South African safety guide

Venture out from the cities. (Photo AAP)
"Just take anything you hear from old white people living in gated compounds far from the city with a pinch of salt."

There's no escaping it: South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. And with the coming up, FIFA World Cup the fear of being mugged or stolen from may put many potential visitors off visiting.

But while it's advisable to take some precautions in South Africa, the dangers are rather overhyped. Employ common sense rather than paranoia and, like 99.99 percent of visitors, you're unlikely to run into any trouble at all.

So, if you're heading over to South Africa, this is the advice we've been given from South Africans on the ground.

Take local advice

The people who live in the cities will know which areas to avoid at night and which methods of transport are dodgy (notably the metro line between Johannesburg and Pretoria). Ask your taxi driver, guesthouse owner, the waiters and the barstaff and you'll soon form a decent picture.

Just take anything you hear from old white people living in gated compounds far from the city with a pinch of salt. They're generally the paranoid ones who'll tell you that you're bound to get stabbed as soon as you enter a vaguely urban area.

Consult your guidebook

Guidebook writers have already taken this local advice and written it down for you. Again, most guidebooks slightly overemphasise the "Dangers" sections — but this is because the readers want to know about it.

Stay suburban

With the exception of Cape Town, most of South Africa's city centres are rather edgy places at night. The best restaurants, bars and nightspots always tend to be in the suburbs anyway, while taxis are fairly cheap and tour operators will always pick up from the major areas.

This doesn't mean that you have to lock yourself away in dull white enclaves where everything is hidden away in giant shopping malls (such as Sandton and Rosebank in Johannesburg). Pick the right suburb (Morningside in Durban or Melville in Jo'burg for example) and you'll get a young, fun, multicultural feel.

Far better than a dead, slightly scary city centre experience.

Venture out from the cities

Most of South Africa's crime problems occur in the cities — just like they do in the rest of the world. But many of South Africa's highlights are outside of the cities. The cultural centres, the game reserves, the winelands and the Garden Route are all likely to feature amongst the highlights of your trip, so why not spend more time on them than hitting the cities?

If you're not sure, go on tour

There's little reason to go to most of the dodgier suburbs in South Africa's cities, though there are a few exceptions (such as Constitution Hill near Hillbrow, Johannesburg). These should only be visited during the day, and if you're still nervous, then book to go as part of a tour. The guides generally know which routes to take and there's safety in numbers.

This applies to many of the townships (Cape Flats in particular, which are popular attractions for many visitors). If you don't want the township zoo experience, book to stay at a guesthouse with a good reputation and good proximity to the major attractions in Soweto.

Again, the guesthouse owners can give good advice, while crime rates in Soweto are surprisingly low due to a fierce community pride and informal self-policing.

Take the usual precautions

If you were wandering through a dodgy area of your own hometown, would you do so with a bag of money around your waist, whipping the camera out at every opportunity, yabbering into your iPhone and draped in bling? Of course not. So don't do it in South Africa's iffier spots either. A little common sense goes a long way.

Similarly, you're not going to a fashion show, so it's probably not the best idea to swank through Hillbrow or the townships in your most expensive designer gear. You may as well paint a target on your forehead.

Stay sensible if driving

There aren't nearly as many carjackings as there used to be — the problem is greatly overplayed — but the general rule of thumb is that it's better to jump a red light if suspicious types are approaching. Otherwise, the usual common-sense things apply. Don't leave valuables in the car or in view, keep the windows up, keep doors locked and park in secure places where possible.

Try Baz Bus

For independent travellers who aren't driving, the Baz Bus is an excellent option. This hop-on hop-off service covers most of the key points in the country, and — more importantly — drops passengers off direct at hostels and guesthouses. It's a safer option than the public intercity buses, which usually drop off at central bus stations and have recently attracted attention for unroadworthy vehicles and drunken drivers.

Safe safaris

Some of the dangers in South Africa, of course, aren't related to crime at all. Being trampled by an elephant or eaten by a lion can put a serious dampener on a holiday.

Guided game drives are safer options than self-driven ventures into reserves (guides are armed, know what to do if confronted and are better at spotting creatures). But self-drive options are usually safe as long as you stick to the designated tracks, give the animals plenty of personal space and don't get out of the vehicle.

Got any useful tips for staying safe in South Africa? Enter your comments below.

And for all the latest from the 2010 FIFA World Cup, head to our hub on WWOS

User comments
Although the "old white" comment is getting a bit far, this article has sense. I´ve heard many things from South Africans (mainly white and asian immigrants) who had left the country due because of the safety, and told me many horrible stories.. the most memorable has to be the dead body on the road... I heard that if you see one, keep driving even if you drive over the body, don´t even play good samaritan because that could be you if you stop... And amazingly, some people don´t have common sense. so good on ya for writing about common sense. I don´t see anything irresponsible about writing that.
Come visit us at our brand new just opened exclusive Sandton Garden Stayover (B&B). You will not find a safer place in South Africa. We make sure that our Guests are safe and informed. Sandton is the ultimate Business hub of South Africa and has the finest shopping centres and places of interest. All the best Ulrich and Corinne
Surprising that such a biased and misleading article was even published. It was obviously done so with no concern for the safety of readers. Unfortunately, it seems Australia's media is still influenced by political correctness. Something Japan's media is obviously less concerned with. Several large Japanese broadcasters have decided not to send any female staff to report on the World Cup. Perhaps this has something to do with SA having the highest rate of rape in the world. A study by the NGO CIET carried out in Johannesburg showed one in three of the 4000 women questioned had been raped in the past year. In a study by the Medical Research Council in 2009 25% of South African men questioned admitted to having raped someone. If anything South Africa's danger level has been remarkably under-hyped in the lead up to the World Cup.
The crime goes where the money is. Violent crimes happen anywhere and at anytime, all that is needed is a target with something that they want. One of my friends were hijacked in a "good area" in the middle of the day, another was shot through the stomach in a parking area outside a big shopping centre, another was stabbed in a country town coming out of the supermarket, to name a few. The point is, DO listen to the local people, especially the paranoid ones like old white people, that know the area. I knew a few that were not paranoid enough and died in the process. I would recommend spending some time in a game reserve, they are the safest areas in the country and it will be the experience of a lifetime. I have lived in SA for 39 years and I can assure you that David has no idea what he is talking about...
I am an Australian who travels 3 to 4 times a year to RSA for business. This article is the most irresponsible, idiotic and totally false that I have had the great misfortune to have ever read. I have 2 children aged 11 and 9 and I would never, repeat never take them to South Africa. Having been robbed at Joburg Airport within 5 minutes of arriving I know first hand the level of crime and the total indifference the police have. Just pick up any newspaper in any city in South Africa and wade through the first 20 pages or so in relation to the murders and crime that occurred in the last 24 hours. I have friends in the Police force here in Australia who are shocked with the articles.
I think everyone is entitled to their opinions, however it is an insult to have comments written about my fellow SA's, namely the "old white people". That was written with a tone of racism. You know nothing of what these old white people have endured. Besides it is not only old white people who live in gated compounds. It is mostly families with young children. The reason they live in gated compounds is because they get raped, murdered and stolen from. And before you jump to conclusions, I am not a racist. My family raised 2 black boys who are my brothers. I suggest you stick to writing about Europe - a much 'safer' destination - maybe then you will write positively instead of negatively and irresponsibly. As for your comment regarding Sun City, "the ludicrously OTT fantasy Africa theme hotel", shame have you seen Australia's make do African zoo? Now that is a joke!!!!!
Read the bit about carjacking again you naive travellers. Between the lines. When someone steals your infant baby out of the back of your car and sells it to cure AIDs, then go figure how bad it really is in Kings Cross and Perth. What nation makes it legal to accellerate through a red light....OMG!
What an idiotic racist article! You'll be responsible for the tourists who get murdered and raped in that country. I lost multiple family members there and you can not compare the crime rate there with ANY city in Australia. Murder rate here is 1 per 100,000 people, S.A. is 55 per 100,000 people. How can you compare that?! Be paranoid, because that is the ONLY way you'll survive there. Good luck to the suckers who go there....David Whitley, do your homework properly next time you write an article. You obviously just spoke to some ANC government official to write your article. Very poor journalism indead.
It would be interesting to know if Mr Whitley has personally spent any time in South Africa. I am not talking about the carefully orchestrated 'tours' and cosy sojourns in the various accommodation facilities that the beautiful country has to offer. Majority of South Africans do not live in 'gated compounds far from the city', rather they live ordinary lives in ordinary suburbs. Any snap survey of such citizens would reveal the extent of the crime in South Africa and the confidence the people have in their government, police and justice system seems to fall short of the picture painted by the jubilant faces of the crowds celebrating the Soccer World Cup. Don't be naive, go and enjoy all that beautiful South Africa can show you but do so with knowing that not everyone will be extending their hand in friendly welcome. Be smart and you'll be safe. Knowledge is power. Eyes and ears open people!
Don't be fooled by what is in this article. The flippant manner in which the crime situation in reported sends shivers down my spine as well, I am sure, the hundreds of thousands of ex- South Africans both white, brown and black skinned who have left the country to find a safer lifestyle. Yes, go, enjoy but do not at ANY time, let your guard down. When we returned for a family wedding and took our 2 South African born but Australian raised adult children with us, we told them to act as though they were living in a horror movie and that there would be a murderer stalking them all the time- if you go, it will stand you in good stread. Good Luck!