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Dangers & Annoyances

Keep things in perspective and don't be overly paranoid, but do remember that South Africa has a high crime rate and you need to be much more cautious than in most Western countries.

  • Look out for ATM and credit-card scams.
  • If you're using public transport and venturing outside tourist environments, it is preferable to travel with a friend or in a group.
  • Remember that violence against women is widespread throughout South Africa; exercise caution.
  • Ask locals about areas to avoid and don't walk around after dark, when the risk of mugging is high.

Beating The ATM Scams

There are dozens of ATM scams that involve stealing your cash, your card or your personal identification number (PIN) – usually all three. Thieves are just as likely to operate in Stellenbosch as in downtown Jo'burg, and they are almost always well-dressed and well-mannered men.

In the most common scam the thief tampers with the ATM so your card becomes jammed. By the time you realise this you've entered your PIN. The thief will have seen this, and when you go inside to report that your card has been swallowed, he will take the card – along with several thousand rand. In a less common but equally surreptitious scam, a wireless device that records PINs is attached to the ATM. Bearing the following rules in mind will help you avoid mishaps.

  • Avoid ATMs at night and in secluded places. Rows of machines in shopping malls are usually safest.
  • Most ATMs have security guards. If there's no guard around when you're withdrawing cash, watch your back or get someone else to watch it.
  • Watch the people using the ATM ahead of you carefully. If they look suspicious, go to another machine.
  • Use ATMs during banking hours and, if possible, take a friend. If your card jams in a machine, one person can stay at the ATM while the other seeks assistance from the bank.
  • Do not use an ATM if it appears to have been tampered with.
  • When you put your card into the ATM, press cancel immediately. If the card is returned, you know there is no blockage in the machine and it should be safe to proceed.
  • Refuse any offers of help to complete your transaction – or requests of help to complete someone else's.
  • If someone does offer assistance, end your transaction immediately and find another machine.
  • Carry your bank's emergency phone number, and report card loss immediately.
  • Avoid using ATMs that inform you at the beginning of the transaction that it will not issue a receipt.
  • If there are complications or the withdrawal fails, don't try again; retrieve your card.

Crime

Crime is a national obsession in South Africa. Apart from car accidents, it's the major risk that you'll face here. However, try to keep things in perspective: despite the statistics and newspaper headlines, the majority of travellers visit without incident.

The risks are highest in Jo'burg, followed by some townships and other urban centres. You can minimise risks by following basic safety precautions:

  • Store your travel documents and valuables in your room (if it's secure), in a safe or at least out of sight.
  • If your room does not have a safe or is not secure, enquire if there is a safe at reception.
  • Don't flash around valuables such as cameras, watches and jewellery.
  • Don't look like you might be carrying valuables; avoid wearing expensive-looking clothes.
  • Completely avoid external money pouches.
  • Divide your cash into a few separate stashes, with some 'decoy' money or a 'decoy' wallet ready to hand over if you are mugged.
  • Keep a small amount of cash handy and separate from your other money so that you don't need to pull out a large wad of bills to make a purchase.
  • Don't keep money in your back pocket.
  • Avoid groups of young men; older, mixed-sex groups are generally safer.
  • Listen to local advice on unsafe areas.
  • Avoid deserted areas day and night, including isolated beaches and parts of Cape Town's mountains.
  • Avoid the downtown and CBD areas of larger towns and cities at night and weekends.
  • If you're visiting a township, join a tour or hire a trusted guide.
  • Try not to look apprehensive or lost.
  • If you get a local phone number, bear in mind that 419-style telephone and SMS scams are rife.

In Transit

  • On the flight over, keep your valuables in your hand luggage.
  • If arriving or changing planes at OR Tambo International Airport (Jo'burg), vacuum-wrap your baggage. Items are sometimes pilfered from bags before they reach the carousel.
  • To travel around towns and cities after dark, take a taxi or, if your destination is very close, drive or walk with others.
  • As a general rule, avoid walking by yourself or driving at night.
  • Keep your car doors locked and windows up.
  • Put your home mobile phone on roaming, buy a local SIM card or hire a phone, especially if you'll be driving alone.
  • Leave your car in secure parking at night and avoid parking in secluded areas during the day.
  • Don't leave anything valuable in your car or give the impression that you are on a road trip and have bags in the boot.
  • If you leave bags in the boot of a parked car, never open it before walking away.
  • One of the greatest dangers during muggings or carjackings (most common in Jo'burg) is that your assailants will assume you are armed and could kill them. Stay calm and don't resist or give them any reason to think you will fight back.

Drugs

  • The legal system does not distinguish between soft and hard drugs.
  • Dagga or zol (marijuana) is illegal but widely used.

  • People often use marijuana openly, as you may discover in some backpacker hostels and bars. This is not recommended; there are heavy penalties for use and possession.
  • Ecstasy is as much a part of club culture and the rave scene in South Africa as it is elsewhere.
  • South Africa is a major market for the barbiturate Mandrax (known locally as 'buttons'), which is banned here and in many other countries because of its devastating effects.
  • Drugs such as cocaine and heroin are becoming widely available and their use accounts for much crime.
  • Local drugs, including tik (crystal meth) in Cape Town, compound social problems in the townships. Users are irrational and aggressive.

Government Travel Advice

For the latest information, check the following websites:

Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (www.smartraveller.gov.au)

Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (www.travel.gc.ca)

German Federal Foreign Office (www.auswaertiges-amt.de)

Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mofa.go.jp)

Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.minbuza.nl)

New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (www.safetravel.govt.nz)

UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/government/organisations/foreign-commonwealth-office)

US Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs (www.travel.state.gov)

Solo Travel

  • Solo travel is straightforward.
  • While you may be a minor curiosity in rural areas – especially so for solo women travellers – in most places it's likely that nobody will even bat an eyelid.
  • Times when you should join a tour or group include at night and on hiking trails.
  • Particularly for women, going it alone on hiking trails is not recommended. There is normally a three-person minimum on trails for safety reasons.
  • Especially in urban areas and at night, lone women travellers should use caution and avoid isolating situations.
  • Solo female travellers may feel uncomfortable in Lesotho, where women are regularly oppressed and harassed in the patriarchal society.