I’ve been looking at South Africa in a new light lately, mainly due to the fact that I have American friends coming to visit me Thursday. I’ve been living here for 6 months, and dating a South African for 4.5 years, so sometimes I forget what South Africa looks like to the rest of the world. Fielding my friends’ questions has made me giggle a little at some points and made me remember some of my preconceived notions of what South Africa is like.
This morning, browsing through Facbook, I saw my friend’s status about her trip to South Africa (she leaves in just a few hours!) I checked the comments and was a little baffled by what I saw. It could be the fact that people think she will be traveling alone (she won’t be) and people always seem to be scared for solo woman travelers. But honestly, looking at the comments on her post you would think she was going to war-torn Sierra Leone as pictured in Blood Diamond. They say: “Please be safe” “Have fun but please be careful” “Be safe!” “Be safe!” “Be safe!”
As my husband said, “it comes off as a little offensive” and also “a little uneducated.” Bingo. And listen, it could be a lot of things and I’ll give my fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt. It could be the spotlight right now on South Africa due to the unfortunate Oscar Pistorius case. But I can say with confidence that most Americans don’t have a clue of what South Africa is really like. Because this blog’s purpose is to shed light on what it’s like to live here, I felt compelled to write about the most common questions I’m asked and misconceptions I’ve overheard about South Africa from friends/tourists.
My responses are based on personal experience, so South African citizens/travelers may certainly have different points of view.
South Africans wrestle lions and live in the bush
Jono has heard this more times than I have. While this may be true with other African countries, sadly, wild animals don’t really roam free in South Africa. You won’t walk out your door and see an elephant (unless you live in a reserve or farm!) South Africa is a much more developed country than most people think. In fact many locals joke that South Africa isn’t really Africa. Just go into street view on google maps and you will see many South Africans live in apartments and very nice homes. There are even shopping malls. (gasp!) While there are crazies who live with lions, the closest you will get to a lion is in the Lion Park or Kruger National Park.
I know you’re from south Africa, but where in the “South of Africa?”
After the World Cup I am surprised to hear this one. South Africa is in fact a country. It has been since 1910. It’s about the size of Texas and two Colorados combined. The population is around 53 million. Please get out a map or your fancy globe and check it out.
I have to get immunizations to travel to Africa
Nope. This just isn’t true. You should take Malaria tablets if you are traveling to an infected area. If you are coming from a yellow-fever infected country you have to show proof that you do not have yellow fever.
If you are from Africa why are you white?
Oh man, all I can think of right now is Mean Girls. Must. Focus. Tee hee.
And yes, Jono was seriously asked this question when he first came from Africa. It was actually more like “You can’t be from Africa, you are white.” Ok, here we go. South Africa is home to many races. The first white settlement of Africa was by the Dutch in 1652. Many ex-Rhodesian/Zimbabwe whites have also immigrated to South Africa.
Here is the breakdown according to Wikipedia
- 79.2% Black African
- 8.9% Coloured
- 8.9% White
- 2.5% Indian or Asian
- 0.5% other
South Africa is not safe to travel to
As listed on the US travel website there are no alerts connected with traveling to South Africa.
Here are common safety questions I hear:
Game drives are unsafe:
I’ve been to Kruger National Park and was never concerned about my safety there. It was a stunning, amazing, life changing experience! Just follow the rules of the park and don’t harass the animals or get out of your car and you’ll be just fine. If you travel with a guide you are in good shape. This ain’t Jurassic Park people!
The water isn’t safe in South Africa
This is a common tourist worry. The water in Johannesburg is rated to be some of the best in the world. When I go to restaurants I will often order tap water with ice and lemon. As soon as the waiter hears my accent, he will sometimes confuse what a want to be a bottle of water, which I politely decline. I refuse to pay money for bottled water! As long as you are in a large city, you won’t have to worry about the safety of your water.
Is the food safe?
Do you get in your car on a Sunday morning and go grocery shopping? So do we. In the city, the grocery stores are very similar to American stores and so are the restaurants. There are shopping carts and isles or fresh and processed foods. There are standards for food safety in restaurants and grocery stores, just like in America. Although don’t expect the same customer service!
I have only been sick from food once, and even then I’m not 100% sure that it was from food.
South Africa is not safe due to the crime rate/rape rate:
I saved this one for last because this is a doozy and the answer is long and complicated. In short, I am no expert in crime in South Africa and I’m not going to pretend to be. I can only base crime on my experiences, what i’ve heard from friends and family and news articles. In the six months I’ve been here I have been fortunate to not have experienced crime. In the 27 years my husband lived here, can you guess what the biggest crime to happen to him was? His bicycle was stolen.
Granted some worries are valid and the point of this post IS NOT meant to sugar coat the crime. This is not meant to disrespect the many victims of crime in South Africa. Listen, the country isn’t without its problems. Crime is a definite concern for many citizens. Much of the talk about safety in South Africa stems from the violent crimes that have happened on farms, and break-ins, burglaries and rape in residents’ home. And yes, that happens. I’ve heard stories from friends and family and that is all very, very real. If you travel through a residential area in South Africa you will see that most people have electrical fences and guard dogs. The fact is that home burglaries are high. However, this is something that tourists won’t really be susceptible to unless staying with friends in a residential area.
Also, from what I hear from friends and family, government corruption is just as big of a concern . I’ve experienced bribery quite a few times.
“Crime is high [in South Africa] but the reputation for crime is much higher,” says Matthew McKeever, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Ma. who studies social inequality in southern Africa. “People think of it as much more violent than it really is.”
Cape Town does make the list of most violent cities in the world. Can you guess what cities are ahead of Cape Town? Detroit and New Orleans. US cities. And on the list of violent crimes in 2009, UK and Austria beat out South Africa. Would my friend’s friends have been as concerned with her safety if she was visiting London or Austria? Probably not.
As is the case with most crime, crime in South Africa generally happens in the poverty stricken parts, townships and squatter camps. These are not spots tourists frequent. If a tourist does want to see a township, I recommend they take a tour through Soweto with a local guide. And if you are that concerned about your safety, don’t travel to those spots.
Do I feel safe here?
I forget about South Africa’s dangerous reputation living here sometimes, because honestly I feel just as safe as I felt in Florida every day. It doesn’t mean I let my guard down. I always carry pepper spray. I always try to be aware. I am careful with my valuables. People just do not return your wallet here and if you left your clutch in a stall in a bathroom (like i did once in Florida). Here you can pretty much guarantee it won’t be there when you run back to get it.
I will admit, in 2013 I was feeling a little uneasy about coming to South Africa, but not for the reasons my fellow Americans might have imagined.
We came over at a time when Nelson Mandela was practically on his death bed. I felt uneasy about the political atmosphere. There was talk about uprising happening when he died, that would involve chasing whites out of the country. Of course this was all speculation. If you are white you are a minority here and in post-apartheid South Africa you are at the bottom of the totem pole. Luckily no uprising or genocide has happened. But it is still in the back of my mind.
The fact that I am living in South Africa in an apartment, although I live in a highly secured gated community, means I am at a much higher risk of experiencing crime than my friends are of coming to visit me. Have I felt unsafe in South Africa in my house? During the first week I was here…absolutely. After that? Not really. The only time I felt quite unsafe was driving through Central Joburg. Would I drive that route again? Probably not. Would most New Yorkers/ New York tourists drive/take a stroll through Harlem? Probably not. It’s kind of the same thing.
Like traveling anywhere in the world, common sense will take you far. Be aware of your surroundings (victims are often chosen because they are distracted), don’t go into bad areas, don’t walk by yourself (especially at night) and don’t wear flashy jewelry or anything that may make you a target. For example, I try not to carry my camera around my neck or hold my smart phone out in plain sight for too long.
Don’t let fear detour you from the trip!
I’m not saying nothing bad will ever happen to you if you visit/live in South Africa, but there are ways of making the risk of something happening so much lower by knowing what you are doing. So before you knock South Africa off your travel list or fill a friend’s head who IS coming to South Africa with unnecessary safety concerns, educate yourself! Talk to a South African or someone who has been there and do some research. I know there will always be worry warts that will never leave America or get on an airplane. I personally strongly dislike flying! Every time I get on a plane or leave my house I know there is a risk of something bad happening. But I don’t let that stop me from living my life.
It hurts me to think that anyone might not visit this BEAUTIFUL country based on irrational thoughts of how unsafe South Africa may or may not be. Like I previously mentioned on this blog, Cape Town was voted the number one place to visit in 2014 by the New York Times. There is so much to do and see here and most people are genuinely nice!
I can’t wait for my friends to get home from their visit and say that. 1. They thoroughly enjoyed their trip 2. They felt perfectly safe. 3. They would recommend it to others!
Great article if you want more credible info on crime in SA.
Monday, May 19th 2014 at 5:35 pm
Great Blog Nicole, you write beautifully and the content is really interesting!
Enjoy the rest of your time in SA!
Thursday, May 15th 2014 at 1:14 pm
Great post, Nicole!!!
After being that person to originally think of visiting Africa as dangerous, I have visited Nicole and we traveled all throughout the country together. We stayed in a cottage at Kruger National Park, slept under mosquito nets, drove hours on the roads, did some shopping, flew to Cape Town, got drove around to all the major highlights of the southern cape, went out on Long Street, you name it! After this experience, it did open your eyes to what life is really like in Cape Town. The people were generally incredibly nice and accommodating. I couldn’t believe how nice people were. However, I did see the stark difference in the living (townships right next to gated, beautiful neighborhoods) and can understand why crime rate would be high. I would be scared to live in a mansion right next to the ghetto here in the states as well, and crime would be inevitable!
Overall, it was by far the most life changing, amazing experience I have had and a little piece of my heart will always be left at Kruger, Cape Town and the Lion Park. Thank you, Nicole and Jono for a vacation i’ll never forget!!! 🙂
Tuesday, March 11th 2014 at 6:01 pm
this is so interesting. I, unfortunately, did not feel safe when living in Cape Town. The fact that no one walks around when the sun goes down, even in the southern suburbs, in mind blowing. I’ve never had a fence in front of my house, let alone 1) a giant wall, 2) spikes on top of the wall, and 3) electrical fencing running along the top. The major problem, in my opinion, is that vast differences in SES creates fear from both sides. Pair that with SES being so close to race, especially in the SA context, then you’ve got yourself a bad situation.
I really loved living in SA (the most BEAUTIFUL country) but safety concerns really made it difficult at times.
and I had people ask me all of those questions before I went to SA. Kind of funny 🙂
Sunday, March 9th 2014 at 8:34 pm
This was such an awesome post Nicole!
Saturday, March 8th 2014 at 2:06 am
Wellll I have taken a stroll through Harlem butttt that’s just me. Haha completely understand the reasoning though! Every major city is going to have a high crime rate. Period. My neighborhood in Brooklyn actually has a very bad reputation for the same things you listed but I have never felt unsafe. And I actually don’t think of South Africa as a dangerous place, I just think of it as an expensive place 😉 Great post!
Wednesday, March 5th 2014 at 3:57 pm
I get the same thing from friends back at home asking me some crazy questions about Iceland!