Is South Africa Safe? Everything You Need To Know

We have visited South Africa now 4 times each, twice together, we have never had safety concerns within South Africa and wanted to share our experience.

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Introduction: Is South Africa safe?

Up front, this is a really difficult question to answer. Everybody knows that South Africa has a troubled past, and of course that means that there are still some internal, political relationships that could be better. Naturally, the trauma of apartheid has left a heavy burden on the country, one which some local people struggle daily to overcome. However, perhaps here’s the question that most interests travellers, is South Africa safe for tourists?

As seasoned travellers who have visited South Africa now 4 times each, twice together, we have never had safety concerns there. Of course you must always follow due diligence and be sensible, but below we’ll tell you about our time in this amazing country and how we found travelling around it.

In certain areas (and this is not the case everywhere), a distrust of authority figures has led to a problem with police-citizen relationships, and some crime is handled via vigilante groups. In our experience, this does not generally spill into areas you will visit as a tourist.

Of course, we are not downplaying the situation at all, since it is fractious in places, but we can only speak to our lived experience. Political tensions are not immediately obvious as tourists at all. You can find out more about the situation in South Africa here and we would also recommend Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – it’s an obvious choice for those wanting to know more, but is genuinely really informative.

Two young South African girls dancing for a crowd of their friends in a small village in South Africa. The setting is very simple, with small brick houses and sand on the ground. There are mountains in the distance.
Kids playing in the tiny village of Makushu

Insurance for travelling through Africa

Of course everyone hopes things will not go wrong when they travel, but the fact is that they might! That’s why it’s always best to be prepared with great travel insurance just in case of emergency.

We use SafetyWing for our travel insurance and we really like them. Their policy wording is super clear and easy to understand and they have everything we need to cover us. You can check the cost for your dates using their price calculator below.

Areas we have visited in South Africa

To give context of our experience and the areas discussed in this article, we thought a map of everywhere we have travelled would be useful. The below are places we’ve visited over the last 5 years:

Cape Town and the Garden Route (along the Coast to Port Elizabeth)
Johannesburg (including Soweto district) and Pretoria
National parks (safaris): Kruger, Shamwari, Pilanesburg
Orange River and Namaqualand
Durban and UMhlanga
Maloti-Drakensberg National Park (and Lesotho, though not discussed in this article)
Mbombela/Nelspruit (and Eswatini, though not discussed in this article)
Nzhelele (Makushu village)

Basically, almost every corner of the country and we have probably driven through most of the rest of it! We explored most of these places on self-drive itineraries – Orange River and Namaqualand were as part of a guided group tour.

Interactive map of places we’ve recently visited:

Safety in Tourist Areas

By tourist areas, we are referring to the likes of: the Garden Route, National Parks, and parts of larger cities where tourists are in vast quantities.

For those asking specifically, ‘how safe is Cape Town?’, we would say that most areas of Cape Town fall into this category. Regarding safety in Johannesburg, this also includes Sandton and Rosebank, and additionally places like UMhlanga in Durban – the list goes on.

Locals and tourists alike visit these areas, and many people such as hotel and restaurant staff, shopkeepers and sometimes police. You are highly unlikely to get into any kind of difficulty in these areas because there are a lot of people and the crime reporting is very low.

In these areas, there are little to no reported incidents of violence or street crime, with the only regularly reported incident being petty theft (such as pickpocketing). Quite honestly, you are more likely to be attacked by baboons in safari parks than by a person (we are not really joking, this is a genuine possibility!!). On a personal level, we have never experienced any issues whatsoever while hiking, road tripping or on safari, so we can confidently back up these reports.

Emma is standing on a ledge overlooking a series of rolling mountains and the view is incredible. She is wearing a purple backpack and stretching her arms out wide. It is quite cloudy.
Hiking in the Drakensbergs

Safety in Johannesburg, Cape Town and other major cities

As with any major city in any country, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban etc. have their less safe areas, which (as a tourist) you would be sensible to avoid, especially after dark, but quite honestly if you are staying in a place with a lot of hotels (i.e. a high profile tourist area), you are very unlikely to experience any issues. The major threat to tourists in these cities is pickpocketing, as with ay major city. Just exercise caution in busy areas and you should be fine.

Our top tip is to do your research well, choose a well-reviewed hotel – if in doubt, as frustrating as it is for budget travellers, go for something a little more expensive, or for a chain that you know. We have included our list of hotels in Johannesburg and Cape Town. These are great options for first-time visitors, especially if you have concerns, and are ones we have stayed in before. Please do reach out for further recommendations elsewhere, we’d be happy to assist!

In the evenings, we would suggest sticking to well-lit areas with lots of people, and taking taxis if you do not feel comfortable walking home. Be sensible and keep personal possessions hidden, as you would in any large city.

Where to stay in Cape Town

The below are three awesome options where we’ve stayed before and really enjoyed. We felt safe as tourists in all of them.

never@home – Kloof Street (central), budget friendly, lively atmosphere
Cape Grace – luxury hotel V&A waterfront, great restaurants nearby
12 Apostles – luxury out of town in Camps Bay – beautiful setting and incredible unique high end hotel

Where to stay in Johannesburg

Likewise the two hotels below in Johannesburg are in areas where we felt really safe, and we’ve had great experiences staying in both of them. For Johannesburg, we would suggest avoiding super budget options outside of touristy areas.

Johannesburg Marriott Hotel Melrose Arch – well located lively area, mid-range budget
The Saxon – beautiful upscale hotel in a nice area

Emma is lying on a massage table looking out over Camps Bay.
Spa views from the Twelve Apostles in Cape Town

Safety while driving in South Africa

We have driven extensively in all areas of Southern Africa and always found it relatively safe and easy. In South Africa especially, roads tend to be well-maintained and easy to navigate. Driving is something which scares a lot of tourists, due to reports of car jackings, however again in tourist areas, these incidents are very uncommon.

Our top tips:

  1. Don’t stop to pick up anyone from the side of the road
  2. Keep windows up and valuables hidden when stopped at traffic lights
  3. Try not to drive in areas of high traffic, especially at night
  4. If you break down, try to leave the car in a sheltered spot out of the way, and get yourself somewhere safe ASAP, don’t wait until it gets dark
  5. Get a sturdy and reliable car with good suspension, even if you have to pay a little more. Most roads are fine but you might find some with bad pot holes and it’s smart to have something that can handle the bumps.
  6. Keep all emergency kit in the car, plus insurance documents, as you would with any rental
  7. South Africa is the only country where we have actually been asked to show an international driving licence, so check if you need this to drive there. We had to display it at a police check.
  8. At police checks, this may go without saying, but do not attempt to bribe police officers, even if they request payment. Simply show them your documentation and request to drive on.
  9. Download your map. Signal can be a little sketchy in certain places and you want to have a map loaded in case you lose GPS.
A view of a road winding through the mountains in Maloti Drakensberg National Park. You can see the dashboard.
Driving through Maloti Drakensberg National Park

Safety in Safari Parks

In safari parks, you should be mindful of the animals first and foremost. You are in their space, so you need to dress and act accordingly. The most important thing to remember is that the animals are wild, and no matter how docile they seem, they are not tame.

Read our list of the best Safari Parks in South Africa here.

Our top tips:

  1. Choose neutral colours for your clothing – black, dark blue or green, khaki and beige/brown are good choices. Steer away from bright prints or patterns
  2. It probably goes without saying but keeps your hands inside the car and don’t touch any animals, even if they come near to you. Animals often see the car as another animal, so making sudden movements can cause them to react unpredictably.
  3. Do not take food with you on safari (you’ll attract baboons) or leave food in your tent if camping. When you go to your tent for the evening, you should leave all food in your car or in a communal kitchen. The main reason for this is that camps which are in National Parks can sometimes be visited by elephants in search of food and you really don’t want them to come trampling round your tent at night!
  4. Not really a safety tip, but layer up! Safaris often take place in open vehicles and it can get both windy and sunny
  5. Do as you’re told – the guides and rangers in safari parks are amazing. They know exactly how to keep you safe, so listen to them and do exactly what they say if they give you instructions
A bull elephant standing in the middle of bushland surrounded by trees. He has long tusks and is facing the camera.
An elephant in Kruger

Summary

Basically, South Africa is a very tourist-friendly and characterful place to visit! In our experience, safety concerns should be no greater than elsewhere, as long as you use common sense.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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