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Is South Africa safe to visit?

Yes, we know the scenario – you want to visit South Africa, and when you told your Mum she told you it’s dangerous. We’d like to reassure your Mum, things are ok here. And it’s not worth missing out on the country ranked as the world’s most beautiful by BuzzFeed and Conde Nast Traveller UK. Millions of tourists visit every year perfectly safely.

In South African Tourism surveys, travellers say that the warmth and friendliness of our people is the unexpected highlight of their trip.

Here’s the truth about safety in SA and what you need to know.

Food and water

We’re always amused hearing about tourists offloading cans of food from their luggage on arrival at their first hotel. South Africa has exceptionally good, fresh food of almost every type. Conde Nast named Cape Town the best food city in the world in its 2016 Readers Choice Awards. Even far-flung game lodges in neighbouring Botswana and Namibia manage to produce superb multi-course meals. And water is safe to drink from the taps in cities.

Terrorism

The rise of terrorism and mass shootings in so many faraway parts of the world has changed the relative perception of safety in South Africa. Simply put, SA is now seen as safe. We have large Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Hindu populations living peacefully together. Cape Town even has a mosque which welcomes non-muslims and gay people, and allows women to preach from the pulpit.

Petty crime

Tourists are the victims of petty crime in many popular tourist cities around the world – Barcelona, Rome and Rio all have bad reputations for it. Sadly so does Cape Town, despite it feeling so relaxed, with laid-back locals drinking flat whites while working on their laptops at downtown sidewalk cafes, vibrant all-night parties in gorgeous locations, well-patrolled central areas and lots of security cameras.

Tourist hotspots, shopping malls and busy shopping streets are generally fine, South Africa doesn’t have a pickpocketing problem like some European cities. Credit/debit cards are accepted almost everywhere so there’s no need for lots of cash.

General safety tips for South Africa

When exploring your surroundings, get advice from your hosts on the best areas around your accommodation for walking or driving through. Hitchhiking is not recommended, and Uber is widely available in cities.

Pay attention to where you park your car, preferably in a designated parking area, most of which will have official or unofficial car guards (the latter should be tipped afterwards) and it’s best not to leave valuables in the car.

Use your common sense, don’t wander down deserted streets and keep to well-lit areas at night, and you’ll be fine.

Violent crime

A 2012 study by the UN reports that South Africa has an annual intentional homicide rate of 30 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. While high, this is not the highest in the world - Detroit is at 54, Honduras at 92, and Belize 44. Most violent crimes occur between people who know each other in dangerous neighborhoods away from the normal tourist destinations.

Johannesburg has long had a bad reputation for personal safety, and townships and downtown Joburg were broadly perceived as unsafe - but this isn’t necessarily the case anymore. Townships Soweto and Alexandra, and downtown Maboneng, Braamfontein, and Newtown have become popular with visitors. You might want to consider a guide or charter an uber driver for the day to help you navigate.

Road safety

A South African self-drive holiday is a wonderful experience. We have good infrastructure and for the most part great roads, friendly people and plenty of places to re-fuel and refresh on your road trip. Traffic in the cities can be busy, and just to be cautious it’s best to keep doors locked and handbags and cellphones out of sight.

Once youre out of town the roads are open, and the highways (marked with N or M) are in excellent condition. Keep an eye out for animals and pedestrians, especially in rural areas, where there can be potholes on the lesser roads.

Disease

Thousands of tourists cancelled their trips to South Africa when Ebola broke out in West Africa a few years ago. If they’d checked a map, they’d have seen that the Ebola outbreak was closer to London, Rio and Rome than Cape Town. Africa is really, really big and West Africa is really far from South Africa.

Image: The Economist

There is malaria in small parts of the country, the low-lying safari areas in the north. There’s no malaria in the cities of Joburg, Cape Town and Durban, and there are malaria-free game reserves like Welgevonden and Madikwe. If you re travelling to a malarial area, wear long clothes at dusk and dawn (the mosquito which carries malaria is only active then) and most doctors recommend a prophylaxis.

Safari safety

The best safaris are done in open vehicles, where you’ll feel worryingly close to big dangerous animals with little between you. The funny thing is that they don’t see you as potential lunch when you’re in a vehicle, so you’re safe, and the experience is thrilling. But that changes when you step out – so listen to your guide, talk quietly, don’t feed wild animals (ever), don’t stand up in the vehicle, and don’t leave the vehicle unless your guide says its ok.

Hiking

Get advice from you hosts on recommended routes, and inform them of your intended time of return. Pack a daypack with water, a jersey and something to eat – this sounds elementary, but visitors in Cape Town constantly get in trouble as the mountains are bigger than they seem from below, and weather can change quickly. Carry a cellphone in case of emergency.

Medical treatment

Private and public health systems exist in parallel; the latter serves most of the population and service levels vary, but can be poor. However, the large network of private hospitals ranks amongst the best in the world. If you get sick when travelling, you’ll be well looked after at one of these, and so we recommend taking out travel insurance.

EMERGENCY NUMBER FROM ANY MOBILE - 112

As the UK government’s travel advisory website says "Most visits to South Africa are trouble-free, but you should take sensible precautions to protect your safety” - as it recommends for most countries.

Now get here and enjoy it!