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Crime in South Africa

You’ve all read the headlines: Violence in South Africa at an all-time high, the Oscar Pistorius trial bad for South Africa’s image, Life in South Africa a war zone, and of course, we’ve all met the disenfranchised, expatriate South African who likes nothing more than to bemoan the rate of crime in their home country as the reason they could never go back.

As a tourist thinking of visiting South Africa, this might give you pause.

But should it?

Before you dismiss South Africa as a holiday destination, let’s get the facts straight.


Firstly, most violent crimes occur between people who know one another - as a tourist in South Africa, you are more likely to be attacked by your partner than by a criminal!

In fact, crime statistics among tourists in South Africa are very low. Most crimes reported are petty thefts - your mobile phone might disappear off your table while you’re having drinks, a wallet might mysteriously vanish from your back pocket, a camera never to be seen again.

Furthermore, certain townships (often informal and underdeveloped urban settlements that, until the end of Apartheid, were reserved for non-whites) where crime bosses and gangs operate are key contributors to the high crime rate in the country. That’s not to say that crime doesn’t penetrate the cities - but that it can be avoided.

According to the statistics available, the chance of a tourist experiencing a violent crime (assault, mugging, gang attack, rape or hijacking) is less than 0.67%

I’ve lived in South Africa my entire life and travelled the country extensively (including most of its townships), and the only time I ever experienced crime was when I was pick pocketed in London and had my backpack stolen in Tel Aviv!


Well, unless you count the stolen laptop from a ‘safe’ storage facility at one of Cape Town’s central hotels, hardly a random attack of violence. So, although crime in South Africa is a real threat, the question of whether it will affect you as a tourist is still up for discussion.

Calculating crime in South Africa

The understanding of South Africa as a country where crime occurs on every corner also stems from the way crime is calculated.

The seemingly high murder rate of 50 murders per day, when put into the number of murders per 100,000 people (now 40.4) is lower than what the people of Birmingham, Alabama experienced in 2006 (yes, they had 44.5).

In fact, Nation Master ranks South Africa as 7th for the highest incidence of crimes per country (after USA, UK, Germany, France, Russia and Japan), and 17th on the list if this data takes into account population size.

The overall incidence of crime in South Africa (measured by a group of 20 serious crimes) actually fell by 1.3% in 2012-13 from 2003-04. While this is a minor difference that could certainly be improved upon, a person living in South Africa is at less risk of crime than a decade ago.

Zapiro crime statistics cartoon

Of course, I could write this article entirely differently, picking and choosing facts to paint a very depressing picture, but if we looked at crimes as they relate to tourists, you’d find South Africa is one of world’s safest countries to visit. That’s why officials are pressing for a separate breakdown in annual crime statistics for crimes against tourists.

Though the amount of crime in South Africa is certainly something you should be concerned about when visiting the country, you should be worried about your personal safety no matter where you are in the world.

Avoiding crime in South Africa: Tips and tricks for the tourist

With this in mind, below are a few tips about what you should and shouldn’t do when on holiday in South Africa (or anywhere really):

  • Do not display or leave valuables like cameras, wallets or mobile phones etc unattended, or wave wads of cash around. This makes you an easy target. So keep a close eye on your valuables or leave them in your hotel safe - pick pocketing is a reality in every country.
  • Stick to well-lit areas with lots of traffic. The dark side streets are where most crime happens.
  • Catch a reputed taxi (don’t just hop into any unmarked car)
  • Travel in groups whenever possible. If you have to travel alone, take your phone with you and let as many people as possible know where you are going and for how long.
  • Keep valuables like your passport locked away somewhere safe - rather carry certified copies. If you do lose your passport, report the loss as soon as possible to the South African Police Service, as well as to your country's embassy or consulate in South Africa
  • Don’t carry a lot of cash on you. It’s better to use a credit or debit card. South Africa is well-equipped with these facilities so keep only a small amount of cash on you, preferably in a money belt!
  • Don’t change large sums of money in busy public areas - someone might follow you out and mug you when you least expect it.
  • Keep your handbag close to your body and keep a tight hold on it in busy streets (apparently some smart criminals will cut the straps without you even noticing).
  • Do not give money to beggars, no matter how much it breaks your heart not to. Giving money to beggars perpetuates a system that encourages them to stay on the streets instead of improving their overall situation. There are numerous charities dedicated to helping street kids and homeless people gain the skills they need to become self-sufficient. You can find a list here. If travelling in Cape Town donate via the NGO Give Responsibly.
  • Do not visit a township alone - rather go for a guided tour.
  • Never let your credit card out of your sight - most restaurants and petrol stations bring a portable machine to you.
  • Don’t use an ATM in a dark and abandoned area and never allow anyone to assist you. ATMs in shopping malls, hotels and banks are preferred because they are monitored. Always scan the area for suspicious persons or activities before drawing any cash.
  • When driving keep your doors locked and windows closed, watching your rearview mirrors for anyone approaching in a suspicious manner. South Africa is a popular ‘smash and grab’ spot so keep valuables hidden.
  • Don’t stop for an accident or someone telling you there is something wrong with your car - this is a popular hijacking tactic.
  • To report a crime, dial 10111 from any landline or phone box (free). If using a mobile phone, dial 112 and your call will be transferred to the appropriate emergency service. For further assistance, contact the National Tourism Information and Safety Line on 083 123 2345 .
If you see a suspicious activity and want to report it anonymously, send an sms to 32111 or submit it online. crimeline

Remember, this is not the emergency service, dial 10111 if you need help right away.

At the end of the day, remember that you are travelling through a developing country with high unemployment and poverty, and vast social inequality. Respect others and their rights while being cautious, and you won’t become a statistic.

Crime in South Africa Sources:


Tourism Crime in South Africa - Tourism Tattler

Truth About Crime in South Africa - Lark Tours

Total Crimes in South Africa - Nation Master

How violent is South Africa? - CS Monitor

Crime South Africa - The Economist

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