Will I Be Safe in South Africa?

Eight years ago to the day is when we arrived in South Africa to begin our expat life. The country was poised to host the Soccer World Cup, the first on African soil. I remember that at the time there were heated debates whether tourists would dare travel to a place so notorious for the crime on its streets. Would the event be a flop because fans from around the world stayed home? Or even worse, would the fans arrive anyway and then become victims violent attacks, setting back South Africa’s reputation for decades?

It turns out that the World Cup was a success. The fans arrived, if not in the huge numbers hoped for, and no major incidents tarnished the country’s image. In fact, the increased attention on safety issues and a new focus on law and order ushered in a period of relative calm and optimism. Maybe we were the exception, but we lived in South Africa for three years and never encountered any crime directed at us – if you don’t count the tip money I kept in my cupholder routinely being stolen during car service appointments.

Join us for our next Webinar 

Webinar: will I be safe in South Africa?


Topic: Will I be Safe in South Africa? How to Stay Safe and Secure When Living in Johannesburg.

When: March 6, 2018, 7:30 – 8:30 pm

Cost: FREE for attendees and available for download for a fee afterwards.

Register NOW at www.translatingme.org/webinar

But if your’e an expat-to-be, sitting in the United States or Europe or really anywhere else in the world and weighing the pros and cons of being transferred to Johannesburg, “will I be safe in South Africa?” is likely the question foremost on your mind.

I wish I could answer it with an unequivocal “yes,” but that would be foolish. Johannesburg is like any other big city. It has many suburbs that for the most part are reasonably safe, but there are parts of town you’re well advised to enter with caution, particularly at night. Crime rates in some U.S. cities have come down considerably in the last two decades, but if you remember how you were warned about New York in the 1990s – well, that’s what it’s like in Johannesburg. You wouldn’t have stayed away from New York just because Central Park wasn’t safe at night, but you also probably didn’t end up going to Central Park at night.

Having said this, Johannesburg has changed, even in the years after we left. A considerable wave of urban renewal is transforming more and more once dangerous neighborhoods into trendy hangouts for hipsters and young entrepreneurs. The rebirth of Braamfontein is only one example among many. It’s a great success story and proof that not all government is bad and corrupt in South Africa. If you left Joburg twenty years ago and are just now returning, you won’t recognize the city. Many of these areas are now places not just fun to visit but also highly desirable for urban living. If I was single and moving to South Africa, I’d absolutely love to live in Braamfontein amidst the urban hustle and a plethora of trendy bars and restaurants. If you’re moving with your entire family, you’re likely still better off with a house in the Northern suburbs, not because it’s safer but because it is cheaper for the size house you’ll be looking for.

I would venture to guess there are still warning signs for “Hijacking Hotspots” on certain roads. I bet there are still intersections where muggers will “Smash&Grab,” using a brick to smash windshields and make off with the purses of motorists. You’re likely still at risk when living in a free-standing home where you can be tailed on your way home from work and attacked in your driveway while waiting for the gate to open or when failing to stop right inside the gate so it can close before another car can follow you inside the walls. Your car insurance may still require installment of a tracker service in case your care gets stolen. You might not want to leave your purse with your phone in your shopping cart and wander off into an aisle without it, as I often do here in the United States (a country where having their phone stolen at school is for down the list of what kids have to fear when going to school). You’re probably still advised to slow down but avoid stopping outright at red traffic lights when you find yourself driving home from a party late at night.

So do be careful about all those things. But should you worry about them to the point where you forgo all the great things you’ll encounter in South Africa because you’re too scared to go there? I’d say no. Prepare yourself by being “sensible,” as any South African will tell you. Just like you’ll have to be sensible about staying in your car with the windows rolled up when driving through a game reserve with lions in it, even if there was only a small warning sign instead of a slew of indemnity forms. Look for housing in a gated community with a security guard instead of a freestanding house. And see if your company will pay for a security training where you can learn valuable tips, such as how to handle a fender-bender on the side of the road.

Speaking of fender-benders: If I were to warn you of safety risks when moving to South Africa, it wouldn’t be crime. It would be road safety, or the lack thereof. South Africa is consistently ranked near the bottom in global road safety comparisons. It has to do with a lack of public transport, lax road worthiness regulations, and just plain bad driving.

If you have questions about the safety of expats living in Johannesburg and South Africa, please register to join us for our next Webinar on March 6, 2018. All webinars of our “Moving to South Africa” series are available for download here.