On my most recent trip to South Africa I met and fell into conversation with a Danish women at a local backpackers lodge who had been in the country for a few days, and who was, within a week or so, due to take up a voluntary appointment working for a month or two at Kruger National Park. The subject drifted to local crime, and as I gave her the usual dissertation that I spare no newcomer, I could see by the smile on her face, and a general look of indulgence, that she had me down as a paranoid local white racist with an historic distrust of black people. Even as I drew her attention to the 9ft high wall surrounding the property, the steel gate at the front door, and the loops of razor wire running the length of the perimeter, she still preferred to rely on her instincts, and the surface impression one invariably gets on arrival in South Africa. To prove this point she slung her day pack over her shoulder, popped her camera in her fanny pack, and set off downtown on foot.
How serious is the problem?
It is a fact that South Africa, especially Johannesburg, and the many comfortable backpackers or luxury lodges that abound, do not in combination give the newcomer any hint of the fact that South Africa is a very dangerous country indeed. Johannesburg has one of the best urban freeway systems in the world, but you will never see a soft top convertible. It has some of the most lavishly appointed malls and shopping centers anywhere, but each is patrolled by a heavily armed paramilitary security guard with two side arms, body armor and an R5 assault rifle. It has one of the most tried and tested, effective and best equipped police forces on the planet, from the ranks of which at least one, but often more, are killed in shootouts with criminals every month, not to mention the extraordinary number who fall victim to suicide, or stress related fratricidal killings.
South Africa is a victim of this extraordinary dichotomy. It is the economic powerhouse of the region, a global player on a continent of hobbled economic maladroits, and yet as one might feel perfectly confident of walking cross town from one end of Harare to the other, or Maputo, Dar es Salaam and Kampala, one would simply not survive a stroll through the Johannesburg Central Business District after dark. Hence you should not try. The key to surviving a nation ranked second in the world for murder, and first in matters of rape, is to first understand why this is so, and then take some necessary and simple precautions.
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South Africa is a country of fantastic discrepancy between rich and poor. In a country where Mark Shuttleworth, local computer genius and marketeer extraordinaire, ponied up US$20 million for a space flight with the Russian Soyuz mission, can also been found the blight of vast shanty towns and sprawling and impoverished squatter camps.
In South Africa the righting of historical imbalances promised by the revolution have not yet unlocked the gates of the banquet for the vast majority. These are the people who by and large fought the fight and bore the brunt of the struggle. And indeed independence has left the huge white middle class virtually untouched, and merely added to it a strata of increasingly wealthy blacks who seem to the masses to be as insulated and self satisfied as those who went before. Added to this is the awful weight of AIDS on an already suffering society, and an angry clique of forty something men who sacrificed their educations for the struggle, but have guns and training to compensate. From this you have the alchemy of a generation of social and political agony that can but take its course and be exorcised.
It has been said that those men planning and executing the cash in transit heists that, with extraordinary risk and bravado, occur on an almost weekly basis in South Africa, are funding the university education of the new generation, who might themselves be released from the necessity of violence to make ends meet. It might be so, but for now these are the facts, and this is the situation, and travelers to South Africa need at all times to be aware.
Awareness, of course, is the key. Don’t be stupid. Don’t tempt fate. Don’t think because the KNZ coast looks like Southern California that it is. Don’t think because Capetown is so clean and ordered, so cultural and sophisticated, that it is fine to whip your iPhone on your wrist as you stroll downtown in the sensual twilight. If you hire a car don’t have a picnic on the side of the freeway, or take an unscheduled diversion into the local favella for the sake of authentic local color. All of these will get you into trouble. South Africa is a fantastically well organized country, and every travel contingency is provided for by one operator or another. From the Bazz Bus to the Blue Train, from wildlife safaris to whale watching and shark caging, there is nothing that cannot be done both safely and professionally, and it is this that needs to be borne in mind at all times.
So lock up your cash, keep your electronics hidden, and get, and adhere to, local advice from your lodge or hotel wherever you go. Most importantly, however, get on that plane, and come to South Africa. It is the best country in the world, and you won’t regret it.