Is it Safe to Travel South Africa? What You Need to Know

South Africa has its fair share of troubles. From petty theft to serious crime, our travel safety expert Phil Sylvester shares his safety tips.

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Rush hour and traffic jam with everyday life people on Von Wiellig Street Photo © iStock/ViewApart

If you're planning to travel to South Africa, you should take the threat of crime seriously and be alert at all times.

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, and people ending up injured or killed. South Africans hold protests frequently, and most remain peaceful.
  • 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 or 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 or tourists at the airport 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 let them examine your bag, and don't be afraid to ask for identification. However, if the fake police are armed, it's best to cooperate.

Finally, be on the lookout for the street beggars known as "strollers". These petty thieves can be anyone from children to junkies, and they will attempt to distract and then rob you while you're not paying attention. Not all beggars have bad intentions, but you should keep valuables well concealed and stay aware of your surroundings at all times.

ATM and Credit Card Theft

Credit card fraud is on the rise in South Africa. To keep from falling victim, never accept help from a stranger at an ATM, be discreet when entering your PIN, and avoid ATMs that look damaged or tampered with (as well as other ATMs nearby). If the ATM retains your card, contact your bank and block your card immediately.

To avoid theft, use ATMs at banks or secure public places, and be discreet when making withdrawls. Photo credit: iStock/RapidEye

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.

Johannesburg

Not all suburbs in Johannesburg are to be completely avoided, though caution should be taken at night, especially in the city center. 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.

Joubert Park, Hillbrow, and Berea are hot spots for criminal activity and best avoided. However, other areas of Johannesburg, such as Maboneng, Newtown, and Soweto, have undergone a revitalization, and crime has been noticeably reduced.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Photo credit: iStock/THEGIFT777

Cape Town

Cape Flats sees a large proportion of the crime in Cape Town, and gang violence has been on the rise. Salt River, Seapoint, Mowbray, and Observatory also tend to see more criminal activity than other areas. 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, stay to the more popular trails, and stick with a group.

Durban

Be cautious while traveling in the city center, or better yet, avoid it altogether. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing and muggings are still a problem along the beachfront, but have declined since the area's redevelopment. Stay street smart by remaining vigilant and sticking to well-lit areas at night. 

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

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 smart 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 first 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 high-speed Gautrain connects the northern suburbs with the city center as well as with Pretoria. The train itself has a good reputation for safety, but robberies and assaults have been known to happen around the station. 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 should experience South Africa without any incidents.

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2 Comments

  • 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 TravelScams.org 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: https://travelscams.org/africa/common-tourist-scams-south-africa/

    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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