This post was written by South African local Natalie, of Tails of a Mermaid!
Being born and bred South African, the most difficult question I get asked by new friends while traveling is “is it safe to travel to South Africa?”. The short answer is, of course.
With 3.5 million tourists visiting the country each year, South Africa is widely considered one of the easiest and “safest” third-world destinations to get to and explore. This country is full of so much natural beauty and so many amazing people that I want to tell the whole world to come here immediately to see it for themselves.
The long answer is more complex.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. Yes, there is crime in South Africa. It ranges from petty pickpocketing to more violent crime and home invasions. For this reason, I, as a South African, have a certain level of alertness and safety-minded behavior ingrained in my subconscious.
This means that I am more often than not out of harm’s way — and this is the most important thing to bear in mind when you visit South Africa. But being able to blanket the whole country, or any country for that matter, as “safe” or “unsafe” is just not realistic.
What Can You Expect Traveling in South Africa?
Coming from a first-world country or small town where crime almost never happens, you might not know what to expect from “crime-riddled” South Africa.
South Africans have various safety and security measures in place that we take for granted on a daily basis. We have high walls and electric fences around our homes, home security systems and neighborhood boom entrances manned by security guards. For visitors, this can be alarming. But if anything, it should make you feel safer.
Petty crime is the most frequent holiday-spoiler. Handbags stolen off the backs of chairs in restaurants, car windows smashed for cameras lying on the back seat– I always tell visitors to keep their valuables on them at all times and never to leave anything in their cars.
Do you need to leave your watch at home and only bring a disposable camera that you carry in an under-shirt money purse? No, that’s not how any of us live. But I do keep my handbag on my lap or between my feet in restaurants, and tucked under my seat when I’m driving.
In Cape Town, gang violence is a big problem. Most often drug-related, this kind of crime is removed from the city and confined mostly to turf-war areas outside of the tourist hotspots. Recently, there has been a wave of gang-related crime infiltrating some parts of the city like my neighborhood, Woodstock.
This has been gang-on-gang violence and still hasn’t affected us personally.
How Can You Stay Safe in South Africa?
Try to be safety-minded while you’re traveling in South Africa. Be aware of the fact that poverty is all around you and that poverty breeds desperation. I’m sure you can imagine that people take chances when they spot a situation that could potentially mean their family will eat tonight instead of going to bed hungry.
Trust your instincts and if a place, situation or person feels unsafe, get out without stopping to think about whether you’re hurting someone’s feelings.
You don’t need to be home, locked inside your walled compound before dark. But it’s never really safe to walk around any big city at night. Take Ubers when you’re going out at night and make sure your doors and windows are locked before you leave!
Tips for Staying Safe in South Africa
- Always keep your handbag on you, and close to your body. Keep it zipped up and don’t hang it off the back of your chair or leave it on the restaurant table when you go to the ladies.
- Don’t leave anything visible in your car. Check your doors once you’ve locked them before you walk away from your car.
- Stay aware. Keep your head up when you’re walking around town and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t walk around alone at night.
- Keep valuables close to you. It’s safe to carry a camera around, but make sure you’re alert. If someone is walking towards you or if you feel your ‘spidey’ senses tingling, put it in your bag.
- Be aware of pickpocketing scams. There are a few common pickpocketing scams that often ruin people’s trips. If someone approaches you with a big smile saying “nice shoes, look we have the same size!” and attempts to step into your personal space, simply say “I’ve heard this one before” and walk away.
- Don’t hike alone. When hiking, always go in a group. Carry your phone with you for emergencies. Always carry a bottle of water and a warm top as the weather can change very quickly on the mountain.
- Getting around safely. Always take an Uber, never hail a cab from the street. Be sure to check the number plate to see that it corresponds with your app before you get in.
Should the crime levels discourage you from traveling?
NO. This country has so much to offer, especially with the exchange rate being so much in favor of travelers from the US. So come, see it for yourself!