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It's true, crime levels are high in South Africa. But, as a born-and-raised South African, I can tell you that the media doesn't always paint an accurate reflection of the safety situation that's relevant to travelers specifically. So, don't let the news or social media frighten you from visiting this unique destination.
If you keep these safety tips in mind, you will experience South Africa at its best.
A nationwide lockdown began in South Africa on 26 March 2020, based on a risk-based, five-level approach. It was considered one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Not only were people told to stay at home, but the government also shut down all non-essential businesses and banned cigarettes, alcohol and outdoor exercise.
Since 21 September 2020, the country has been on Alert level 1, and most normal activities have resumed, with precautions and health guidelines in place. And, while new cases are identified on a daily basis, those who have contracted COVID-19 in South Africa have had a 90% recovery rate.
South Africa partially opened its borders to international tourists on 1 October 2020. However, travelers arriving from these high-risk countries will not be permitted.
While visiting South Africa, be aware of the following:
Recent years have seen a steady increase in crime in South Africa, both violent and non-violent in nature. According to the UK Government travel advisory, the majority of South Africa’s violent crime statistics come from the townships – the poor, densely populated neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities.
Among the crimes to look out for during your stay:
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 troubled areas. The general rule of thumb is that crime increases when the sun goes down, particularly in the major cities.
Carjackings, however, can occur at any time of the day or night. When driving, always be aware of your surroundings and look out for any suspicious activity, especially at red traffic lights and highway off-ramps as this is where carjackings tend to happen.
If you’re driving late at night, slowly approach a red light, so by the time you reach the intersection, the light is green. Read our road safety tips here for more advice on driving 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 you only explore them as a part of an organized tour group. Additionally, day or night, always avoid isolated picnic areas or beaches.
If you're planning to visit Johannesburg, be aware of but not panicked by the high levels of crime in the city. Not all suburbs in Joburg are dangerous, though caution should be taken at night, when muggings are common, especially in the city center, so it's best not to walk anywhere.
Joubert Park, Hillbrow, and Berea are hot spots for criminal activity and are best avoided. However, other areas of Joburg, such as Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Maboneng and Newtown and have undergone a revitalization, and crime has reduced.
Cape Flats sees a large proportion of the crime in Cape Town, and gang violence has been on the rise. Salt River, Sea Point, Mowbray, and Observatory also tend to see more criminal activity than other areas.
Visitors are unlikely to visit Salt River or Mowbray, however, it is worth knowing these are not safe areas regardless. Watch out for scammers in the V&A Waterfront and pickpockets in the City Bowl. Sea Point’s promenade is popular among walkers and joggers and is generally a safe place to go – however you should avoid walking here at night.
Most tourists do not visit Observatory, however, you may be interested in going here if you are looking for alternative live music venues with a bohemian cultural vibe.
If you're out at night, stick to the more crowded, well-lit locations, and don't walk alone.
Table Mountain is a favorite destination for hikers and outdoor adventurers however there have been multiple attacks, including muggings, 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.
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, which first took place in 2010 for the FIFA World Cup, and again in 2019. Stay street smart by remaining vigilant and sticking to well-lit areas at night. Instead of Durban’s city center, stick to the beachfront area and visit the promenade, Golden Mile Beach, and apply usual safety measures.
As with many destinations around the world, public transport facilities are often the scene of unwelcome criminal activity.
Johannesburg and Cape Town airports have experienced frequent luggage theft. Never place items of value in your checked luggage. 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 wait outside the Johannesburg airport, then follow unsuspecting tourists to their accommodation to 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.
In Johannesburg, the high-speed Gautrain connects the northern suburbs with the city center and Pretoria. The train 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 a safe bus network that runs between Johannesburg's city center and outer suburbs, including Soweto.
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 well as 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 other people. Avoid traveling to Cape Flats.
When traveling by train, use common sense and always remain alert. Keep an eye out for general lurkers and suspicious characters at Central Station. Similarly, if you plan to do any shopping at local malls, be aware of your surroundings as armed robberies are on the rise in these locations.
Alternatively, the MiCiTi Cape Town Integrated Rapid Transit bus system is a safe and reliable mode of transport that operates between the airport, Blouberg, Century City, Cape Town Central, V&A Waterfront, the suburbs of the City Bowl and Atlantic Seaboard to Hout Bay.
South Africa is blessed with an abundance of beautiful mountains and hiking trails. It’s rare for hikers to experience any incidence of crime on the majority of hikes around the country, including multi-day trips. As mentioned above, there has been an increase in attacks and muggings on Table Mountain.
To stay safe take note of these hiking safety tips:
According to a 2019 study, South Africa is the 15th safest country for LGBTQ+ travelers, with Cape Town among the top gay travel destinations in the world.
Despite the progressive and liberal laws, homosexuality remains culturally unacceptable in some parts of South Africa. LGBTQ+ individuals living in Black communities in the townships are more likely to be victims of discrimination and homophonic attacks. Be aware if you travel outside city centers.
Ahead of your arrival to a particular city, check online forums where you can chat with members of the local LGBTQ+ community to get information about gay-friendly hotels, bars and tour agencies.
Always practice safe sex, as HIV is prevalent throughout South Africa.
While gender-based violence and femicide are a widespread problem in South Africa, it mostly takes place away from tourist destinations, in isolated areas and townships. However, solo women travelers might find themselves in vulnerable situations when they’re alone. If you use common sense and are vigilant you’ll have a fantastic time.
Here are my top safety tips:
Travelers to South Africa should experience the country’s diverse and vibrant nightlife. You must, however, take safety precautions when going out at night, as you would when visiting any foreign country.
Political demonstrations and strikes can occur anywhere in South Africa. While the majority of protests are peaceful, they can turn violent. Stay away from the areas of demonstrations and monitor local media for information and updates. If you suddenly come across a large gathering of protesters, exercise caution and follow the instructions of local authorities. Don’t attempt to cross protester roadblocks.
In September 2019, riots broke out in Johannesburg. Several people were killed, and the riots were allegedly xenophobic in nature, targeting foreign nationals from the rest of Africa. These types of events may happen again, so be extra careful if you are traveling to South Africa while riots are taking place. Here are a few tips on what to do if you are traveling in a country experiencing civil unrest.
Taking drugs in any country isn’t a smart idea, and it’s no different in South Africa. You’re not only placing yourself at risk with the law, but also your safety. Drug offenses carry severe penalties, including lengthy jail terms in grim conditions.
It’s illegal in South Africa to smoke dagga or zol (local names for marijuana) in public places, in a car or in the presence of a child. However, a new cannabis law allows for the use of the drug in private residences only. Bear in mind that buying and selling marijuana remains illegal.
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, act wisely and remain alert for petty thievery, your experience will far outweigh any fears you may face as a traveler to the country.
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