When I made the decision to backpack solo through South Africa, my safety seemed to be the topic on everybody’s lips. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that I have friends, family members and old acquaintances concerned for my well-being, but what I didn’t find nice, was the fact that many of these concerns and opinions about the dangerousness of South Africa seemed inherently racist and dare I say, ignorant.
It’s a sad fact that before my departure, a girl I hadn’t spoken to or seen in years, contacted me through Facebook Messenger and told me that not only was I stupid for travelling to South Africa alone, but also that I was going to get myself raped and murdered, and when I did, it would be my own fault.
That was a message that I found confronting, upsetting and disturbing. It frustrated me so much that I simply deleted it and set out to prove her wrong. Which I did. My travels through the gorgeous South Africa were safe, unforgettable and like nothing I’d expected in the very best way.
Despite me having an incredible trip, I am aware that South Africa has a bit of a bad reputation. The apartheid inflicted wounds on the country are still healing, and over the past few decades the country has had more than its fair share of problems. But what many people don’t know is that despite these problems, during the past several years the country has been busy undergoing an incredible transformation.
So, is South Africa safe for solo travel? If so, what can you do to keep yourself as safe as possible?
The answer to the first question is yes, within reason. South Africa is a big country and some parts are safer than others. Cape Town is very much a safe and cosmopolitan city, whilst places such as Johannesburg and Pretoria are less so. However, regardless of where you are, there are always going to be nooks and pockets of the city or town that are less safe than others. So do research before you depart, and ask locals and hostel employees what areas of the city are safe, and which ones should be visited with caution.
So then what can you do to keep yourself as safe as possible?
Where avoidable, do not carry anything that you cannot afford to lose.
This tip is pretty basic and is sound advice no matter where in the world you are travelling through. It’s pretty simple, things like your passport, significant sums of cash, expensive phones, jewellery, cameras and credit cards should only be carried if you absolutely need to use them. Leave everything that isn’t necessary for your days outing locked in a locker back in your hostel or hotel. Yes, robberies of hostels, hotels and hotel safes do happen, but robberies such as these are much less common than robberies by pickpocketing or mugging. When I would go out for my adventures, I would take my phone OR my GoPro (only occasionally did I use them both in the same day), plus a small sum of money. My passport and credit cards would only be taken out when I moved from one hostel to another or if I needed to withdraw cash.
Be crafty with packing.
This is one that is optional, but I always leave an emergency sum of cash hidden. When I stay in a hostel, my 70L backpack is kept in a locker then locked with combination locks. But even if a robber were to slit open my backpack looking to take valuables, I doubt many would look inside packets of tampons or inside tubes of lip balm, so these make for good hiding places.
Make sure your hostel is secure.
Make sure the hostel has lockable lockers and strong security before you book. In most places this is a given, but it’s worth being sure and double checking.
Do not walk alone at night.
I admit, I hate this tip. I love walking around at night, and would happily do so in most European cities. I hated feeling unable to safely walk wherever, whenever I wanted. But it is a fact of life that in some places, extra precautions are absolutely necessary and South Africa is one such place.
If using a taxi, only hail one from a taxi rank.
Unlicensed cabs have been known to take people to townships where they are then robbed. It’s upsetting and it’s disturbing, but it does happen. Also, make sure the driver has a meter and make sure he uses it, otherwise you do risk being ripped off.
Do not visit a township alone.
Townships are the enormous villages on the outskirts of town where people live in third world conditions. Crime IS extremely prevalent in these areas. Only visit a township with a trustworthy local or if you must, a tour group. For moral reasons, I don’t agree with these ‘Township Tours’; as personally, I believe that touring poverty seems insensitive and reinforces negative stereotypes about those that live in less fortunate conditions, but that is another blog post for another day.
I must admit, I find this one especially tough. No matter where I am in the world, I struggle to say no to beggars. But in South Africa it is vital that you do, as in the short second it takes you to pull out your purse or wallet, you become an easy target for a ‘snatch and run’ robbery.
Don’t carry valuables on Long Street.
This is one area of Cape Town where violent crime is down but pickpocketing rates are soaring.
If you are going to catch minibus cabs, check first to see which routes are safe.
I loved the minibus cabs for their affordability and speed, but I only used them for a few specific routes that I knew were usually quite safe, not all routes have a good reputation, so check with hostel employees before you ride.
If you are driving, always keep your doors locked.
Carjacking is still somewhat common in some parts of SA (I’m looking at you Jo-Burg) so always be alert when driving. Also, it isn’t uncommon for drivers to run red lights in dodgy areas, so if you don’t feel safe and you are sure running a red light won’t cause a hideous car accident, it’s something you may want to consider doing. That being said, SA has high rates of motor vehicle accidents, so proceed with caution.
If you are going to hitch-hike, only do so if there are women or children present in the vehicle.
I’ll be honest, hitch-hiking isn’t exactly a way of getting around that is inherently safe. But this won’t always stop people. Having women and children in a car does not ensure safety, but it’s something that always makes me feel more comfortable.
Lastly, don’t let fear dissuade you from the adventure of a lifetime.
While I was in South Africa I abseiled from Table Mountain, did a 216m bungee jump, I skydived in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I paraglided, I fed elephants, I cage dived with Great White sharks. I swam in the open ocean with seals, I hiked my butt off in deserted forests, I went canyoning in empty rivers and each one of those experiences I will remember for the rest of my life. Not only that, I did it on a shoestring.
South Africa is an absolutely incredible country, filled with some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you will ever meet. Though it has a bad reputation, with a little bit of extra caution and alertness, you would most likely be able to have a very safe and incredibly memorable trip. South Africa is one of the greatest countries I have ever visited and I can guarantee that I will go back in the (not so distant) future.