.
  • There have also been some reports of foreigners being carjacked and murdered.

Non-violent crimes common to the area include minor theft, fraud and scams.

Scams Targeting Tourists

One popular scam involves criminals posing as "tourist police" who rob visitors and extort money from them. They'll often stop tourist buses under the guise of checking identification and searching luggage. There is no such division of police as "tourist police" in South Africa, so don't fall for it.

Finally, be on the lookout for street urchins known as "strollers". They can be anyone from children to junkies, and they will rob you blind if you aren't paying attention. Keep valuables well concealed and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.

Credit card and ATM fraud is also common so be careful when using your credit or debit card in busy locations. Photo credit: iStock

Crime Hot Spots in South Africa

Perhaps more important than knowing the type of crimes committed in South Africa, is knowing the areas where they're more likely to occur – that way you can steer clear of them. The general rule of thumb is that crime increases when the sun goes down, particularly in the major cities.

Townships in South Africa

Townships in general experience a higher crime rate than other areas, and while they're certainly not off-limits, it's recommended that they only be explored as a part of an organized tour group. Additionally, day or night, always avoid picnic areas or beaches that appear to be isolated.


Not all suburbs in Johannesburg are to be completely avoided, though caution should be taken at night, especially in the city centre. Muggings are a common occurance at night so it's best not to be wandering the streets or walk from one place to another across town.

Hillbrow and Berea are hot spots for criminal activity and best avoided, however some areas of Johannesburg have undergone a revitalisation and crime has been noticeably reduced.

During the day there are many places you can explore to experience the life and culture of South Africa's largest city:

  • Newtown: Trendy, cosmopolitan and culturally diverse, Newtown houses many galleries, museums, bars, cafes and more. Throughout the year, the suburb celebrates its cultural diversity with festivals such as Gay Pride, Diwali, Chinese New Year and the International Jazz Festival.

  • Maboneng Precinct: The creative heart of the city, attracting musos, artists and filmmakers. A redeveloped hub where business, culture and lifestyle are interwoven with architecture, art and nature.

  • Soweto (just outside Johannesburg): Famous for its struggle against Apartheid, it is reinventing itself as a vibrant and tourist friendly city. Stick to the touristy Vilakazi Street (once home to 2 Nobel Prize winners: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late former president Nelson Mandela) or hire a local guide to show you around the historical sites.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Photo credit: iStock

Cape Town

Another high-risk area during the evening hours. The areas of Greenpoint, Salt River, Seapoint, Mowbray, Observatory, and the Cape Flats also tend to see more criminal activity than others. If you're out at night, stick to the more crowded, well-lit locations, and don't walk around by yourself.

Table Mountain is a favorite destination for hikers and outdoor adventurers. What many people don't realize, however, is that there have been multiple attacks on the trails. You're advised to avoid (or at least be extra vigilant in) the more deserted areas of the park, particularly during early morning hours and shortly before the park closes. Apply the safety in numbers theory and stick with a group.


Be cautious while traveling in the city center, or better yet, avoid it altogether. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing and muggings were once a major problem along the beachfront, but have declined since the area's redevelopment. There are plenty of things to see and do there but be street smart by remaining vigilant and sticking to well lit areas at night. 

Ice cream vendor on the Durban Promenade. Photo credit: iStock

Public Transport Safety in South Africa

As with many destinations, public transport facilities are often the scene of unwelcome criminal activity.

Johannesburg and Cape Town airports have experienced frequent luggage theft and pilferage. Of course, being a seasoned traveler, you'd never place items of value in your checked luggage, right? If you have to, consider using a service that will wrap your baggage in plastic to keep it from being tampered with.

Criminals have also been known to lay in wait outside the Johannesburg airport, then follow unsuspecting tourists to their rental home or hotel and rob them. Pay close attention to your surroundings at all times, and whatever you do, don't accept a ride from the airport to wherever you are staying, unless it's from a reputable company.

Local commuter rails and metro trains have also been the locations of several assaults and robberies. Trains that travel between Johannesburg and Pretoria are especially risky, as are the commuter trains in Cape Town.

If you plan to take the train in Cape Town, always travel in 1st Class, during the day and in a cabin with people. Avoid traveling to Cape Flats.

When traveling by train, use common sense and always remain alert. Similarly, if you plan to do any shopping at local malls, be aware of your surroundings as armed robberies are on the rise in those types of places.

The 2008 FIFA World Cup left behind a modern train and bus system in Johannesburg. The Gautrain connects the northern suburbs with the city centre as well as with Pretoria. The Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit system is another safe bus network that currently runs between Johannesburg's city center and surrounds, including Soweto.

After reading this, you may question whether it's worth it to travel to South Africa. Rest assured there are plenty of safe areas to visit with enough beauty, friendly people and adventure to go around. As long as you avoid unsavory areas, use common sense, and exercise appropriate travel safety measures, you'll experience South Africa without any incidents.

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  • Craig Nowitzki said

    I was a victim of the Police tourist scam last year during the World Cup soccer, in Gauteng, Joburg. Unfortunately, there are still tons of them, and some of them you really can't avoid. However, I find helpful that Apple just release an iPhone app a few days ago, called Scam Detector, which exposes most popular 350 scams from all over the world. It is worth checking it out, if you have an iPhone. Kind cool actually

  • David from said

    Great article, thanks for the tips! Indeed, South Africa has some of the most stunning landscapes on earth and is the perfect spot for an adventure! Unfortunately, the country is also tainted by violent crime and scams:

    Do be wary of the pickpocketing, robberies, muggings, fake tour guides, beach thefts, drink spiking, currency switcheroo, tourist prices, car pull over scam, fake airport taxi drivers, luggage theft, bogus airport employees, carjacking, car crash scams, smash and grab, ATM scams, fake police, corrupt police and many more!

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