Safety in South Africa


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South African Police Service officersThere is no doubt that crime and safety in South Africa are major factors for expats considering moving to the country. Crime rates remain high, petty theft and opportunistic crimes are common, and armed robberies and hijackings are also fairly frequent in certain areas. However, the majority of crime occurs in low-income areas far removed from where expats generally live, and most often occurs between people who know each other.

Nevertheless, the ongoing concern about crime in South Africa relates to the violence that often accompanies it and the few cases that do affect foreigners.
 
South African authorities have made great efforts to address the crime issue. Over the past two decades the country’s murder rate has halved and, while they remain at high levels, crimes such as business and house robberies are relatively stable.
 
While crime is generally contained by the South African Police Service and the Metro Police in larger cities, expats still have to be vigilant to reduce their chances of being affected. Keeping abreast of local affairs keeps residents aware of emerging public safety issues. Small lifestyle changes can also greatly decrease the chances of becoming a victim and improve the experience of life in South Africa. 

By being aware of their surroundings, avoiding isolated areas and investing in home and vehicle security, expats become less vulnerable to crime.
 

Residential safety in South Africa

 
Home burglary is frequent in South Africa. By contracting an armed response security provider and investing in electric fencing, expats greatly improve their personal safety. Many suburban estates also have controlled access, which has almost eliminated crime in those areas. 
 
There are a few more factors that can improve the residential safety of expats:
  • Most South African house burglars operate in groups and select their targets based on appearance. Alert the neighbourhood watch or police if suspicious looking small groups or individuals are wandering the area.
  • Home burglaries mostly occur between 10pm and 4am, as criminals want their victims present to hand over valuables. Be especially vigilant about locked doors and set alarm systems at these times.
  • Expats in the process of choosing a home should opt for enclosed neighbourhoods or security villages, apartments with gated security, or an area with an effective neighbourhood watch.
  • Perimeter walls, guard dogs, electric fencing and barred doors and windows should all be considered when living in South Africa, if they’re affordable.
  • A common complaint is that police response is too slow. Expats should also consider using private security companies with armed response units capable of responding to emergencies.
 

Public transport safety in South Africa

 
A lack of safe public transportation in South Africa poses a frustrating challenge. Minibus taxis, trains and even certain buses are especially vulnerable to pickpocketing and muggings. Consulting trusted locals or tour operators on the safest mode of transport in the area is recommended.
 
There are no underground trains, but the speedy Gautrain, operating between Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and Pretoria, provides a safe and effective means of travel. It is, however, relatively expensive.
 
The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) services in Cape Town and Johannesburg are widely regarded as safe options, but valuables should still be kept out of sight when using them and caution is advisable at night, especially when travelling alone.
 

Road safety in South Africa

 
Although South Africa has a developed road infrastructure, road safety is an ongoing concern. Reckless driving with little respect for road rules, especially by minibus taxis, is the cause of many accidents. 
 
In certain areas, smash-and-grab thefts and hijackings are also threats; hotspots include outside residential driveways and at traffic lights near freeway off-ramps.
 
Pedestrians and animals are also known to cross highways unexpectedly in some places, and drivers should be alert to this.
 
Expats driving in South Africa should do so defensively, obey the rules of the road and constantly be aware of their surroundings, especially at night when accidents and crime are more frequent. They should also keep their car doors locked, stick to main routes, park in well-lit areas, keep valuables out of sight, and never pick up hitchhikers. It is an unwritten rule to treat red traffic lights as stop streets in high-crime areas late at night to evade hijackings.
 
When parking at night, expats should choose a security patrolled or well-lit area. Informal and formal car guarding services are common in South Africa. Should a car guard be offering assistance once the car has been parked, it’s accepted practice to pay them a small fee of a few rands when returning.
 

Scams in South Africa

 
Foreigners are a favourite target for criminals posing as tour guides or police. When touring, only employ registered, qualified tour guides and don’t be afraid to ask police for their credentials.
 
If a suspicious, unmarked police car tries to stop someone’s vehicle, they should instead head to the nearest police station or marked police vehicle to confirm the officer’s identification. The introduction of ghost patrols has, however, made this a bit more complicated but officers will be in uniform.

ATM scams in South Africa are also common. Never let a stranger help or engage them in conversation when drawing money. Don't count money in public, and avoid drawing large amounts of cash if strangers are watching. Should the ATM withhold a card, call the helpline number displayed nearby immediately.
 

Political and social unrest in South Africa

 
South African police at a public protestProtests stemming from social inequalities and labour disputes are common in South Africa. These can disrupt traffic and service delivery in the affected area and violence has erupted on occasion.
 
Large labour union strikes are usually reported on in advance and there is normally a notable security presence surrounding such events. Expats should keep abreast of local developments and should avoid any affected areas.
 

Safety tips for South Africa

 
The following are some general safety precautions that visitors to South Africa should remember:
  • Keep aware of your surroundings. When walking in the streets, avoid displaying valuable objects that may attract muggers. This includes jewellery, electronic equipment, mobile phones, car keys and wallets.
  • Stick to populated areas. Be cautious around narrow alleys, marginal areas of cities and avoid townships unless accompanied by a registered tour guide.
  • Walk with purpose and plan routes beforehand. Looking lost or asking for directions makes a person look like a soft target. Ask police officers, and shop or hotel staff for directions.
  • If lost when driving, or having car trouble, contact the AA for roadside assistance
  • If confronted, comply with the criminal’s demands to hand over valuables and avoid looking at them
 

Emergency telephone numbers in South Africa

  • Tourist crisis incident report: 0861 874 911

  • Police: 10111

  • Police Flying Squad: 10111

  • Ambulance: 10177

  • Ambulance (from a South African mobile phone): 122

  • Netcare 911 (private medical rescue service): 082 911

  • AA (Emergency Roadside Assistance): 083 843 22
     

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