Despite the country's reputation, it is generally safe to visit South Africa as a tourist. Incidents of crime involving tourists are rare, and most areas frequented by tourists are safe. And like anywhere else in the world, it is wise to follow a few basic precautions, use common sense, and avoid high risk areas.
Here are some basic safety tips that will help keep you safe while visiting South Africa. Don't be scared off by this long list of tips. Most of these apply to other destinations around the world, too.
On the flight and at the airport
- Never pack valuables in checked luggage. Keep valuables on you. Don't keep your passport in your back pocket or accessible jacket pocket. Use an inside pocket or travel wallet.
- Be alert at the airport. Keep your belongings in sight. Hold on to your stuff. Never leave a bag unattended. Look around. Walk with purpose. Follow official direction signs, don't ask random people for directions.
- Don't accept help from strangers. If you get hassled, a firm "no thanks" will do. Don't allow yourself to be distracted. Not by your phone, and not by other people. Thieves may stage a diversion to distract you while an accomplice tries to steal your valuables. Be suspicious of someone randomly bumping into you.
- Do not carry valuables in your backpack or any bag or pocket that is easily accessible. If your valuables are in your backpack, don't carry it on your back. Pickpockets are clever and use all kinds of tricks to distract you and steal your wallet.
- Avoid taxis that have been recommended to you by strangers at the airport.
- Avoid carrying large amounts of cash on you, or exchanging a large amount of foreign currency at the airport.
- Be aware of people who seem to be hanging around or following you. If someone keeps following you, report them to an official.
At an ATM
- ATM's or cash machines are available almost everywhere. Some are in safe locations, others not. The safest ones are inside a bank or shopping mall, not out on the street. You can also draw cash from most supermarkets, at the till (cash register).
- Don't draw large sums of cash at a time.
- Be alert. Never accept help from a stranger. Don't even look up if someone asks you what the time is. If someone tells you the ATM is broken and you need to use another one, be suspicious and don’t draw cash there.
- Never allow anyone close to you. Make sure nobody is looking over your shoulder. Shield the keypad when typing in your pin. Never divulge your pin to anyone no matter what happens.
- If your card is stuck in the machine, and someone comes to try and help you, it is almost certainly a scam. Stay at the machine, don't enter your code again, phone your bank and cancel your card immediately. It is wise to save your bank's contact number on your phone before your trip, so it is easy to cancel your card if needed. And be sure to enable international dialling on your phone.
- Do not put valuables on the passenger seat or backseat of the car. Make sure phones, handbags, laptop bags and any other valuables are stored out of sight. If possible, keep your wallet, phone and passport on your person rather than somewhere in the car. A hidden money belt can be useful.
- Look the doors and keep windows closed.
- At traffic lights, people may approach your window to beg for money or try and sell you something. Don't panic, this is common in South Africa and usually harmless. A shake of the head is enough to indicate you are not interested.
- Use a GPS, but also ask directions to your destination before your trip, and plan your route beforehand. Sometimes, a GPS will direct you through a dodgy area that may be a more direct route but is not the safest route.
- Never pick up hitchhikers or offer lifts to a stranger with a sad and desperate story.
- Stick to the speed limit and obey all traffic rules. Never roll over a stop street. If a traffic light is not working, treat it as a 4-way stop. If you get pulled over, stay friendly and polite, but be aware that a small minority of traffic cops are corrupt. Never pay a fine in cash, on the spot. Insist that the ticket is written out and inform the cop that you have been instructed not to pay any fine in cash. If you are asked to go to the police station, agree to go, insist on a written ticket showing the infringement and the officer's name, as well as a receipt for the fine you paid.
- In the unlikely event that you are robbed or hijacked, co-operate fully and do not resist. Let them take what they want. Resisting, cursing or shouting increases the chances of escalation to violence. Stay calm and don't fight them.
- When locking your car, listen for the click of the lock or check your doors to make sure they are locked. In some areas, remote jammers are active.
At your hotel or at restaurants
- Don't leave your bags unattended. Keep them closed and within sight.
- All credit card transactions should be completed in your presence. Don't let anyone take your credit card out of sight, where it may be cloned.
- Use the room safe. Never leave valuables in your suitcase or elsewhere in your room.
- Keep your door locked and don't open for strangers.
- Ask the hotel front desk about your immediate surroundings, if there are any areas to avoid, etc. You can also get directions about where to go.
On foot and in public areas
- Stick to areas that are well lit and frequented by tourists. Avoid empty side streets or alleyways. Avoid dodgy-looking areas.
- Don't wander around aimlessly. Know where you are going. If you need directions, don't ask strangers on the street. Go into a hotel or shop and ask for directions.
- Don't walk around staring at your phone. Keep your phone, purse and other valuables out of sight. Be alert.
- Don't display valuables or excessive jewellery. Try to blend in, rather than stand out as a rich tourist.
- Never put your bag down somewhere and turn your back, or walk away from it.
- Be cautious when people approach you or try and distract you. Go into a nearby shop if you feel uncomfortable.
- Walking in groups is better than walking alone.
- Do not give money to people on the street. Rather give to registered charities. Be careful about where you take out your wallet. And don’t believe all the sad stories you hear.
- It is not wise to carry large sums of money with you. Credit cards are widely accepted and much safer.
- Avoid remote beaches and hiking trails. Do a bit of research beforehand. Some areas are known to be unsafe, so don't go there.
- Some areas like the Waterfront are very safe, even after dark. But generally, it is safer to take a cab after dark than walking somewhere.
In game reserves
- Game reserves are generally very safe. Do not feed or touch any wild animal. Be careful of baboons and monkeys, especially around Cape Point and at picnic sites in the Kruger National Park.
- Do not leave food or bags in an open vehicle. Do not leave valuables lying around. Before leaving your car, check that your car doors are locked.
- In the Kruger Park, do not leave valuables in your bungalow while out on a game drive. Cleaning staff will have access to your room and your fridge. Occasionally something goes missing, so take care.
- In Table Mountain National Park, avoid hiking alone on remote footpaths or hiking trails. Don't carry valuables with you on a hike. Always hike in a group and stick to the most popular tourist routes.
Use common sense
No matter where you travel in the world, general common sense and basic safety precautions will help you avoid most incidents of crime. Be alert. Avoid dodgy-looking areas and known high-risk areas. In South Africa that would include the townships (slums), run-down areas, commuter taxi ranks, and certain downtown areas. Don't carry large sums of cash on you. Don't trust strangers. Read up about common tourist scams, and be careful where you keep your valuables. If something does happen, stay calm and control your emotions. Don't try and fight off robbers, or try to be a hero. Rather co-operate and think of your own safety first, not about your worldly possessions. Theft or robberies can happen, but homicides or violent crimes against tourists are very rare. Report any incidents of crime to the police. You need a police case number in order to claim from insurance. You can also report incidents to the Tourism Safety Initiative. This website also has some handy safety tips and important contact numbers. If necessary, get assistance from your travel agent or tour operator, or from your country’s consulate.
Most importantly, do not let the fear of crime ruin your trip or stop you from enjoying your African safari! Even in South Africa with its reputation for being unsafe, incidents involving tourists are rare, and most tourist regions are safe to visit.
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.