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How safe is South Africa for visitors?  The bottom line is that personal safety in South Africa's tourist areas compares favourably to tourist areas elsewhere in the world.

Common sense and vigilance are required everywhere.  South Africa's bad reputation is based on statistics from the poorer areas where life is not valued highly and the murder rate can be ten times higher than in tourist/affluent areas.  Most murders are either family murders or perpetrated by someone known to the victim.  Some 81% of all murder victims are black South Africans.

During the Confederations Cup in 2009, the only tourist crime reported was a robbery in one of the Egyptian team's hotel rooms.  Following investigation, it was reported that team members had got drunk and invited prostitutes to their room.  And that was asking for trouble!

The following figures tell the story:

South Africa's murder rate per 100,000 people is 30.3, compared to the world average: 6.9; USA: 4.7, Europe: 2.8 and Germany: 1.1.

International Crime Rates
Crimes/100,000 population
South Africa 2012/13
  USA 2012
Totals Rate Totals Rate
Murders 16,259 30.3 14,827 4.7
Violent crimes 671,804 1,362.1 1,214,462 386.9
Property crimes 734,217 1,488.7 8,975,438 2,859.2
Population 51,770,560     312,780,968  

The Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice
rated the world's 50 most dangerous cities in 2012.  Cape Town came in at number 34; Port Elizabeth at 41; Durban 49 and Johannesburg just makes the list at 50.  Click here for the full list in English.

Perceptions that Johannesburg is South Africa's most dangerous city are unfounded.  And the Western Cape, frequently regarded as a refuge from crime-ridden areas elsewhere in South Africa, is in fact the most dangerous province when it comes to personal safety, and has been for several years.

South Africa - as a whole - is a far more violent (and therefore dangerous) country than first world countries, but property crimes are less than half of what finds in the USA... if statistics are to be believed.  In the Western Cape, property crime is driven by substance abuse and the need to buy drugs.

2012/13 Provincial Crime Rates
Crimes/100,000 population
Western Cape   Gauteng
Totals Rate Totals Rate
Murders 2,580 44.31 2,997 24.42
Violent crimes 101,343 1,740 153,221 1,249
Property crimes 113,413  1,948 153,810 1,253
2011 Population 5,822,734     12,272,263  

Where Gauteng still takes top spot it is in car & truck hijacking although that has dropped from 9,386 in 2004/4 to 5,476 in 2012/3.  The stats for the Western Cape were 1,031 (2003/4) and 826 (2012/3).

Would it be an over simplification to say that crime in Gauteng is more organised whereas in the Western Cape it stems largely from substance abuse and township gangs?  If so, it means Gauteng needs better policing and crime intelligence while the Western Cape faces greater social challenges.

To understand crime better, one needs to see where it occurs.  In the tabs below for Cape Town and Johannesburg, the location of crimes are examined.


Now to say that you are ten times as likely to be murdered in Nyanga, Western Cape, as you are in the USA would also be misleading. The majority of all murders are committed by people known to the victims, and in 61.9% of all cases was a relative


Asked what he intended doing about this, a previous police commissioner responded: "No conventional policing can prevent this type of social crime... you'd have to have a policeman in every home."

What is at the root of South Africa's high crime rates? Despair, frustration, need and lack of education/opportunity. Poverty alone is not a cause, and family murders and violence also stem from the patriarchal system in some communities – notably among black and afrikaans-speaking South Africans.

Drug and alcohol abuse – fuelled by desperation and lack of opportunity – is one of the greatest challenges, especially in the Western Cape. Over 70% of all crime and violence is drug- or alcohol-related and the reason for 95% of all trauma patients in hospitals. Half the people whose unnatural deaths were recorded in Cape Town in 2003 had blood alcohol levels over the legal limit.

Robberies and housebreaking spiral as drug addiction keeps growing. In 2006 CapeInfo reported that R15,000 a day (R5.5 million a year) is spent in Cape Town alone on growing the drug abuse problem – that's what well-meaning visitors hand out to street children.

South Africa's leadership is largely to blame for lack of progress in addressing crime and social issues.  South Africa has had a democratic government for 20 years.

What's of more concern is the attitude of senior ANC politicians to crimes within their own ranks. A former Speaker of Parliament and the Western Cape's former premier were present to give support when one of their colleagues entered prison after being convicted of defrauding Parliament. Support for friends is one thing, but the public message they convey is something entirely different!

And the gravy train (or should that be fleets of BMW's and Mercedes'?) that new ministers "need" to do their jobs – during a recession when everyone else has to tighten their belts – shows how out of touch they are with common South Africans. "Affirmative shopping" has many meanings in South Africa!

Public spending on security for government officials also makes sure they exist in a safety cocoon. Politicians enjoy personal safety; public safety gets lip service.

So to answer the question we posed at the start, one can say that the primary tourist areas are relatively safe compared to other cities worldwide. But these figures are frightening – the gulf between the more affluent and the less affluent is too staggering for words. Archbishop Tutu asks "Why have we lost our deeply African reverence for life?" Where is the traditional African respect for humanity and the sense of uBuntu?

Democracy and "freedom" may have been one milestone, but social change is a greater challenge which requires investment, education and personal opportunities more than policing and justice systems can ever achieve. (And tourism contributes to that change.) But it also requires moral leadership that sets an example.


Crime in your neighbourhood, or the neighborhood you plan to visit:

Use the Institute for Security Studies Crime Stats Wizard to see the stats for your area or the area you will be visiting.


 We have some questions while we are revising this content and would be grateful for comments by readers and security agencies:

  • In Gauteng especially, reports of motorists being stopped by suspicious or fraudulent police/traffic officers are frequent.  Many locals recommend not stopping but rather driving straight to the nearest police station, which is fine if you know where it is.  What alternatives are there?

Click here for Tips on Personal Safety

SA Crime Statistics from SA Police Service 2013
United States Crime Rates 1960 - 2008
FBI: Crime in the United States 2012