South Africa is often perceived as a dangerous destination due to its high rate of violent crime. In some areas—especially large cities—poverty is rife, and as a result, muggings, break-ins, and petty theft are common. South Africa also ranks highly on global statistic roundups for rape and murder. However, thousands of tourists visit the country every year without incident, and the rewards of doing so are generous. If you exercise caution and avoid certain areas as a tourist, you'll be treated to pristine beaches, rugged mountains, and game-filled reserves. South Africa's diverse cities are rich in both history and culture, and its people are some of the most hospitable in the world.
The U.S. Department of State declared a Level 2 travel advisory for South Africa in 2018. This means visitors should "exercise increased caution," in this case due to "crime, civil unrest, and drought." In particular, the advisory warns about the higher risk of violent crime in the central business districts of major cities after dark. Travel advice from the British government echoes this warning, while also citing past incidents where visitors have been followed from Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo Airport to their destinations and then robbed at gunpoint.
Is South Africa Dangerous?
Certain parts of South Africa are more dangerous than others. For instance, game reservations (i.e. safari destinations) tend to be safer than big cities and remote, isolated places. A 2020 report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) revealed that the U.S. had "assessed Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban as being CRITICAL-threat locations for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests," but also noted that U.S. citizens are not often singled out for criminal activity.
The report named armed robbery as the most prevalent "major" crime in South Africa. To avoid being targeted, dress casually, without designer labels and flashy jewelry, and keep your valuables close to your body. If you plan to hire a car, never leave valuables visible on the seats and park in areas protected by licensed car guards.
Is South Africa Safe for Solo Travelers?
Some travel experiences, like guided tours and safaris, are perfectly conducive to solo travel, but wandering around the cities of South Africa alone is not recommended, especially for women. It has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, although the OSAC report said that foreigners are not specifically targeted.
Alone or not, visitors should avoid walking through the poor parts of South Africa's urban areas, especially at night. Always be aware of your surroundings and travel in groups whenever possible.
Safety Tips for LGBTQ+ Travelers
South Africa has some of the most progressive LGBTQ+ laws in the world. It was the first ever jurisdiction to provide constitutional protection to the LGBTQ+ community, in fact, and welcomes refugees from all over who flee from less accepting countries. Same-sex relationships are legal and common in this country, with LGBTQ+ communities traditionally congregating in bigger cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg. However, in more conservative areas (especially remote townships), being openly LGBTQ+ can lead to discrimination and crime. In the Black community especially, homosexuality is still frowned upon.
Naturally, LGBTQ+ travelers are safer expressing their sexuality openly (barring any graphic PDA) in big cities where it's more prevalent. If you experience a hate crime while visiting South Africa, you should report the incident at the nearest police station or call 08600 10111.
Safety Tips for BIPOC Travelers
Speaking of the Black community, BIPOC travelers are less likely to stick out among locals than Caucasian travelers, seeing as Black Africans make up the bulk of this country's population. According to the last census , recorded in 2011, 79 percent of South African nationals identified as Black African whereas about 9 percent identified as white. Only 2.5 percent identified as Indian or Asian. The 2017 Reasons for Hope report by the South African Institute of Race Relations showed that 60 percent of surveyed nationals said that tensions between ethnic groups had "improved" since 1994. Still, race relations in South Africa have been described as toxic.
BIPOC travelers are safer when they travel in groups and in populated, tourist-friendly areas versus remote or crime-laden neighborhoods. If you are targeted by violent racism while visiting South Africa, you should report the incident at the nearest police station or call 08600 10111.
Safety Tips for Travelers
South Africa may not have a favorable reputation for its safety, but tourists can take certain precautions to reduce their risk of being a target for criminal activity.
- Visitors can call the South African Tourism Helpline at 083 123 6789 (or
1-800-593-1318) to arrange for a reliable taxi or get information on activities and transportation.
- There is a common misconception that predators like lions and leopards roam freely throughout the country, but in reality, game is usually confined to protected reserves. Staying safe on a safari is simple: listen carefully to the advice given to you by your tour guide or ranger, don't venture into the bush at night, and stay in your car on self-drive safaris.
- Venomous snakes and spiders typically avoid confrontation with humans, but it's always a good idea to be aware of where you're putting your hands and feet.
- Most cities, parks, and reserves are malaria-free, but if you plan to visit more remote, northern parts of the country, be sure to bring along the necessary prophylactics to avoid getting the mosquito-borne disease.
- Authorities recommend hiking only in groups and away from isolated areas.
- Do not carry large sums of money with you and what you do carry, keep close to your body in a zipped bag (not your back pocket). Crossbody bags and money belts are good options.
- South Africa is notorious for its ill-kept roads and alarmingly frequent traffic accidents. Rural roads, in particular, are often unfenced and dotted with livestock, so try to limit driving to daytime hours to avoid unexpected obstacles.
- Avoid handing over your passport to (or allowing it to be photocopied by) car hire companies or hotels as a form of security.
- The South African Police Service (SAPS) can be reached at 08600 10111 or just 10111 in the case of an emergency.
U.S. Department of State. "South Africa Travel Advisory."
GOV.UK. "South Africa Foreign Travel Advice."
Overseas Security Advisory Council. "South Africa 2020 Crime & Safety Report." March 3, 2020.
Statistics South Africa. "2011 Census in brief."
South African Institute of Race Relations. "Reasons for Hope." February 2017.