South Africa is one of the most visited African countries. Once you see the photos of this nation, you’ll understand why. Nature there is absolutely stunning, from the mountains over Cape Town to the inhospitable deserts in the north.
Most people who visit South Africa want to go on safari in world-famous parks such as Kruger National Park, anxious for an opportunity to see lions in the wild. Others make a beeline for the thumping cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.
South Africa is a massive country with a lot to offer, from mountains to beaches to cities. Every visitor wants their South African vacation to be amazing, but the best way to ensure that is to be prepared for any safety concerns.
We’ve done the research on South Africa, and here are some important tips to keep in mind as you plan your trip.
Is South Africa Safe to Visit in 2023?
Although South Africa is not the most dangerous place in the world, it is not that safe to visit. The country has very high crime rates.
Besides theft, these crime rates include violent crimes such as kidnapping, assault, rape, and even murder. Foreigners are not immune from these threats. The main reason why people are concerned about visiting South Africa, and with good reason, is the high crime rate.
Governments such as Canada advise their citizens to exercise a high degree of caution when visiting South Africa due to the high crime rate, which is sadly very high.
The income inequality in the country is drastically stratified, partially a legacy of apartheid. The result is conditions that are ripe for organized crime to take over, as well as the perfect conditions for desperate people to engage in crimes of opportunity.
Despite a high crime rate, many foreigners still come to South Africa. The reality, as the UK government points out in its travel advisory, is that foreigners are mostly insulated from violent crime in the country.
Victims tend to be locals or poor migrant workers, not wealthy tourists. Tourists also have an additional level of protection thanks to the South African Tourism Police, which prioritizes protecting foreigners, so criminals usually won’t bother for anything more severe than some theft.
Besides theft, visitors to South Africa often have a myriad of concerns, including:
- Civil unrest
- Wildlife attacks
- Natural disasters
Protests often erupt due to popular dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country, so don’t be surprised if you hear about a demonstration.
Demonstrations can easily turn violent due to protesters’ actions or police reactions, so stay away from protest areas if possible. Another thing to keep in mind is that the South African wildlife that draws so many people is truly wild, not domesticated.
Exercise caution when exploring the wilderness, from the beaches to safari parks. Follow any posted warnings and advice from local guides to avoid sharks or lions taking too much of an interest in you.
Crime in South Africa
Despite concerns about other potential risk factors, including natural disasters and political demonstrations, most visitors to South Africa are rightfully concerned primarily with crime.
South Africa has a very high crime rate. According to Macrotrends, the rate of intentional homicides as of 2020 was 33.46 incidents per 100,000 people.
According to statistics published by the South African Police Service, in Western Cape province alone, contact crimes increased by 21.8% in the third quarter of 2022. Sexual offenses increased by 23.8%, and carjacking increased by 38.6%.
There are a few reasons behind the growing crime rate in South Africa. Different analysts cite growing income inequality driving poor people towards crime, while others blame a diminishing police force unable to keep the peace.
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the victims of crime are South Africans themselves, particularly South Africans living in impoverished neighborhoods with higher crime rates.
That doesn’t mean being a foreigner will make you perfectly carefree, but it does mean that you are isolated from the worst facets of South African life, from high murder rates to corruption.
The most common form of crime that tourists are likely to encounter in South Africa is theft. Robbery was one of the crimes that rose the most in 2022, including aggravated forms of robbery such as hijacking and carjacking.
South Africa has a very high rate of pickpocketing, although you’re likely to encounter this crime at any other tourist destination that you visit. Pickpockets are criminals of opportunity — they are not violent, opting to take advantage of distracted tourists instead.
Pickpocketing is the most frequent crime you are likely to encounter as a foreigner. You can guard against it by staying alert in your surroundings. Pickpockets take advantage of people who seem distracted.
Also, make sure your valuables are safe and secure. You’ll never see South Africans carrying wallets in their back pockets or letting their purses hang off the backs of chairs at cafes, so do the same as they do.
A bigger concern than pickpocketing is the prevalence of more violent forms of theft, such as mugging, armed robbery, and carjacking. Criminals will often target tourists for those crimes because they know tourists tend to have more money than South African locals.
The biggest precaution you can take to prevent violent crime is to avoid traveling to unsafe areas (more on those later). Make sure someone is aware of your whereabouts at all times, and avoid traveling alone.
You should also be careful when driving, as carjacking and break-ins are common. In the cities, avoid driving yourself as you don’t know the area well — even professional drivers have areas they won’t venture into. Lock doors and keep windows closed at all times.
When you park, make sure your doors are locked, hide your belongings, and keep valuables with you. Thieves like to break into cars even at seemingly isolated locations such as popular trailheads.
Finally, be careful when taking public transportation. Muggings and robberies happen on inter-city train lines, so research the specific line you want to take ahead of time or just rent a car or fly.
Unfortunately, female travelers to South Africa have to be more vigilant than their male counterparts. Rape and sexual assault are very common in this country. Statistics put the incidents of rape at 72.10 incidents per 100,000 people, although the actual rate is probably much higher.
The country also has high rates of other forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence. The authorities are often unable or unwilling to bring perpetrators to justice. Most of the victims of assault and rape are local South African women.
However, foreign women are also vulnerable to rape and sexual assault. An additional risk factor is that South Africa has one of the highest HIV rates in the world, at about 19.5%, and women who are raped are often infected.
Sexual violence can happen anywhere in the world, and just because you visit South Africa doesn’t mean that you’ll be a victim. There are a few precautions you can take to keep yourself safe, probably the same precautions most women take in their hometowns.
Don’t travel at night if you can help it. If you are outside after dark, take a ride-share or taxi (Uber has the best security features).
Don’t travel alone, and if you are backpacking solo, meet up with tour groups or fellow travel buddies from hostels whenever possible. Finally, if you go clubbing, be very careful about accepting drinks, as date rape drugs are very common.
Avoiding Bad Areas
The most important tip to follow that will make or break your South African vacation is avoiding bad areas. Do your research for every city that you visit and the roads in between.
A general rule of thumb is to avoid visiting townships by yourself. Townships are shantytowns that, during apartheid, were the only place Black South Africans and other racialized groups were allowed to live.
To this day, these neighborhoods are a lot poorer than other parts of South Africa, meaning they also have higher crime rates. Townships are an important part of South Africa’s history as well as its current culture.
Local guides organize tours which are fun to take, although you should know there are no safety guarantees. Still, avoid venturing into townships such as Khayelitsha in Cape Town or Soweto in Johannesburg by yourself, especially at night.
The city of Johannesburg has a reputation as one of South Africa’s most dangerous cities. Many tourists decide to skip it altogether. If you decide to go, avoid townships such as Soweto, and ask your hotel guides for advice on which areas to avoid.
At night, the safety rules change, and you have to use a lot more precautions than you would use during the day. In all cities, the Central Business Districts are dangerous at night, no matter how vibrant they are during the day.
Avoid driving at night, as carjackings are common. Even popular tourist attractions are not immune to the occasional safety challenge.
Many foreign governments advised their citizens to avoid the Numbi Gate entrance to Kruger National Park after a German tourist was murdered during a carjacking gone wrong in October 2022. Before going anywhere in South Africa, read up on safety tips and suggested routes.
Things to Consider
Here are some things to keep in mind when traveling to South Africa:
- Make sure someone knows your itinerary at all times, especially if you are traveling solo.
- South Africa’s best backpacker hostels are known for their safety and hospitality. If you’re traveling alone, make travel buddies in your hostel and explore with them for safety in numbers.
- Never open your windows, especially when stopping. People will sometimes pose as if they are in distress to try and lure potential victims.
- Never let your valuables out of your sight and into the open. Don’t leave valuables in the car. Keep valuables on your person or in carry-on luggage when traveling, as Johannesburg’s airport is notorious for luggage theft.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some other questions you might want answered before you head to South Africa:
Is South Africa safe to travel to now?
South Africa’s crime rates are at the highest that they’ve been in years. While most incidents of crime affect locals, there have been incidents of foreigners getting assaulted or even murdered. Most travelers to South Africa are safe, but your risks of being a victim of a crime are higher than they’ve ever been.
What should I avoid in South Africa?
Avoid wandering around unfamiliar areas at night (although you probably don’t do that in your hometown either). Avoid flashing your valuables and leaving your bag unattended. Avoid driving in the cities if you are not a confident driver ready to practice defensive driving.
Is South Africa safe for female tourists?
South Africa is not the safest place for female tourists, especially if you haven’t traveled much before. That being said, most gender-based violence affects local women the most.
Is Johannesburg safe for white tourists?
Some foreigners are afraid to travel to South Africa if they are white, especially to areas that saw a lot of anti-apartheid resistance, such as Johannesburg, because they’re afraid of racial resentment.
However, there is no racism against white tourists (and Black South Africans are still the most disenfranchised in the country). If someone does attack you, it’s because you are a foreigner, which singles you out as wealthier than most South Africans, not because you’re white.
Is it safe to walk in Cape Town at night?
It’s not safe to walk around Cape Town at night, especially due to the rising crime rate in the city and the country as a whole. You can take in the city’s nightlife, but take a taxi to and from the bar, don’t travel alone, and be very careful.
Over to You — Book Your Trip Today!
South Africa has a high crime rate which all tourists should be aware of before visiting. Violent incidents such as kidnappings and carjacking happen with foreign visitors.
However, remember that most of the victims are South Africans themselves and that, with some caution and good luck, you can have a great vacation in South Africa. So what are you waiting for — book your trip today!