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Tips for Staying Safe in South Africa

razorwireThere’s no getting around it. South Africa suffers from an alarmingly high crime rate and while it’s easy to forget based on a look around at the modern cities and fancy restaurants, at second glance you’ll see that the country is still developing. You’ll need to be buzzed in to most hotels and shops, and the yards and patios of most guesthouses and hostels are surrounded with high fences and razor wire. Visiting cities in South Africa just isn’t the same as visiting developed cities elsewhere in the world.

This is not to say that you should reconsider a visit to South Africa. The country is a beautiful one, with a vibrant culture and abundant natural beauty, but visitors shouldn’t allow that cloud their judgment or let their guard down.

There’s a striking dichotomy between the rich and poor here, one that has led to higher levels of crime. There’s no need to be paranoid, but certain precautions should be taken in order to protect yourself and your belongings.

Use extra caution at night. While the following tips are good to keep in mind at all times, you generally won’t have any problems during the day. South Africa is working hard to make sure that all World Cup visitors stay safe, and there will be extra security around the stadiums and touristy areas, but there may also be more thieves hoping to prey on tourists.

Here are some tips for staying safe in South Africa:

  • Start by asking if there are specific areas to avoid when you check into your guesthouse, hotel or hostel . The owners and staff will know the area best and can guide you away from spots where you are likely to run into trouble.
  • Keep all valuables in a locked safe in your room. Don’t carry your passport or credit card with you if you can help it. Make photo copies of your credit cards and passport and keep them in a safe place, along with the international numbers for your bank (in case you need to cancel a credit card) and the number and location of the nearest Embassies (should you lose your passport).
  • Travel in groups at night when you can and stay aware of your surroundings. Don’t get too drunk, or allow another person in your group to walk home alone drunk. Don’t walk alone at night unless you are in a well-populated, well-lit, touristy area (like Cape Town’s Long Street). Even if your destination is only a few blocks away, don’t be too proud to take a 90-second cab ride. You’re better safe than sorry.
  • In bars, don’t let your drink out of your sight. Rape and sexual assault happen far too often.
  • Don’t carry more cash than you need. Leave the flashy jewelry at home. At night, or when heading to unfamiliar areas, leave the camera in your hotel and only carry the bare minimum that you will need.
  • Avoid driving at night. If you must, be hyper-vigilant about your surroundings. Keep lots of space between your car and the one in front of you in case you need to make a quick getaway. In dicey areas, don’t stop for red lights. Hijackings are all too common.
  • Be aware of your surroundings when driving. Never leave valuables in the car, and never put your purse or bag on the seat next to you or in the backseat, as thieves have been known to smash windows and grab belongings right out of the car. Put all valuables in the truck while you are driving.
  • Always take a registered cab and insist that the driver turn on the meter.
  • Only use ATMs located inside banks, rebuff anyone who tried to “help” you use the machine, be discreet with your cash, and divvy it between several pockets until you can get it back to your room safe.

If you do run into trouble:

  • Do what your attacker tells you. Ideally, you’re not carrying very much money or wearing any expensive jewelry, so give him what you have. If you’ve put money into several different pockets, you can just empty the contents of one or two. Don’t try to fight back or run away. Your attacker may decide it’s not worth it to chase you, or he may become very angry at your attempt to escape.
  • Contact the police. Tell the owner or staff at your lodging what happened and ask them to call the police so that you can file a report. Though there’s virtually no chance they’ll catch the criminal or recover the stolen goods, it’s still a wise move to alert the authorities.
  • If your credit cards or passport were among the items taken, contact your bank and your local Embassy immediately for help.
  • Don’t let the incident ruin your trip. Hopefully, you’re only short a little bit of money and nothing more. Learn from the experience and adjust your travel plans if needed, but don’t let one incident ruin your trip. Sometimes bad fortune befalls even the savviest of travelers.

Photo by sharon.schneider