5 tips for travel safety in South Africa

If you are planning to travel to South Africa; on a volunteering trip, gap year or service learning program – the first question on your mind, and the minds of your friends and family, will probably be: Is South Africa safe? Is it as dangerous as the media says it is? If it isn’t dangerous, why do the crime statistics say otherwise? Will I be safe travelling alone in South Africa?

Even though it’s easy to tell prospective overseas travellers from Europe or the US that South Africa is relatively safe, it’s not so easy to overcome biased opinions based on hearsay. The media likes to ignore first-hand experiences of people who have actually travelled there, and it likes to focus purely on the negatives. The real answer to the question is not so black and white. There are major differences between the various parts of the country and crime rates – for example, between big cities like Johannesburg, and quieter small-town or rural areas.

Let’s have a look at some of the realities of crime in South Africa, and the safety of volunteers from overseas travelling there.

1. Historical context volunteers should be aware of 

For many prospective visitors to South Africa; images of violent protests, brutal racism, and police bullying often come to mind. The fact is that South Africa does have a dark and shameful past - centuries of colonialism and the Apartheid regime have left scars on society and in the minds of the people of the country.

As of today, 2017 - apartheid hasn’t been in effect for 23 years. The first democratic elections were held in 1994 and in many ways, things in the country have changed drastically. Are there still protests, racism, and inequality? Absolutely – but like many developed societies nowadays, the protests are not nearly as violent, and racism is very rarely openly expressed like it was previously. There is a growing attitude of tolerance, openness, and standing together to build a better society for all South Africans.

 2. So what’s up with the crime rates? Are travellers and volunteers at risk?

High crime and murder rates have earned South Africa the reputation of being a dangerous destination. South Africa is a place of vast wealth and even more vast poverty. It has the world’s worst income disparity according to well-researched sources. The population of unemployed and unprivileged people is very large - and like anywhere else in the world, even Europe, many resort to crime. Crime in most areas usually takes the form of petty burglary – but in other areas, home invasions, car hijackings, and even homicides occur.

 Although this information can be scary for European or American volunteers travelling to South Africa, most areas are not rife with these kinds of crimes at all. Main thoroughfairs in the big cities are as nice as any in the world – you still need to keep your wits about you, but you don’t need to be armed to the teeth! It’s a simple fact that most parts of the country are fine – in the past twenty years, murder rates have dropped by nearly 20%, and sexual violence by a little over 10% - which help to make South Africa safer than many other developing countries in Latin America and other parts of Africa.

 3. Township areas – are they dangerous for volunteers to work in?

Townships are urban dwelling areas in South Africa, mostly populated by black people, and usually situated on the outskirts of the major cities and towns. They are a legacy of the Apartheid era, when people of colour were banned from living in areas populated by white people. As many people from the rural areas migrated towards cities to find work, townships sprang up near industries; in areas not well serviced (if at all) by waterworks, electricity, refuse removal, or access to schools and hospitals. This combination of poverty and alienation causes resentment and tension, and hence crime is a factor.

 But before you throw up your hands and abandon your plans to come and work with township communities;  bear in mind that in post-apartheid South Africa, housing is improving, roads are continuously being tarred, and basic services are slowly being installed or improved. Many areas of the townships are perfectly safe for volunteers – especially if you use volunteer service providers like Khaya Volunteer Projects, who employ actual residents of the townships and know the areas well!

And bear in mind that it’s only in the townships in South Africa that you can discover the true emotional connection, the cheeriness and the sense of comradeship of South Africa's working class. No trip to South Africa is complete without learning about ALL its people.

4. How does South Africa compare to other countries for traveller safety?

Widespread unemployment, a corrupt government, racial tensions, and general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country are facts of life in South Africa. But in all honesty, where is that NOT a problem these days? In the USA and Europe; police brutality, riots and terrorism can seem to be the order of the day – IF you believe the hype.

 Just like the USA and Europe, South Africa isn’t some country on the brink of war, with gun-toting psychos everywhere. Just because it’s a developing nation in Africa – and let’s face it, some countries are not really safe for the average traveller - people automatically assume whatever the media says is true. It’s our human nature to be wary of danger. The important thing to keep in mind is that as a visitor to the country, whether a volunteer or tourist, you are not likely to be exposed to anything too scary. Just do your research and ask the people who know the country well.

 5. What can I do to avoid danger while volunteering in South Africa?

 The media constantly portraying South Africa as a scary, lawless and violent place is like saying that, because there are many more gun deaths in America than other developed nations, it’s completely unsafe to visit America! It’s just not true.

If you’re keen on visiting South Africa as a tourist, volunteer or gap year student – talk to service providers who know the country, who have lived and worked there, and are familiar with all aspects of the society. 99% of South Africans are absolutely friendly and love foreign visitors. Don’t be put off by skewed visions in the media, or that one person you know who had something bad happen to them.

 To sum up the real or imagined dangers of travelling and volunteering in South Africa, here are some brief questions and answers to help you make up your mind – and ease the minds of your friends and family before you visit! For more info, check out our Frequently Asked Questions about South Africa, and other African nations.

Is South Africa too dangerous to travel?

Of course not!

Is there some danger to be had?

Yes, definitely, but it’s much more concentrated in certain parts. It’s a lot safer than many developing countries. Also, even developed countries have their areas to be avoided.

Are there precautions I need to take?

 Yes, you should be vigilant and know where you’re going. There are many issues that the local people face, but use basic common sense – and make sure your volunteer organization is staffed with people who know the country well, instead of employees who have never even visited!

Are women travellers or volunteers in particular danger? 

No – South Africa is not like some parts of the Middle East, women and men should exercise the same kind of caution and they will be fine!


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