Is South Africa Safe To Travel?

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), and there’s a big difference between cities like Johannesburg vs Cape Town vs the Garden Route

 

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.

Apartheid museum south africa

Apartheid Museum

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.

Cape Town waterfront

Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront area.

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.

Meanwhile, the township of Alexandra 20 minutes next door . . .

As nice as South Africa is, the stark, and sometimes forgotten reality is that most people still live like this.

 

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.

parkhurst johannesburg

Casual weekend lunch out in Parkhurst, Johannesburg

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 twhhey 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.

 

There are problems in South Africa too

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!).

Soweto Orlando Towers

Hanging out for some day drinks in Soweto at the Orlando Towers.

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.

 

But you’re a tourist, not a local

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.

Maidens cove Cape Town

Beautiful beach views from Maidens Cove overlooking Camps Bay, also one of the most expensive neighborhoods in South Africa

 

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!

Orlando Towers Soweto

Visiting the Orlando Towers in Soweto is ALWAYS a good time with live music, drinks, good company and a bungy jump.

 

Questions and Answers

So to sum it up.

Is South Africa too dangerous to travel?

No.

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.

 

Is South Africa Safe for White people?

Yes, I’ve been asked this question many times. It’s a funny question because while I understand their concerns, having lived in South Africa, it is still very much dominated by white people financially. While the population is only 10% white, where you as a tourist will most likely visit, is at least 50% white. Cape Town, and the towns along the Garden Route are overwhelmingly white. This is not to say that just because they are not predominately black, it is safe, but rather don’t ask stupid questions :).

 

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 EastSolo 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.

I would love to hear opinions by any locals or travelers that have visited the Rainbow nation! Please leave a comment below

Showing 15 comments
  • Wesley
    Reply

    Hello Johnny,

    Just stumbled at your blog, and man this is amazing! I will be planning to be in SA in a month, so I will be looking through all your posts! 😛

    One question though, I have a question for JNB airport – If I have a domestic ticket (with SA domestic), can I go in and walk my mom to her gate (with Cathay international) to watch her board the plane and I then go off to my domestic gate?

    I tried to search online but it seems a bit confusing – the same building, but not sure if they really connected. Please advise. Thanks a bunch!

    Wesley

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hey Wesley, there are two terminals in OR Tambo. One is for all domestic flights, and the other is for international and they’re on opposite sides of the airport. They have separate security lines so sadly you won’t be able to walk your mom to her gate. Hope that helps and enjoy your time in South Africa!

  • Francois Williams
    Reply

    Im Saffa living in Mindanao Philippines…ignorant people talk lots a bull about here too, but it is very cool, swing by my place, Klub Safari anytime! Two of my Saffa mates got blown to bits in the Bali bombings, I was lucky to be not with them…

  • Bill Taylor
    Reply

    Hi Johnny,

    Great Blog. As someone said, very objective!

    THE wife and I seem to ave some of the same goals as you – travel the world. Our idea is to lve a year or two at a time in a certain region, and use that as a base to go around. We’re currently in Bali, diving our asses off, and net stop (in a year) is probably S. Africa.

    We’re thinking live in Capetown if we can afford it, and go on exactly the trips you identified at the top of this page! We’ll have to read them carefully. We have ben to E. Africa and LOVED it, so we want MORE of AFRICA and S. Africa seemed to be the best place to settle in for a year or two. We are older now, in our 60’s, and age DOES make a BIG difference. We need high quality tourist accommodations for the most part.

    See you guys around! GREAT BLOG.

    – Bill & Emily

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Bill! Awesome that you guys are considering South Africa! And even more amazing to see that you guys are diving in Indonesia (my favorite place) and are in your 60s :). Make sure to go to Komodo before you leave as the diving there is far superior to Bali!

      As for SA, I think it might be the best place to live for someone that does not worry about money. By that I mean, someone who is comfortable living within their means because it is not an expensive place. Cape Town CAN be expensive if you like the finer things in life but for the most part, $2000 a month will sort you out just fine. If you get of CT a bit, to Hermanus or even Houts Bay, you can find even cheaper accommodations. Overall, I’ve always eyed SA as my retirement destination and I’m happy you’re considering it too!

  • Kathleen
    Reply

    I am Asian married to a South African / American man. If not for him, I probably wouldn’t have discovered the beauty of this country. We drove from Johannesburg to Cape Town made frequent stops in small towns that was just simply breathtaking. We drove day in and out with no fear embedded in our minds. I believe you attract what you feel. Of course like you said, you need common sense while travelling in general. Each and every country has its share of good and bad neighborhood. I love the western cape, I dreamt of living there if given the chance. Alas, my husband might get a transfer before this year ends. We are nervous but more excited. My question to you is, how are Asians treated in SA ? Did you ever feel you don’t belong or treated differently? I was only there for a month and only had good experiences to share. I got stared at a lot in Pretoria but not in a mean way but more out of curiosity. I was more comfortable in Cape Town. Thank you for your unbiased blog.

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Hi Kathleen, congrats on the potential move to SA! As you already know, it’s a wonderful place with endless amounts of things going on. As far as being Asian and living in SA, I was a bit worried at first but that dissipated quickly upon arrival. There’s actually a sizeable population of Chinese that immigrated to SA back in the days.

      I was a bit unsure when my GF visited me for the first time (she is white and American). That also quickly dissapated when we were out in the Sandton area. No one really noticed, and certainly nothing uncomfortable happened. We went to Pretoria as well to watch a blue bulls game with some friends and again, nothing. To be honest, and as bad as this might sound, it’s usually the white&black relationships that I think people take a second look at. As far as the country has come, black and white relationships hardly exist. Anyway, I think you’ll be fine wherever you’re at!

  • Vik
    Reply

    I was planning a family cross country road trip in SA and came across your blog. I must commend you on your obejctivity in writing this blog. South Africa has its problems, no doubt, but as a local, your tips on how to stay safe resonate with what us locals do. Its not something you do conciously, its simple safety and common sense like you mention.

    It is a beautiful country with everything a tourist can ask for, wildlife, beaches, fantastic weather year round, nighlife, excellent restaurants, hotels, casinos, entertainment venues etc. I have travelled through many countries , but SA (to me) is still the best place…so I have decided to do mostly local holidays.

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Thanks Vic! Appreciate the comments and I totally agree that SA is just such a beautiful country with endless things to do. Mandela even said the Western Cape was SA’s gift to the world :). I always found it interesting when I would talk to locals and they all dreamed to take trips to Europe and America, and I would respond saying I’ve been to all those places and South Africa (and Africa as a whole) is just so much more amazing. Of course, I todl them they should visit Europe and the US, but do not forget how special of a place you have at home!

  • Tien
    Reply

    Thank you so much for writing about this. I’ve been debating about going to SA because I worried about going alone and not really knowing much about things there. Your blog has really helped, especially about travels to Botswana/Victoria Falls.

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Thanks Tien! I’m glad it helped! Never get caught up in media rumors and generalizations!

  • SA Local
    Reply

    Lovely post! I agree, as a native of South Africa, we have our fair share of problems here but every country has their own. I think you’re American? If so, lot of us South Africans think America has its fair share of problems too like gun massacres every month it seems and that guy named Donald Trump running for president. Almost feels us having less sad about having Zuma as our president.!

    • Johnny
      Reply

      Yes, I am American, and yes you’re right there are lots of issues in this country too. However, I will say that our government isn’t on the same level of incompetency as South Africa’s, although some might disagree with me. At the very least, we have a president (currently) that can actually give a speech unlike Mr. Zuma! Also, yes Trump scares me and even more so the fact that so many people have voted for him. If he somehow wins, I think a long trip to South Africa awaits me 🙂

  • Steve
    Reply

    Great write up! I been to South Africa solo and had a great experience. I wasn’t worried about the danger in particular but could see how other people would. I actually stayed in a hostel in Soweto for a few days and got to see much of the township. Even walked around at night and didn’t feel in danger at all. People were so friendly and I thought I’d get more stares than i did but not the case.

    • Johnny
      Reply

      That’s awesome! I went to Soweto a handful of times (wish I went more) and wish I went to check out some other townships too. Had numerous opportunities to check out Alexandra but never got around to it and now I kind of regret it.

      Great to hear that you enjoyed SA so much as well!

Leave a Comment

Contact Me

Send me a quick email and I'll get back to you as soon as I can!

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search

71 Shares
Share70
Tweet
Pin1
+1
Share
WhatsApp