As someone that has lived and traveled all throughout South Africa, this is the number one question I get from friends and family: Is South Africa safe? Is it as dangerous as they say it is in the media? If it isn’t, why is the crime rate so high? Will I be safe as a solo traveler in South Africa? While most people just needed some quick clarifications from me, others just couldn’t shake off their media driven opinions. The answer is not so white and black (no pun intended).
Context and History of South Africa
For many first time visitors to South Africa, often images of violent protests, police brutality, and systemic racism are what is conjured up. This is obviously Apartheid, a dark and shameful past that South Africans nowadays try and forget. That was also 20 years ago and things have changed drastically. There is still protests, racism, and the lot but like most societies nowadays, the protests are not violent and racism is not openly expressed like it was before. This isn’t saying there are no racial problems left in SA. Quite the contrary actually as the different races still largely keep to themselves.
South Africa Crime By the Numbers
High crime and murder rates has earned South Africa the reputation as being a dangerous destination. South Africa is a place of vast wealth and even more vast poverty. It has the worst income disparity in the world and in my opinion, the most visible. South Africa is a very first world in parts, and third world in others country. The contrast is incredibly polarizing that I sometimes had a hard time accepting it.
Because there are so many unprivileged people that haven’t been able to/given the opportunity to shake off the effects of Apartheid, and like anywhere else in the world, many resort to crime. Most of the time, this is petty burglary but others, it can involve home invasions, car jackings, or homocide. The truth of the matter is, if you’re walking down the streets of Cape Town or Sandton in Johannesburg, it’s just like any other NICE, first world city. The chances of something happening to you of course exists, but it’s not some society where you’re better off carrying a holster the entire time.
Most of the crime in SA happens within the townships, or the slums. As unfortunate as it is, these townships are the remnants of Apartheid and while most are considerably nicer than they were 20 years ago, they still do not represent modern day society at all.
According to the 2014 homicide study by the UN, South Africa had a 31 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants ratio. This is quite high, no doubt, but it still ranks lower than Detroit (49), St Louis (33), Newark (33), and Honduras (169). Some of you may say, well you just picked some of the least desirable and most dangerous places in America. Yes I did, but if a foreign friend of mine decided to visit America and decided to stay in Newark, I would simply say, stay in Manhattan instead. The SAME mentality can be applied to South Africa. It’s a damn big country after all with loads of different cities and just like any other country in the world, some parts are not so good, and some parts are totally fine.
Why SA is not as dangerous as they say
As you can see from the crime stats above, there is certainly crime in South Africa, but it is concentrated in certain parts of the country and specifically the townships. As someone that lived in South Africa, I won’t deny that crime doesn’t occur outside of the townships. Within days of arriving in the country, I had heard so many stories from colleagues about someone had guns pointed at them, cars jacked, houses robbed etc. that I was questioning my decision of moving to the country.
In short, after living in SA for almost two years, I never once experienced anything even close to resembling the experiences that had frightened me to begin with. Now I’m not trying to downplay any of those people’s experiences, but it’s not the wild wild west where people are challenging me to pistol duels like some people made it out to be. Everyone is so friendly here. Perhaps it is because I was a foreigner and they went out of their way to showcase their country to me. I lived here long enough to see the day to day life as well, and it’s every bit as good as I thought.
Now, there are still huge problems in South Africa like widespread unemployment, a corrupt government, racial tensions, and general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. But where is that NOT a problem these days? Even in good old America, the facts I just listed are the reason why Donald Trump has stormed through the country garnering scary amounts of support. There have been more protests these days because of the government mismanaging the country, which has led to major economic woes and the rand (SA’s currency) becoming more worthless by the day (good for tourists!).
So let’s keep it very clear that South Africa isn’t some civil war prone, guns blazing, anarchistic place. I think people focus TOO MUCH on that one headline the media presents and because it’s a developing nation in Africa, people automatically assume whatever the media says is true. The important thing to keep in mind is that as a tourist, you’ll likely never be exposed to the problems of the country unless you really want to be. As a tourist, your main intentions visiting South Africa is likely to go see some animals, and visit Cape Town/Garden Route. For those going on safari, you’re getting picked up from the airport and driven straight to Kruger National Park. The biggest threat to your safety here are rogue leopards, and baboons stealing your raiding your campsite.
There’s crime everywhere, SA is no different
There’s danger in ALL parts of the world, no matter how first world, safe, or familiar it seems. Just because South Africa is a third world country, and well, in Africa, does not make it a bastion of crime and violence. So while I’m not saying that you won’t experience any crime while in South Africa, I am trying to say do not let your unfounded, media-driven fears of South Africa put you off from a visit just because you think it is so much more dangerous than other places. If anything, the media should stop saying South Africa is dangerous and focus on which parts receive all of its crime. By that logic, it’s the same as me saying there’s 10x more gun deaths in America than other developed nations, so it’s not safe to visit America and you’re better off going to Europe.
South Africa, like every other country in the world, has pockets you probably should think twice about visiting. But as a tourist, visiting SA to do touristy things, are you really going out of your way to see those places? If you aren’t scared, then I highly recommend visits to the townships, as some of my most memorable moments were had there, but I understand it’s not everyone!
So to sum it up.
Is South Africa too dangerous to travel?
Is there danger to be had? Is South Africa safe?
Yes definitely, but it is much more concentrated in certain parts. Also, tell me a developing country that doesn’t have any dangerous areas?
Are there precautions I need to take?
Yes, you should be more vigilant and know where you’re going. There are many issues that the local people face and it seems like these problems will increase in the coming years as long as the ANC government stays in power. The Xenophobic attacks in 2015 were a good example of this as the high unemployment rate has caused so many South Africans to be displeased that they ended up blaming foreigners and attacked them. However, almost all these attacks were directed to Africans from other nations in the Townships. So unless you’re actively trying to participate in such an event, you won’t be caught in the crossfire.
Also use common sense.
Common Sense Prevails
For most, just using a bit of common sense is all you need to travel safe in South Africa. Perhaps it’s not as carefree as traveling through Southeast Asia or Europe, but it’s not like you’re traveling through Libya or Somalia.
Think twice about walking at night
Depending on where you are, walking at night is not the most advisable. In Cape Town, it’s completely fine as I had many drunks nights stumbling around the city trying to find a cab. However, there are certain parts that are seedy. If it feels a bit off, then it probably is.
Don’t flash the cash
Let’s be honest, this in no way only applies to traveling through South Africa. Any country where you’re flashing around too much cash means you’re more of a target.
Plan where you’re going
Because of how South Africa was designed back during Apartheid days, a tourist cannot just stumble into the townships. Townships were designed to be far out of the main cities that you really need to actually put the coordinates into your GPS, or tell the cab driver to drive the 30 minutes out to them. Nevertheless, a visitor should take steps to research and understand where they’re going.
Solo Female Travelers
South Africa is not the Middle East. Solo female travelers don’t need to do anything extra compared to their male counterparts except the usual precautions they would take traveling through any country.
Visiting South Africa
Now that you have read this and finally understand that South Africa is not as dangerous as it seems, there are SO many places to go in this country. Whether it is a safari in the Kruger National Park, a roadtrip along the Garden Route, diving in Sodwana Bay, hiking in the Drakensberg, or drinking wine in Stellenbosch, there’s so much to do.
- Garden Route Roadtrip
- Visiting Cape Town | Cape Town second time
- Safari in the Kruger
- Visiting the wine farms in the Cape
- Trip to Lesotho
I would love to hear opinions by any locals or travelers that have visited the Rainbow nation! Please leave a comment below