South Africa is an amazing country for world travelers! There is a lot to see, the weather is great (most of the year), the food is wonderful, the people are friendly, and it’s relatively cheap for travelers. However, South Africa has a really bad reputation when it comes to crime and violence. If you put all the benefits of traveling to this nation aside, is South Africa safe for travelers?
Here are the facts. When it comes to murders, Cape Town ranks 11th in the world (according to 2020 statistics), with 66 murders per 100,000 people. Astonishing! However, US Cities like St. Louis come in at 61, and Baltimore at 51 murders per 100,000. But if you take a closer look at the stats, there are 5 Mexican cities with even higher death rates in the top 10, yet Americans vacation in Mexico in large numbers every year.
It is also very important to note that the murder rates in South Africa are high in gang-infested areas. If murder rates were high in touristy areas, South African tourism would come to a halt, but that is not happening. As fully vaccinated people are cleared to travel, many are choosing South Africa.
How to stay safe in South Africa
I grew up in South Africa, and I have had two incidents. Once I was on a commuter train (which I suggest tourists avoid), and my sunglasses were ripped off my face. The guy took it, jumped out of the train, and that was it. Then when I was living in Johannesburg, I parked my car in front of my house. An hour or so later I came out, and it was gone. (Car highjackings were high in Johannesburg mid to late ’90s.)
In hindsight, I believe both those incidences could have been avoided. I shouldn’t have worn fancy sunglasses on a commuter train, and I should have taken the time to park the car in the garage. My point is, if you are street smart and you follow basic common sense, you will be fine.
When we travel to South Africa, we do not feel scared or anxious. I believe that’s because we follow the rules below.
Use common sense
If you are in a big city in the USA for example, you’re not going to be oblivious of your surroundings, and you’re not going to carry your wallet in your back pocket or unlocked backpack. The same safety rules that you would follow in other big cities apply in South Africa too.
Don’t be flashy
If you have nice jewelry or an expensive purse, leave it at home. Do not travel with anything that you cannot replace—this advice applies to travel to any country in the world.
It is also important to be street smart. If you make it obvious that you’re a tourist, unscrupulous people will take advantage of that fact.
Stick in tourist areas
Thieves and muggers want to get in and out without getting caught. They know that the security and police presence is heightened in touristy areas, so they either stay away, or they’re looking for easy targets.
No one is suggesting that tourist areas are 100% safe, but they are significantly safer than gang-infested areas. So while it may seem obvious, it is nonetheless worth mentioning—do not go to gang-infested areas. If you want to stay safe, do not even drive through them. When I was growing up, we were taught from a very early age never to go into certain areas. Even now when we visit, I make sure to drive miles out of the way to avoid certain areas. In fact, I have extended family who lives in some of these hot spots, but we do not visit them. Instead, I politely ask that they visit us.
If it seems obvious that you’re aware of your surroundings, thieves are more likely to walk away.
Don’t be an easy target
Thieves and muggers are like bullies—they’re looking for easy targets. Don’t be one. Don’t put yourself in a position where you can become a victim.
If your purse/bag is hanging off the back of a chair, you’re an easy target. If you leave your purse/bag on the chair while you go to the bathroom, you’re an easy target. If you seem oblivious to your surroundings, you are an easy target.
Do not walk at night
Even if you are in a group, it’s best not to walk around at night. Chances are you’ll be just fine, but why take chances.
Do not overtip
Honestly, most people in South Africa are wonderful, kind, decent people. If you overtip a car guard, I’m sure he would be eternally grateful and pray for the health of your family. However, there are people here and there who are perhaps not as nice. Just by looking at people, you cannot tell if someone is decent or if they mean you harm. Therefore, you have to play it safe.
When I took my husband to South Africa the first time, he would tip people R50 ($3.61 at the time of this writing) for watching the car. He meant well, but for an unscrupulous person, he could have been Mr. Moneybags and therefore made himself a target.
Remove or hide valuables
If you are renting a car, do not put your purse on the passenger seat—someone will grab it, even if you’re in the car. Instead, hide it where it is not visible.
Do not drive with valuables. When you’re stopping at a traffic light (or a robot, as South Africans call it), someone may grab that fancy necklace.
If you are parking the car, remove your valuable. If someone is looking and sees something worth stealing, they will break the window to get it. Don’t even leave a $5 pair of sunglasses—whoever is looking doesn’t know it’s only $5.
Some people say to lock your car. I do not disagree. However, while I was living in Johannesburg, I had a different strategy. A neighbor told me that he keeps his car unlocked because, in his opinion, if they want to get in, they can just open the door instead of breaking the window. I did that for a long time. However, now when we visit, we lock the car. There is nothing of value visible—not even a can of soda.
Here’s an important side-note: In the USA, people throw away or donate clothes. In South Africa, poor people wear tattered clothes because they simply don’t have clothes and they don’t earn enough money to buy more. In other words—what a poor South African and a tourist values are two vastly different things. Therefore, do not underestimate the value of the things you leave in plain sight.
Listen to your instincts
If the little voice inside your head says to not walk down that dark, quiet road, don’t do it. Turn around and go to safety.
Dress like the locals. South Africa is like any Western country. If you are from a Western country, you will fit right in. However, if you are not or you don’t dress like most westerners, consider changing your clothes to blend in.
Consider a dummy wallet
Add a few cancelled or expired credit cards and a small amount of cash to an old wallet. (Keep your actual cash and credit cards hidden in a safety belt or somewhere similar). If you are ever in a situation where someone asks for your wallet, simply hand over the dummy wallet. By doing this, you avoid confrontation and the thief would be none the wiser until much later.
I do not have a dummy wallet. I’ve never been in a situation where someone in South Africa asked me to hand over my wallet. I think that’s because we strictly follow all the above-mentioned safety tips. However, if it will help you feel more comfortable, it’s a strategy you can use.
A note from the author
If you live in a town where nothing bad ever happens, the above may feel intimidating and scary. You may be rethinking your plans of visiting South Africa. That’s not my intention. It’s a great country which we visit as often as we possibly can.
Rather, my intention is to empower you!
Since I’ve been traveling to South African with my family, nothing bad has ever happened to us because we follow the above rules. I think if you do the same, you’re going to have an amazing time. Who knows, you may want to go again!