South Africa is often portrayed by international media as a dangerous place to visit, and certainly, the country struggles with a high rate of violent crime. However, thousands of visitors travel to South Africa every year without incident, and the rewards of doing so are rich. Home to some of the most breathtaking scenery on Earth, South Africa is a land of teeming oceans, pristine beaches, rugged mountains and game-filled reserves.
Its diverse cities are rich in both history and culture, and its people are some of the most welcoming you'll ever meet.
Nevertheless, it's important to be aware of the country's less friendly side. Poverty is rife in South Africa, and as a result muggings, break-ins and petty theft are common, especially in larger cities. South Africa also ranks highly on global statistic round-ups for rape and murder, while political protests are common, difficult to predict and often turn violent.
Government Travel Warnings
The U.S. Department of State has issued a Level 2 travel advisory for South Africa, which recommends that visitors exercise increased caution. In particular, the advisory warns about the prevalence of violent crime, especially in the CBDs of major cities after dark. Travel advice from the British government echoes this warning, while also mentioning that several visitors have been followed from Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo Airport and robbed at gunpoint.
Both governments also warn visitors about the ongoing drought in Cape Town. Currently, the city is living with the looming threat of Day Zero, when municipal water will be turned off and access to potable water will no longer be guaranteed.
Some Areas are Safer Than Others
The vast majority of crimes in South Africa take place in the poorer neighborhoods of big cities - so staying clear of these areas is an effective way to reduce the risk of becoming a victim.
If you're planning on spending time in Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town, make sure to choose a guesthouse or hotel in a reputable part of town. Townships offer a fascinating insight into South Africa's rich culture, but visiting informal settlements on your own is usually inadvisable. Instead, book a tour with a trusted local operator.
By their very definition, game reserves are located far from urban settlements, and consequently there is very little risk of crime on safari. Rural areas are generally considered safe - although if you're planning on exploring remote beaches or forests on foot, it's a good idea to leave your valuables at home and go with company. Wherever your adventures take you, incidents reported by tourists are generally confined to petty crimes - while most say that they feel just as safe in South Africa as they do at home.
A Matter of Common Sense
The best way to stay safe in South Africa is to exercise the same common sense that you would in any major city. Flaunting wealth in a country where the majority of people struggle to put food on the table is never a good idea, so leave your flashy jewelry at home. Try to keep cameras and cell phones hidden, and carry small bills so that you don't have to display large notes when making a purchase.
If you plan on hiring a car, never leave valuables visible on the seats. Make sure to keep your windows and doors locked when driving through big cities, and park in areas protected by licensed car guards. If you don't have a car, avoid walking alone, especially at night. Instead, organise a lift with a friend or your tour group, or book the services of a licensed taxi. Public transport isn't always safe, so make sure to seek advice before hopping on a train or catching a public minibus. Lastly, be vigilant and trust your gut. If a situation seems suspicious, it usually is.
Other Safety Concerns
It's 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 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.
Unlike many African countries, South Africa is largely free from exotic diseases like dengue fever and West Nile virus. Most cities, parks and reserves are malaria-free, although there is a small risk of infection in the far north of the country. If you do plan on visiting this area, anti-malaria prophylactics are an effective way of avoiding the mosquito-borne disease. Tap water is usually safe to drink, and there are no special vaccines required. HIV/ AIDS is prevalent but easily avoided with the correct precautions.
South Africa's roads are notoriously ill-kept and traffic accidents occur with alarming frequency. If you plan on driving large distances, take extra care during peak holiday times as drunk driving is common. In rural areas, the roads are unfenced and livestock often gathers on the road at night. Therefore, a general safety rule is to plan long journeys for daylight hours. Nevertheless, with the proper care, exploring South Africa under your own steam is a uniquely rewarding experience.
The Bottom Line
In summary, South Africa is by no means a Utopia. Crime is a problem, and incidents do occur. However, as a tourist, you can avoid most dangerous situations by simply being aware and making informed choices. Don't let negative media coverage put you off - this is one of the world's most beautiful countries, and somewhere that everyone should visit at least once.
NB: This article offers general advice on staying safe in South Africa. The political situation is volatile and always subject to change, so it's a good idea to check up-to-date travel warnings before planning and booking your trip.