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The Best Safety Tips for Visitors in South Africa (From a Local)

Born and raised in South Africa, Jana loves sharing the unique and special aspects about her home turf with the world.

Let’s Start on a Positive Note

South Africa is a popular tourist destination, and it’s not hard to imagine why. There’s wildlife, safaris, pristine beaches, great resorts, and activities. Culture lovers especially are entertained in spades. South Africa is richly diversified with many languages, cultures, traditions, and festivals. Tourists who exchange First-World currency for the South African rand can also expect a relatively cheap, but high-class vacation.

Many traditional villages welcome visitors from all over the world.

Many traditional villages welcome visitors from all over the world.

Why You Must Look at the Dark Side

There is nothing better than feeling excited about your holiday. But this elation often creates a deadly blind spot. Many visitors to other countries assume that the locals will respect tourists. To be fair, most locals will love you. Tourism is a huge part of South Africa's economy and the general population is friendly towards foreigners. However, criminals and disease never take a day off. You might encounter both in South Africa.

Your Arrival

Great, you’ve decided to visit South Africa! Here’s a checklist to consider before you get on the plane.

1. Stock Up on Medication

The most obvious one here is prescription medication. Make sure you have enough to cover your stay. South Africa has good pharmacies but there could be a shortage of medicine or the nearest pharmacy to you might be closed for some reason. It’s also a good idea to keep medication cool. Summers in South Africa get extremely hot. This brings us to a seasonal pest—mosquitoes.

In South Africa, most mozzie species are harmless but malaria exists in some areas. Research the protocols of the places that you plan on visiting and how to take the medication if you’re a first-timer. Some recommend starting the treatment a week before going on vacation. This is to test for any side effects.

2. Make Sure You're Up to Date on Vaccinations

The CDC and WHO recommend having the following vaccinations before traveling to South Africa.

  • Hepatitis A and B
  • Yellow fever
  • Typhoid
  • Meningitis
  • Rabies
  • Polio
  • Shingles
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox
  • Mumps and rubella (MMR)
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap)
  • Influenza
  • Pneumonia

3. Get Accurate Maps and Emergency Numbers

A map must be the latest edition and show street names. This will help you to navigate your own holiday area. Although rare, tourists asking for directions have been lured into trouble by a Bad Guy saying, “Sure, follow me. I’ll show you where that is!” Also, stopping to talk to strangers while you’re in a car is not always a good idea. We’ll get to that later.

The right phone numbers are crucial. Make sure you get all the emergency numbers for the nearest hospital, doctor, police station, poison control, and ambulance service.

4. Use Trusted Taxi and Exchange Services

Once again, this is a rare occurrence but some gangs target foreigners who arrive at the airport. They have taxis that take people to their hotel, and then they have your location. Several tourists have been cleaned out this way. Their room was either broken into or scouts waited outside until the visitors left the hotel. They were then followed and mugged. Stay safe and pre-order your transport from a trusted company.

These gangs and lone criminals also look for tourists who are uncertain about where to exchange currency. If this is your first time in a foreign country or South Africa, talk to airport staff or a bank. Never advertise the fact to strangers that you have dollars or euros to exchange. Some criminals promise a great exchange rate but then lure you somewhere unsafe.

Walking Rules

Walking is a healthy activity but it also makes you an easy target. Please take this section seriously. Never walk alone. A small group of three or four is safer.

1. Do Not Flash Valuables

Hey, being in a foreign land with beautiful sights calls for photos. Take tons to show the folks back home, but don’t walk around with expensive photographic equipment hanging around your neck. Remember—phones, cameras, and jewellery are valuable items to fence. Also, secure your wallet in a zipped-up pocket preferably on the inside of your jacket. Avoid opening a wallet in front of strangers when it’s stacked with bills.

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2. Stick With Your Friends

Always walk with people you know and trust. The best choice is the friends or family that you arrived with. But safety in numbers still isn't a good excuse to wander into unsafe places. Another good option is using a local guide from a trusted company, but these can be rare outside of the hospitality business.

3. The Beach Is a Danger Zone

The beach is only safe during the daylight hours when there are plenty of other holidaymakers. This cannot be stressed enough—never walk alone or in small groups on a beach where no one is around.

This can also not be emphasized enough—never walk on the beach at night. Ever. Not even in a group. Tourists have been robbed, physically assaulted and even killed after wandering off to explore an unpopulated beach (day and night).

Additional Beach Dangers

Chin up, this section is free of Bad Guys! South Africa is famous for its beaches, surfing spots . . . and specific dangers. The latter is avoidable with a little foreknowledge.

1. Riptides

South Africa’s coastline has lethal riptides. The best way to avoid riptides is to stay in shallow water, even waist-deep should be fine. However, some people like deeper waters or go farther out to surf. Either way, you must take riptides seriously. They’re so strong that nobody can physically fight the current. It can drag a strong swimmer out to sea with frightening speed.

2. Sea Life

South Africa's entire coastline has great white sharks. It’s unlikely that, as a beachgoer or shallow swimmer, you’d encounter this apex predator. But they do bump surfers and attack snorkelling divers. That being said, you’re more likely to get zapped by a bluebottle jellyfish.

During certain times of the year, these blue horrors arrive in droves. They infest shallow waters and have thread-like tentacles that deliver an agonizing sting. Seriously, the pain is atrocious (I can personally vouch for that). You can avoid most jellyfish swarms by scanning the beach. Very often, their arrival is marked by dead bluebottles scattered around on the sand. If you spot even one, don’t go in the water; deaths from bluebottle stings do happen.

A bluebottle jellyfish.

A bluebottle jellyfish.

Road Safety

Antelope, kids, and hijackers—a weird combination of dangers, but here are the basics of what you should know when driving in South Africa.

1. Antelope Collisions Are Real

In South Africa, especially the more rural areas, wildlife still roams the land. Unfortunately, some antelope tend to run in front of cars—day and night. Some species are large like the Kudu and Bushbuck. They can smash your car and injure everyone inside. The smaller antelope are often endangered or rare and needless to say, it’s a horrific way for an animal to die. Please drive slow enough to allow yourself to brake suddenly without causing a collision.

2. Kids Are a Legitimate Problem

In some places, children as young as six play chicken with vehicles. They dart in front of cars, sometimes with tragic results. Others taunt drivers or stone cars. Never stop, as this could be a ploy to hijack the vehicle. Also, check for kids or teenagers standing on the bridges you must pass under. They sometimes drop bricks or eggs on windshields to get the car to stop.

3. Keep Driving During a Game Drive

Most nature reserves offer an exciting opportunity for people to drive themselves through the park and watch animals. This also means that there’s no tour guide to stop them from doing something stupid.

Most people know not to get out of their cars when wild animals are afoot. But there have been incidents where tourists saw a creature, stopped and walked closer for a photograph. Or they opened their windows to get a better look. Both are really bad ideas. Game parks have dangerous species, including elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards, and baboons.

Hijacking Safety Tips

Hijacking is an epidemic in cities like Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Cape Town. But it can happen anywhere.

  • Stay alert at all times; watch your surroundings.
  • Keep your car doors locked and windows closed.
  • Treat stop signs, traffic robots and places where you must halt (like a four-way street) as danger zones. This is where most hijackers attack.
  • Always check for people loitering near such places.
  • Don’t hire expensive-looking cars. The safest way is to blend in with a bland car.
  • Don't drive alone. It’s harder to hijack a car that has every seat occupied.
  • This is a tough one, but don’t roll down the window to give money to street kids. This is sometimes a ruse (although the child could legitimately be on his or her own).
  • Plan your route before you drive. This will prevent you from getting lost in a dodgy area or empty streets.
  • If you’re staying at a house, always check the area thoroughly upon return. Hijackers love to pounce in driveways.
  • Don’t get out of the car until you are safely closed inside the garage.

House Rules

As mentioned earlier, private homes are often rented out to tourists. However, South Africa has two other crimes that are at an epidemic level, other than hijacking. These are home invasions and rape.

  • According to a 2018 report by Statistics South Africa, sexual crimes are estimated to happen to 250 out of every 100,000 women and 120 out of every 100,000 men. Tourists are not exempt from this horrific crime. If you’re a woman or have women and children in your group, make their safety a priority at home, at parties and basically anywhere else.
  • Home invasions in South Africa can get violent. Nearly every incident involves firearms and several men. Take every precaution you can.
  • Never leave your doors and windows unlocked.
  • Stay vigilant of loitering people who might be casing the house.
  • It’s a good idea to rent a house in a safe area with an alarm, electric fencing, and even dogs.
  • Don’t open your door to strangers, even those wearing official-looking clothing (gangs use uniforms). Instead, talk to them through a window with safety bars.
  • Don’t leave valuables in the garden.

Other Safety Tips You Should Know

This article cannot cover every scenario but by now you should have a firm grasp of what not to do in South Africa. Here are a few odds and ends to wrap things up!

1. HIV

South Africa has the highest infection rate in the world. An estimated 7.2 million South Africans have the virus. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to visit ladies of the night (one reason some tourists come here), and never treat somebody’s bleeding wounds without gloves (or at all, unless you're a medical professional).

2. Pickpockets

You’ll find this form of wildlife everywhere. The amazing thing about them is the speed at which they work. They can relieve you of large items within seconds and you’ll never see it happen. Don’t leave valuables in clear view.

Stay aware of one classic ploy. A stranger suddenly talks to you, perhaps asking for money. Whatever the topic, he doesn't really want anything. His job is to keep your attention on him. While this guy distracts you, his friend plies the trade on your car’s back seat, pocket or grocery bags.

3. Night Needs Special Caution

Even in the safest of areas, always keep your senses awake to dangers and strangers at night. Try not to stay out late, definitely don’t walk around at night and secure your home a few hours before going to bed.

4. Avoid Obscure Tours

South Africa is a bonanza for tourists. There are a million things to do and even more to see. This bounty is abused by criminals who offer fake tours to get tourists alone. Don’t go on tours into shantytowns, the bush, or even in the city when the event isn’t operated by a trustworthy company. Check to see if they have a professional website, safety measures for their clients, authentic reviews and qualified tour guides.

5. Load Shedding

South Africa is presently undergoing load shedding. The country’s power grid is under pressure and load shedding refers to planned power cuts that save electricity. You can visit the official site of the power company Eskom and enter your vacation spot’s name in the search bar to get the load shedding schedule.

Nobody’s sure how long load shedding might last. It’s been going on for years. But when load shedding hits, entire towns black out for at least 2 hours. When the grid is under severe pressure, 2-hour sessions can happen two or three times a day in the same town. Take precautions for any food or medicine that must stay cold. The fridge won’t be working. Keep batteries ready for torches and charge your phone beforehand.

Let’s Also End on a Positive Note

This article shows the hairy side of South Africa. To be fair, a lot of these problems also exist in other countries. Additionally, thousands of tourists visit South Africa every year and return home safe and sound. Just stay vigilant and you can have a wonderful vacation in South Africa.

More Sources and Advice

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jana Louise Smit

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