The first thing I usually get asked when I say I am from South Africa is “is South Africa save to travel to?” I get this question all the time, along with “is South Africa safe?” The truth of the matter is that South Africa is not safe. But this isn’t any different to many countries around the world. South Africa gets a bad rap overseas, and it is often perpetuated by South African expats, particularly ones who left for particular reasons (i.e., the end of Apartheid). Many of us, including myself, have been affected by crime in South Africa. I have been held up at gunpoint, and I have friends who have been mugged, hijacked, raped, and friend’s who have had loved ones murdered. It is unsafe. It is a fact. But as a tourist or traveler, should you swear off this country because of this? No. South Africa is dangerous, but many visitors are not the victims of violent crimes that are so often shared by South Africans. Just like any country in the world, tourists to my home country are most often victims of petty theft and no more.
Having said all of this, it is advisable to exercise a little extra caution in my beautiful home country. You see, the whole reason my family upped and moved to the States mainly boiled down to crime in Johannesburg. My mother and I were held up at gunpoint in our garage, and needless to say, it was a traumatic experience. We were however also lucky. I have friends and their family members who have lost loved ones, or who have been raped. So yes, I see myself as lucky. Of course, this quite traumatic experience left a lot of damage, and ultimately my family decided to move overseas - something that I did not want to do. I ended up staying in South Africa for some years on my own without family (something they hated intensely, of course). However, I think that has made me somewhat of an expert on how to stay safe in South Africa. I don’t want people to think that South Africa is this dangerous, scary place, not worthy of visiting. We have so much to offer for travelers. Beautiful landscapes, diverse cultures, incredible food, and many adventure-filled activities. This guide will help you stay safe while you are traveling in South Africa.
TOP TIPS FOR STAYING SAFE WHILE TRAVELING IN SOUTH AFRICA
1. Don’t walk alone at night
2. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or clothes
3. Keep your valuables hidden and out of sight
4. Do not keep your passport on your person. Lock it in the safety deposit box in your hotel room
5. Guard your bag. Don’t hang it on the back of your chair or leave it on the table. Keep it close to you when walking around
6. Walk purposefully and confident. Make sure you know where you are going ahead of time
7. Trust your instincts and be vigilant
HOW TO STAY SAFE WHILE DRIVING IN SOUTH AFRICA
If you have rented a car to drive around South Africa, then I applaud you! South Africa has some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the world, and it is an excellent way to see my incredible home. There are however many things you will want to keep in mind when you are driving around South Africa for your trip. These are my top safety tips for driving in South Africa.
1. KEEP YOUR CAR DOORS LOCKED
Whenever you are driving around South Africa, you should always keep your doors locked. When you are parking your car, make sure that it is locked too.
2. DON’T DRIVE AROUND WITH VALUABLES IN SIGHT
Never drive around with your valuables in plain sight. Don’t put your camera, purse, cell phone, anything of value in plain sight, including on the front seat. You should place any valuable items underneath your seat, or lock it up in the boot (or trunk of the car). Smash and grabs (when someone smashes your window to take your items) are common in South Africa, particularly in traffic and major cities.
3. DON’T DRIVE IN TOWN WITH YOUR WINDOWS DOWN
It may be safe on the highway or in rural areas to drive with your windows down, but in the major cities, it is dangerous. Criminals can quickly reach into your car and grab your things, or threaten you with a weapon.
4. WHEN ON A ROAD TRIP MAKE SURE YOUR TANK IS FULL OF GAS (PETROL)
Regularly fill your tank while driving long distances in South Africa. Gas/Petrol stations are not always frequent in more rural areas. Make sure you have enough petrol to get to your next destination. You don’t want to run out of gas and have to wait in a desolate area.
5. RENT A CHEAPER CAR
Your exchange rate might make renting a fancy car a lot cheaper and more attractive, but they tend to attract more unwanted attention. Go for a run of the mill car like a Ford, or Chevy to avoid drawing attention to yourself.
6. DON’T DRIVE AROUND THE CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT AT NIGHT
The CBDs in South Africa are not necessarily safe to drive around at night, especially if you are not familiar with the area. Try to avoid driving around these areas at night. Furthermore, speak to locals about where is safe to drive and where is not. GPS in South Africa is notorious for accidentally routing you through dangerous neighborhoods. Get the lay of the land regarding safe areas from your hotel before venturing off. Better yet, email me and I can help you out!
7. IGNORE THE PEOPLE AT TRAFFIC LIGHTS/STOP STREETS TRYING TO GET YOUR ATTENTION
So I’ve even fallen for this before. You pull up in traffic and a gentleman on the side of the road starts pointing worriedly at your tires (while carrying a bunch of trinkets for sale). Anxiously you wind down your window to see if you have a flat tire. At this point, he shoves one of his cowboy hats into your cracked open window and begs you for R250 for it. Or he tells you it’s for free and then asks for a donation. Trust me, as a South African, this happens all the time, even I fell for it once. Don’t get aggressive, just ignore and move on. It might seem mean or rude, but it isn’t worth the problems you have to try and get to give the man back his stuff, or inviting problematic attention.
8. TRAVEL WITH UPDATED MAPS OR GPS
South Africa is undoing many changes, down to road works and road name changes. Make sure you use an updated map or GPS system in order to get around safely and easily.
9. TRAVEL WITH A CHARGED CELLPHONE
It is important to drive around with a form of contact. South Africans roads can be dangerous, as there are numerous bad or drunk drivers. The emergency police number is 10111.
10. PARK YOUR CAR IN WELL-LIT AREAS AND PAY THE PARKING GUARDS
Always park your vehicle in a well-lit area, and try to park in a dedicated parking lot if possible. South Africa has an informal parking guard arrangement that while doesn’t necessarily stop someone from stealing your car; they do operate as a deterrent, and helps a man in need. Pay the parking guard R5 or so for looking after your vehicle. They are usually quite friendly and cheerful, and they are looking for a way to support themselves or their families. R5 is really nothing in the grand scheme of things.
11. WATCH YOUR CAR AND YOUR SURROUNDINGS
One of the things that I used to keep myself safe in South Africa is to be very observant. My mother and I were followed from school, around a shopping mall, and then home. I think that if we had been keeping an eye in our rear view mirror while driving around, we may have noticed this and prevented the robbery. Since that happened, I’ve had numerous incidents where I have felt that someone had been following me for an extended period of time. Criminals are also known to follow cars from the airport. It isn’t common, but it has happened. Be observant, and if you think someone is following you, make a few different turns to check, or drive to a police station, or open gas station. Call someone while you are doing, so they know where you are.
12. WHEN DRIVING IN TRAFFIC OR PULLING UP TO A LIGHT, KEEP A DISTANCE
Hijackers and robbers often use traffic to their advantage. When you are pulled up to the car in front of you, and wedged in behind, you don’t have anywhere to go. Keep a safe following distance from the cars in front of you so you can pull away if you need to. Be observant and alert when you are in traffic or at a stop – be wary of anyone approaching your windows.
13. DON’T PICK UP HITCHHIKERS AND DON’T STOP FOR ANYONE
There have been numerous incidents and stories of how criminals have faked incidents on the side of the roads, and used this as an opportunity to rob or attack people who pull over to try and help. As much as it pains me to say this, that we cannot trust people, rather call a security company or the police, if you spot something that doesn’t look right. Rather safe than sorry.
14. WATCH OUT FOR POT HOLES
South Africa has a severe problem with potholes. Be watchful as you’re driving, as they are everywhere, especially in the rainy seasons.
15. SHARE YOUR ROUTE OR DRIVING PLANS WITH OTHERS.
In case something happens, people will know where you were going and where you are if you don’t arrive at an expected time.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON HOW TO STAY SAFE WHEN TRAVELING TO SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is my home and I love and miss it dearly, but it is not without its problems. Being safe and actively practising these techniques is like survival instinct and every day life in South Africa, and you get used to it. Ultimately, crime is one of the reasons why my family moved overseas (but not why I moved). It is something to be concerned about, but the horrible reputation we have abroad is not reason enough to not visit beautiful South Africa! We have so much to offer to travelers and tourists, and we are extremely proud of our country and all it has to offer. If you are looking for more tips on what to do in South Africa please see the posts below, or contact me! Share your experiences of my country with me in the comments below too!
More on South Africa:
- How to do a self-drive Safari (how to do your own safari) in South Africa
- The Best Safari Routes in the Pilanesberg National Park
- on safari with Intrepid Travel in the Kruger National Park
- Going on safari in the Kruger National Park
- Where to stay near the Kruger National Park - Thornhill Safari Lodge Review
- Scenes of Johannesburg, South Africa
- Exploring Johannesburg & Soweto on the City Sightseeing Hop on Hop off Bus (Review)
- How to cook the National Dish of South Africa: Bobotie
- What to eat in South Africa (fast food edition)