Crime South Africa: 15 expat tips on surviving South Africa

On June 21, 2013 / by Michaela / Leave a comment

Crime Cape Town South Africa

Many people emigrating to South Africa are worried about crime. They worry that they can’t move as freely as they were used to in Europe, Asia or the United States. They have read about security estates or gated communities where South Africans live like prisoners. And they are convinced they will surely become victims of crime if they are not streetwise.

I am working for an immigration service and in our industry we don’t talk about crime, at least not during office hours. Instead we post articles on how crime figures have improved in the recent years in South Africa. But in this post I want to give you the good and the bad – an honest picture on what it is like to live in South Africa.

Admittedly, when I first moved to Cape Town/South Africa in 2001 all those questions about crime, rape and highjackings crossed my mind too. Can I walk home alone after a night at the club? Do I need a car or is it safe for me to use public transport in South Africa? Can I drive around alone at night? Should I be living in one of those gated communities?

Yes, in the twelve years I have lived in South Africa, I have had experiences with crime. I won’t lie to you. Low on cash and high on self-confidence, I shared space with other students in Cape Town’s student suburb Observatory and went to popular pubs like Joburg on Long Street. I also went surfing in Muizenberg. Yes, we were broken into, our wetsuits stolen from washing lines and surf boards taken from cars. But yes, we left the wetsuits outside on the washing line, the windows open and the surfboard underneath the car.

The longer I stayed in South Africa the more being careful became second nature to me, to an extent where being careful did not compromise my quality of life.

I would like to share with you what I have learned about crime over the years living in Cape Town, so that you too can enjoy this beautiful city that is so close to our hearts:

1) Invest in a safe car – There are still Volkswagen Beetles moving around at snail’s pace on South Africa’s roads. They might be fun, but they are anything but safe. There are plenty of stories of Beetles catching fire, breaking down and rolling down Cape Town city bowl hills backwards.

2) No body is faster than the tow truck company – Here is my advice to you: Save the phone number of a big Cape Town tow truck company in your phone. This can come in handy, if your car breaks down in the middle of the night on the N2 or N7 or any other dangerous place. Tow truck drivers are known to be like vultures. They can be seen hanging around on street corners waiting for a car crash. So they will reach you faster than the Automobile Association, the insurance or the police.

3) Don’t phone and walk – Chirping away on your cell phone, while walking through St. Georges Mall or Companies Garden during your lunch break makes you a target. Mobile phones are status symbols and in demand. Displaying them in public, you risk them getting stolen off your ear.

4) It’s always the gym bag – Many of us leave our gym bag in the car while shopping or working. Ipod, favourite gym pants, cosmetics and broken window add up to about 5000 Rand. Better don’t leave your gym bag in the car at all. Not in the boot or behind the seat.

5) Leave a space – I hear in Johannesburg cars leave a space between them and the person in front when stopping at traffic lights, to avoid a potential highjacking attempt. I have never seen that anywhere in Cape Town.

6) Security Estates – Live safe, sleep well – Invest in a safe home. Meaning – get a place in a security estate, safe area and/or an apartment or house equipped with electric fence, alarm or movement sensor. You might think living in a security estate in South Africa is like living like a bird in a golden cage. This is definitely not the case. There are security estates in Cape Town, which enjoy a phenomenal view, bordering the natural forest and the slopes of Table Mountain. Direct access to hiking paths, spacious pools, tennis and squash courts are just some of the many benefits of those sought after places. There are other security estates in Cape Town that use the natural boundaries of the ocean or a lagoon or both, to prevent access by unwanted elements. Some of the Security Estates in Johannesburg are so big, there will be amenities like shops, community halls (that can be used for parties etc.), kindergartens and full-on gyms. 24/7 security, camera surveillance and gated entrances ensure that kids can skateboard or cycle around between houses, visit their friends and do everything they would be able to do when growing up overseas.

7) Get a dog – You will have noticed there are many pet shops in South Africa. This is because everyone has a four legged friend. Dog breeds like Ridgebacks and Boerebulls were previously used to kill lions and feature now as popular pets in many South African households. I have been told that particularly black South African people are scared of snakes, dogs and of course the Tokoloshe. I decided on the dog option and while I was at it, I got myself two.

8) Park underground – If there is an opportunity, spend the extra cash and park underground. Having said that, parking on the streets occurs all over Cape Town and Johannesburg. In fact there are usually big friendly Congolese parking attendants looking after your car.

9) Stick to the 9 – 5 rule – Cape Town City Bowl and most other areas are safe during shop opening hours. Business people have meetings in coffee shops, vendors sell their products in little stalls along the road, people grab a quick lunch, tourists explore the inner city of Cape Town. In other words the inner cities are buzzing during those hours. Once the shops and offices start closing, people will catch a bus, train or climb into their cars. By 6 pm certain parts of the city become deserted and it can be dangerous to walk there with valuables like a laptop or a handbag.

10) Many of Cape Town’s inner areas are now equipped with cameras. The eye sees everything and therefore Cape Town’s night life in those areas somewhat reminds me of the good old days back in Munich, where people enjoyed a warm summer’s night outside in the inner city district. Having said that, there are plenty of open air restaurants and pubs in Cape Town, where it’s not only safe to sit outside but the weather actually permits you to do so 8 – 10 months of the year.

11) Rainy weather, ruffian weather – With shorter daylight hours, and less tourists giving tips, criminals seem to be looking for other opportunities to make a living, so crime seems to increase in winter. If its rainy and overcast, avoid parks and quiet suburbs. Have a dinner party, make a fire, visit a mall, a gallery or one of the many excellent restaurants in Cape Town.

12) The mall is a safe place – Malls are great places to hang out, especially in winter. Malls count as very safe zones in South Africa. To give you an idea on how safe they are: Teenage kids use public transport to the mall (for instance the V & A Waterfront in Cape Town). Equipped with daddy’s credit card and cell phone they spend the whole day there.

13) Lion’s Head, Table Mountain, Noordhoek Beach – I have been going up Lion’s Head with or without other people, with or without dogs, before work for ages and (touch wood) nothing ever happened to me. However one does read about muggings on Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. So it is probably better to make sure you go when other people are around or take a big dog or pepper spray.

14) Public transport – Public transport has improved immensely since the Soccer World Cup in South Africa. The My City Bus is a safe and affordable way to travel through the cities. Trains are safe during peak hours, particularly on certain routes, like Cape Town CBD to Kalk Bay.

15) Fraud is what you should really be worried about – Most life threatening crime in South Africa happens in the townships. Fraud however can set you back a couple of thousands of Rand and happens when you buy a car, hire a car, do a transaction or take out an insurance policy. Car dealerships in South Africa for instance are known to sell cars, still owned by the bank, rental agents keep deposits and cheques are often not covered. Being streetwise and trusting your natural gut instinct or if necessary consult with a South African friend can be the right thing to do before making a bigger transaction or purchase.

In conclusion, we are blessed to live a very free life in South Africa. We don’t walk around with pepper spray in our pockets or carry our money in waist belts. We stick to the rules. We are on the guard initially until we understand, become accustomed and streetwise. Crime mainly affects certain areas and after a while we know where the “hot spots” are and what to look out for. Then after living in South Africa for a while, careful becomes second nature. South Africa is a beautiful country with wide open spaces for you to enjoy. South African people are generally friendly, helpful and welcoming. I don’t want to play down crime in this country and I feel sorry for everyone who was affected by crime in South Africa in the past. However, I feel I need to explain how lucky we are to live in this beautiful country. Being blessed to live here is what is on our minds every day, crime isn’t.

If you are worried about crime in South Africa but consider living or working in this beautiful country, please feel free to get in touch with one of our experienced immigration consultants.

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Michaela heads up the marketing department for Initiate Holdings. An expat herself she understands the unique challenges immigrants are facing in South Africa.

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