[Updated in 2020]. South Africa continues to get bad press as a potentially unsafe destination. Millions of tourists visit South Africa without incident every year, but millions more are scared away by the country's crime statistics, and by media reports of violence, unrest, robberies, rape and murder. Just how safe or unsafe is it to visit South Africa as a tourist? Why do millions of tourists rave about South Africa and keep returning year after year, while the news media, social media, and many South Africans (especially those living abroad) only have negative things to say? Grab a coffee, let's unpack this.
While some are concerned about malaria, wild animals, maybe even scary viruses, it is the threat of crime that worries most people who are hesitant about booking a trip to South Africa. If it were not for South Africa's high crime rate and reputation as an unsafe destination, the number of tourists who would visit South Africa would probably be double or triple the usual volumes.
So let's examine the threat of crime in South Africa. How bad is it really? And most importantly, what are the odds of a tourist becoming a victim of crime in South Africa? Bear with me, because we are going to look at several examples and some of it may sound like bad news at first. But there is good news, too, and understanding the context will help you assess the actual level of risk.
A number of countries have issued low-level warnings to their citizens regarding the situation in South Africa. Generally, these travel advisories warn travellers to exercise caution due to high levels of crime in South Africa, including murder, robbery, car-jacking, rape and other violent crimes. They tell visitors to never walk around alone (especially after dark), drive with car doors locked and windows closed, and not to display cash or valuables. They also tell you to avoid certain areas. Good advice perhaps, but reading through the list of possible things that could happen, it certainly sounds like a very unsafe and risky destination. If you've never visited before, you might get the wrong impression and think twice about booking a trip to South Africa.
Such advisories are standard practice and are in place for many popular tourist destinations around the world, including Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, Kenya, India, Egypt, Mexico, and many more. The list of "unsafe" countries will keep you sitting at home if you take them at face value. They are meant not only to warn and inform citizens but to avoid complaints and litigation against the government in case something does happen to one of their citizens.
Conspicuously absent are travel advisories by these developing countries to their own citizens regarding travel to Europe, the UK or the US, where you may be at risk of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, being robbed at gunpoint or assaulted at a football match. The world is not a safe place. Incidents of vehicles driving into pedestrians have increased sharply in several "first world" countries (side note - I don't really like the misleading designations of first world and third world). London experienced a spate of robberies by thugs on scooters, not to mention several knife stabbings and terrorist attacks over the years. Travel scammers, muggers and pickpockets are common in places like Paris or Barcelona or Los Angeles. Tourists get robbed more often than you think, in the very countries that are warning their citizens against a destination like South Africa. Truth be told, terrorist attacks are far more common in Europe and the US than in South Africa. But nobody is warning tourists to stay away from these destinations.
This is partly why there have been some vocal objections from South Africa regarding these travel advisories. They paint a grim picture and chase tourists away. But they are not an accurate reflection of the actual safety situation. Read them with a pinch of salt.
Crime and poverty
Crime levels are high in South Africa, there is no denying that. But the statistics don't tell the full story. As with anywhere else in the world, crime and poverty go hand in hand. And the majority of crime stats come from the poorest neighbourhoods. In Rio, tourists are warned to avoid the favelas (slums) because of high levels of crime. Around the world, the poorest parts of any city are also the most dangerous parts of the city. Similarly, most of South Africa's terrible crime statistics come from the townships, the densely populated poor neighbourhoods, and declining downtown areas. Violent crime is common in the poorest regions, just like anywhere else in the world. And South Africa has thousands of townships, populated by millions of poor citizens. Quite simply, the crime statistics are so high because of the country's exceptionally high levels of poverty and unemployment.
But does this change the situation for tourists? Yes, it does. Where the stats come from is important. Believe it or not, American cities like Baltimore, Chicago, St Louis, New Orleans and Detroit all have higher murder rates per capita than Johannesburg. Yet no tourists are warned to stay away from New Orleans or Chicago. People understand there are certain areas that are dangerous and have a high crime rate. Cape Town has the highest homicide rate of any city in South Africa (primarily due to turf wars between gang bosses and drug lords in the townships), but from a tourist perspective, it is one of the safest cities to visit. And one of the most popular and beautiful tourist cities in the world.
There are no statistics that specifically measure crimes against tourists, but the worst incidents tend to make news headlines, so we have at least some idea of how often a tourist is murdered in South Africa. And the answer is - almost never. Cape Town has a disturbingly high murder rate, but how many foreign tourists have been murdered in Cape Town in the last 10 years? Can you name even 5 examples? Most people only know about Anni Dewani, because her death made news headlines around the world. She was killed in the township of Gugulethu, in 2010, during her honeymoon. I could only find two other examples - one from 2015 where the killer was not a South African, but a fellow tourist, an acquaintance from Guatemala. And a more recent attack on a lone hiker along a remote trail near Cape Town in 2019. Try as I might, I couldn't find any other examples of tourists being killed in South Africa. Perhaps I missed all the tourist murders that make South Africa so dangerous? No, the truth is this: very, very few tourists are killed in South Africa as a result of crime. Less than one a year, out of more than 15 million tourists visiting this beautiful country every year. The odds are nowhere near as bad as you think.
Unlike Anni Dewani, most tourists are not likely to set foot in the poorest and most dangerous areas, where the rates of murder and robbery are at their highest. It's the same in any big city around the world. There are areas of Chicago or Paris or Barcelona that are not safe for a tourist. A typical visitor to South Africa will experience no crime at all during their trip. Crime against tourists is not common.
It's worth repeating. On average, there is less than one tourist death per year as a result of crime, out of more than 15 million tourists visiting South Africa each year. According to this blog from data.world regarding American tourist deaths from October 2009 to June 2016, South Africa does not even feature as one of the countries where American tourists are most likely to be killed. Your chances of being murdered in South Africa as a tourist are virtually zero. And the reason is that the areas frequented by tourists are generally safe.
Unfortunately, tourists getting mugged or robbed is a lot more common than we would like it to be. This is true for many major tourist cities around the world. Tourists tend to carry cash and valuables around with them, and being unfamiliar with the environment or with basic safety precautions can make them easy targets for thieves. This is not unique to South Africa, but the number of robberies here do scare people away.
Robberies are probably the worst aspect of South Africa's high crime rate, as far as tourists are concerned. News reports and social media can make South Africa sound like a very scary destination, because every once in a while we hear of tourists getting mugged in the city, or getting attacked and robbed while walking on a remote beach, or while hiking up Table Mountain. Such incidents always make the news or get shared widely on social media. Tourists have also been mugged or scammed while drawing cash at certain places. Last year, there was a spate of robberies involving a gang of robbers who followed people from the airport, pulling over tourist vehicles or rental cars by posing as police officers, before robbing them. Quite often, they specifically targeted tourists known to be carrying large sums of cash or valuables. One highly publicized incident some years ago involved a tourist bus full of Dutch tourists being pulled over by these fake cops and robbed. This terrible event made world headlines and sparked the formation of a special task team to find the perpetrators and end this spate of robberies. Nobody was killed in this incident, but there is no doubt that it did huge damage to South Africa's reputation abroad as a tourist destination. Fortunately, these incidents have sharply declined the last couple of years, following the arrest of one specific gang who were involved in such robberies.
Such things can happen, but once again, perspective is important. You will read about the tourists who were robbed, but you won't read about the fifteen million others who visited South Africa without incident. Hiking in certain areas is dangerous. Walking around alone or after dark can also be dangerous. By following some basic safety precautions, you can greatly reduce the risk of becoming a victim of crime in South Africa.
Will it happen to me?
This is the key question for any tourist who wants to visit South Africa. It is very unlikely that you will be a victim of crime during a visit to South Africa. The global odds of dying in a car accident is said to be around 1 in 5,000. Those are extremely scary odds, yet few people hesitate to get into a car and drive somewhere. It is far, far more dangerous to get into a car, in any country in the world, than to come to South Africa as a tourist.
If our own statistics as an inbound tour operator are anything to go by (as a reasonable sample), your odds are perhaps 1 in 10,000 that you may experience some form of crime while visiting South Africa. We have never had an incident of violent crime, where a tourist was physically harmed. In 15 years of operation, and having hosted thousands of tourists, we had only one case of a guest being robbed of cash during their trip, one case of a thief snatching a tourist's bag in a downtown area, and one case of theft from a hotel room safe (an inside job - the guest was later reimbursed). No violent crimes, no injuries, no murders. Reality does not match the scaremongering on social media and news headlines. If South Africa was so dangerous, we would have seen a lot more incidents.
Why do some South Africans maintain the country is unsafe?
Generally, people are more likely to post bad news on social media than good news. And stories of crime tend to go viral, while an uneventful trip report of a wonderful South African safari, without incident, will never go viral. So you are more likely to hear bad news than good news. Crime is a concern to South Africans, and local residents bear the brunt of our country's terrible crime statistics. The citizens are the ones most likely to be affected by home invasions, farm murders, violent protests, armed robberies, shootings or hijackings. These things happen, and the concerns are real, but they rarely involve tourists. Most tourist regions are very safe.
Another sad reality is that South African expats are notorious for bad-mouthing their home country. Some of the most negative people you will meet are South Africans who have left the country (not all of them, but many of them). Perhaps some have been victims of crime and have fled the country, angry and bitter at government's failure to eradicate crime. Others perhaps feel the need to justify their decision to leave, by broadcasting to all how the country has deteriorated, how crime and corruption are out of hand, there is no future for their children, the country is becoming a failed state, white genocide is coming, and so on. Exaggerations are common. Some things are blatantly false (like the white genocide myth). Others are true (corruption is bad here).
Our advice is - don't listen to these people. Prophets of doom have been around forever, and we've heard similar warnings since the day Nelson Mandela came to power, which sparked the first wave of émigrés after the end of Apartheid.
To be fair, any South African or foreign tourist who has been a victim of crime is likely to disagree with me and might wish to warn others not to travel to South Africa. Tourists who have been robbed are seldom going to champion or promote that destination. This is true not only for South Africa but also if you were robbed or scammed as a tourist in Paris or Barcelona or New York City. These things happen, and it is natural to then feel negative about that destination.
Why we still maintain SA is safe for tourists
Perspective and rational thought are often absent from discussions around safety in South Africa. It's an emotive issue. There is no doubt that the high crime rate is a genuine concern in South Africa, in particular for residents, and the crime statistics are nothing to be proud of. If South Africa is going to be called dangerous, it is most dangerous for township residents, for the poor, for women, and for African immigrants. Some areas can also be dangerous for hikers or cyclists or wealthy residents, and most South Africans take steps to ensure their own security and avoid known dodgy areas or unsafe situations. But for tourists, South Africa cannot be called a dangerous destination.
The vast majority of the millions of tourists who visit South Africa do so without incident. Most are blown away by the country's beauty, wildlife and friendly people. Many first time visitors are amazed at how safe and stable the country is and make plans to return again. Significant numbers of tourists visit year after year.
It helps to be streetwise, of course. With a little common sense and basic safety precautions, most crimes are easily preventable. In a future blog post, we will outline these basic do's and don'ts to ensure you don't get mugged or robbed while visiting South Africa.
My message to tourists is simple. South Africa is such an amazing country, with such an attractive exchange rate, such beautiful scenery, friendly people, rich history and incredible wildlife, that you would really miss out if you don't visit this wonderful country at least once in your lifetime. Don't let the fear of crime stop you from visiting. Don't believe the lie that South Africa is one of the most dangerous destinations to visit. It really is safe for tourists to visit South Africa.
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.