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Is it safe to travel to South Africa? Latest travel advice

South Africa’s troubling crime rates is one of the things that’s been putting off tourists in recent years. Most recently, in January 2024, a British Airways pilot was targeted by armed robbers in Johannesburg and forced to withdraw thousands of pounds from cash machines around the city. The UK Foreign Office travel advice for the country also makes for particularly nerve-racking reading, stating that terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in South Africa and mentioning carjackings, armed robberies and other violent crimes.

Fortunately, visitors are generally sheltered from the worst of it and the vast majority don’t have any bad experiences. Many parts of the country rely on tourism and there’s an effort to ensure visitors continue to travel, especially after the pandemic. For travellers who do visit, they’re rewarded with captivating landscapes, an abundance of wildlife and fascinating culture — and there’s barely any time difference.

What happened to the British Airways pilot?

Long Street in Cape Town

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In January 2024, the unnamed BA pilot was buying food at the Blubird Shopping Centre in Johannesburg when he was approached by a woman asking for help carrying her bags. Outside, several men bundled him into a car and drove him to another part of the city where he was “badly roughed up”. Later he was driven around the city to different cash machines where he was forced to withdraw thousands of pounds in cash. He has since been released and has flown back to the UK.

The pilot in question wasn’t the only one who has been attacked in the South African city. Another BA pilot was stabbed while on a jog in July 2023.

Is South Africa safe for tourists?

South Africa is considered generally safe for tourists. The areas in which visitors typically stay — Cape Town’s city centre and inner suburbs, the Cape Winelands, the Garden Route and safari destinations — are among the safest in the country. But even so it is worth staying vigilant.

The Foreign Office says there is a high crime rate and that, while most violent crime takes place in townships on the outskirts of major cities or in isolated areas, tourists should always take safety precautions wherever they are. The threat is higher in central business districts of major cities than in suburban areas, and increases after dark. You should avoid walking at night — take an Uber instead — and don’t flash your valuables.

If you’re driving, don’t leave anything in your car — break-ins are common, particularly in the parking areas for Cape Town’s hiking trails. When you lock the car, check that it’s actually locked, as criminals often use remote jammers. On the go, keep your windows rolled up and doors locked — don’t open your window to speak to people at traffic lights — and stow bags and phones out of sight to avoid a “smash and grab”. Be aware of other drivers, especially on highways — road safety isn’t great and people often drink and drive.

Public transport is a mixed lot. The MyCiTi buses in Cape Town are generally safe, as is the Gautrain in Johannesburg, which connects the city to the airport. Avoid inter-city trains and minicabs.

Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International airport is notorious for luggage theft and the Foreign Office says people have been followed and then robbed, often at gunpoint. Make sure you keep all your valuables in your hand luggage and be careful when following GPS navigation. Avoid taking any alternative routes away from the main roads that may lead you to less secure areas.

Is Cape Town safe?

Cape Town is considered safe to travel to by the UK Foreign Office. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that crime rates are extremely high in the city, especially violent crime, including murder. In fact, Mexico’s Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice ranks it among the most violent cities in the world.

That said, it depends on where you are in the city. The areas frequented by tourists, such as the V&A Waterfront, have tight security and visits are generally trouble-free. And while the busy areas of Table Mountain are safe, there have been attacks on hikers in the more remote areas.

What else should I be aware of?

A surfer at North Beach, Durban

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Popular beaches have lifeguards and sometimes shark spotters. Read and take heed of any warning signs.

Beach conditions and local safety measures can vary. Ask for a lifejacket if you decide to participate in water sports. Avoid swimming on beaches where there is no equipment or warning signs and, if in doubt, don’t enter the water.

It’s best to go hiking with a guide — you also get your own personal photographer that way. If you don’t go with a guide, make sure you join a group who know the mountains (check out Meetup or search Facebook or Instagram for community groups). Most permitted hiking trails in South Africa require you to be in a group of at least three for safety.

In Cape Town, there are hotspots for muggings and being alone on the trails can make you quite vulnerable — not just in relation to crime, but also if you hurt yourself, get lost or become unwell (through dehydration or a snake bite, for example).

Breede River in the Western Cape

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The weather can change very quickly, too. It’s always a good idea to use Safety Mountain, a WhatsApp-based tracking service where you share the details of your Table Mountain hike or run and a volunteer will follow up if you’re late to check out.

Make sure you Google and save the relevant emergency rescue numbers for whatever part of the country you’re in. 10111 for police, 10177 for an ambulance and 112 for emergency services from a mobile phone (free) should work all over South Africa.

Best hikes in South Africa

Is South Africa safe for women?

Many women travel solo around South Africa

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The answer to this underlines the difference between tourists and people who live in South Africa. The country has horrifying rape and gender-based violence statistics. In a 2009 study, one in four men admitted to committing rape. A third of girls will experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries for women and girls — most at risk are those who live in poor and underserved areas such as townships.

While it’s important to know this, most female visitors will be fine and many women travel solo around South Africa. To keep yourself as safe as possible, don’t travel after dark. Aim to stay in hotels and guesthouses with decent security. Join groups for hiking or city tours (you also learn a lot more with a guide). Let people at home know where you are and what your plans are.

Use Uber over Bolt — Uber has better security features (such as driver facial recognition ID checks).

Is South Africa safe for honeymooners?

On the beach in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, KwaZulu-Natal

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South Africa is a great honeymoon destination. Couples typically combine Cape Town with a safari and perhaps a beach break, either in South Africa or a resort in Mauritius or Mozambique. These kinds of trips follow safe tourist routes and visitors are unlikely to face problems if following basic safety advice.

Best beaches in South Africa

Is South Africa safe for LGBTQ travellers?

Cape Town is considered South Africa’s most gay-friendly city

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The facts about LGBTQ safety again reveal the contrasting experiences of those in disenfranchised communities and wealthy residents or tourists. Life can be extremely dangerous for LGBTQ people in townships. Yet in legal terms, South Africa is very liberal. People are protected from sexual orientation discrimination and it was one of the first countries in the world to legalise gay marriage — and same-sex couple visitors are very unlikely to encounter any problems. Cape Town is considered the most gay-friendly city in the country with a slew of LGBTQ bars and clubs, mostly around De Waterkant.

Where should I avoid in South Africa?

A good general rule is to ask people at your hotel or accommodation about a place you’re interested in visiting — they’ll have a much better idea of whether it’s safe at the current time and they’ll be able to recommend a guide to accompany you if needed.

Avoid protests and any areas experiencing unrest, for obvious reasons — again, ask locals about what’s happening at the time you’re travelling. Situations can change quickly. In 2024, South Africa will be holding its seventh general election, which may lead to unrest, so it’s worth checking local media for details before you travel.

On a guided township tour in Alexandra, Johannseburg

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Typically, it’s not wise to travel into townships as a tourist by yourself. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go — find a guide through local businesses such as 18 Gangster Museum and Juma Art Tours in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, or Lebo’s in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is a really fun city to visit, with plenty to entertain tourists, but it does have a particularly high crime rate. There are areas to avoid and it’s best to ask a local guide or hotel staff about specifics and not to wander. If visitors experience crime, it’s likely to be theft — so keep your belongings secure (don’t leave your bag hanging off the back of your chair, for example) and be aware of who is around you.

Café life in Maboneng, Johannesburg

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Try to figure out your route before you leave so you don’t need to check your phone in the street. In cars, keep an eye on your surroundings when stopping at red lights, especially in quiet areas or at night; ideally, avoid driving after dark. Outside the major cities, it’s generally much safer — but you should still be vigilant and take normal safety precautions.

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Additional reporting by Lucy Perrin

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