Generally speaking, South Africa is extremely safe. The country boasts incredible cities, beautiful landscapes, and stunning wildlife you thought you’d see only in textbooks. Staying safe in South Africa is pretty straightforward, as long as you use your common sense and take some extra precautions you may not usually take at home. Despite a high crime rate, thousands of tourists from around the world travel to South Africa every year problem-free. Entry requirements are pretty standard, you’ll need only an empty page in your (valid) passport but before you book a flight to South Africa, here are our top tips for staying safe in the country.
When visiting South Africa, it’s important to look at the current situation in its historical and legal context — while the Apartheid ended nearly 25 years ago, its social implications are still apparent today. The laws, in place from 1948 until the early 1990s, kept people of color economically and socially repressed, specifying separate facilities, as well as separate jobs and housing opportunities for people of color. Interracial marriages were illegal, and 3.5 million people were removed from their homes and stripped of citizenship in order to be relocated to segregated areas.
While the laws were officially taken off the books in 1994, these populations are far behind the white population of South Africa, leading to the inequality visible today. The 2012 census revealed that black households earn about one-sixth of the income compared to that of their white counterparts. The level of inequality can often lead to large protests. Protests can happen anywhere in the country and can turn violent quickly.
Crime rates are higher in larger urban areas than in many other parts of the country. In fact, on the 2018 list by Business Insider of the fifty most violent cities in the world, two South African cities made the cut. The list is determined by the homicide rate per 100,000 residents. From 2017 to 2018, Durban, in the greater Johannesburg area, moved from number 50 to number 44. While this is a small jump, the truth is that due to social inequalities and unrest, things can become dangerous.
Crime is higher after dark, so be extra cautious if you’re walking around at night, and avoid walking alone. There are many reports of armed robberies, carjackings, rapes, and muggings, especially in the downtown business areas of major cities. Violent crime is more likely to happen within communities and amongst people who know one another. The biggest danger to tourists is petty crime.
When flying into Cape Town’s OR Tambo International Airport, you’re advised not to arrive at night as there have been reports of follow-home robberies in which tourists are followed to their hotel or hostel and robbed of their belongings. The US State Department considers no form of transportation 100% safe, however, thousands of tourists are able to arrive safely at their destination. It’s important to be alert and try to book a flight that arrives during the day.
Watch out for ATM scams. A common crime, this one involves tampering with machines to steal your information, card, money, or all three. In some cases, the machine is tampered with in order to make your card get stuck. While you go into the bank for help, the thief has already stolen your card and cash. Another common scam happens when thieves stick a device onto the ATM to scan your PIN, thus being able to hack into your account later. A good way to protect yourself and your wallet is to only use ATMs during the day and in populated places, such as shopping malls.
When traveling through South Africa, it’s important to keep your belongings safe. Try not to flash around expensive jewelry or expensive electronics, especially at night. Keep extra credit cards and important documents back at the hotel. If your hotel has a safe, be sure you keep your items locked up. If you’re riding in a car, carjackings are said to happen, specifically in Johannesburg. Keep any personal items away from the passenger side, and keep the windows rolled up to prevent theft. Many South African drivers even drive right through red lights, especially at night, to prevent any robberies or carjackings.
Travel insurance is a great investment to protect yourself against petty crime. A good plan can cover your back if you’re ever pickpocketed, robbed or lose money and valuables.
Women travel to South Africa every year with little to no consequences. Generally speaking, the country is safe for women, but if you’re not smart about it, you can get yourself into a sticky situation. If you plan to take public transport, always be aware of your surroundings and if you’re carrying a bag, keep it close to your body. If you plan to leave the tourist attractions and big cities, it’s best to go with someone else or as part of a group. Particularly true if you plan to visit the townships — best to go with a guide. In many more rural areas, sexual assault and rape are more common, though most of this is within communities and not targeted toward foreign women. Still, it’s best not to travel into these areas alone.
In 2006, South Africa legalized same-sex marriage. Despite the laws advocating for equality, public opinion is more mixed. If you’re an LGBTQ person or couple in the cities and urban areas, you should have little to no problem during your stay, as these areas tend to be more open and accepting. However, if you’re traveling outside the urban areas to rural parts of the country, you may face more harassment.
In parts of South Africa, a severe drought has caused extreme water shortages. In Cape Town, ‘Day Zero’ — when the city officially runs out of water in the taps — is rapidly approaching, after recently being pushed back to 2019. The drought has been so bad, a national disaster has been declared. Water consumption has been severely limited in the city in order to preserve more. If you’re visiting Cape Town, don’t be alarmed if water is not as available as it is at home, and be sure to use water-saving and energy efficient habits. Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth and try to take short showers.
Kruger National Park
You can’t visit South Africa without going on a safari adventure. Kruger National Park is the country’s largest game reserve, and one of the most popular tourist destinations for holidays in South Africa. The park is located in the northern part of the country and is a magical experience. Head off on a jeep in search of the fiercest lions and most elegant birds, or watch the elephants walk right past your nose in a safari lodge.
Kruger National Park is an exciting and amazing experience, but it’s important to remember who the real boss is. Respect the natural habitats of the animals in the park. The park is car-friendly, but you need to stay in your car during the ride. Respect the speed limit in the park, too. With so many animals all around, it’s important not to drive too fast. Remember not to approach the animals, unless a park guide has given you permission. Some animals may look calm and friendly, but they are still wild and in their home.
Cape Town’s Table Mountain is arguably one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. The mountain rises over the city on the sea, accessible via hike or via cable car. If you’re planning to hike up the mountain, stay safe with some important tips. These first few are obvious, but be sure to bring plenty of water and lather on that sunscreen, as the hike can get hot and sunny, and be sure to wear sturdy shoes to keep your toes cozy and protected. Avoid hiking alone and always be aware of your surroundings. The mountain is massive and there are many trails to take to the top. If you’re planning to take one of the more isolated trails, it’s helpful to bring a park map along so you don’t get lost.