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
). 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.
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
, 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.
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.
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