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Is South Africa Safe to Travel?


"Quick you guys, you can't be here, there was a rape and murder last week and you must go right away". These are not the words you expect to hear after pulling up at a quiet beach for a surf, but in South Africa your safety is something never to be taken for granted like it often is in Australia.

The question of whether or not any country, region, city or town is safe is a difficult one. Any place can be unsafe if you lack the common sense to stay away from dodgy situations, or are just plain unlucky. Though in Southern Africa, as in other troubled regions, your best intentions and common sense can still be no match for random and often serious crime.

Ask many South Africans while you are actually in the country about safety and they will put on a brave face. This mask might be more a reflection of the realities that many either can't leave or are simply more accustomed to than they would like admit. Many are also doing their best to remain optimistic about South Africa's future by staying put rather than moving to Perth or Sydney. Ask the same question on safety of one of the thousands of South African expats in Australia and you will probably be met with silence or the simple remark that they will never go back.

While crime statistics have improved over the past decade (though again rising in 2009), South Africa still retains one of the world's highest crime rates. It's not simply the amount of crime that's the worry, but the percentage of that crime that is violent in nature. In a recent address to Parliament, South African President Jacob Zuma stated that South Africa has a greater problem with violent crime than any other country in the world (and this is a statement made in the year South Africa is hosting the World Cup). South Africans of all creeds and colours deal with the threat of crime on a daily basis and real change can't come fast enough.

From purely personal experience travelling in South Africa was one of the best experiences I've had. But to say I felt safe would be to gloss over the fact you have to be cautious and always aware of what's going on. That and we had a few close shaves.

The Australian government website Smart Traveller states "Pay close attention to your personal security at all times and monitor the media for information about possible new safety or security risks." This is true, but local knowledge, almost down to specific streets or street corners is also something to value.

One afternoon myself and my girlfriend pulled into a car park looking for surf just a few hundred metres down from a relatively popular stretch of beach in Capetown. We had been travelling in a rented car for a few months, making our way around Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and to that point had already witnessed two muggings (one violent and one very fast snatch and run).

We had been in the car park of the beach beach for literally a few moments before a car screeched off the highway and the driver, almost in a panic, warned us in no uncertain terms that we were not safe and that we should exit straight away. We were already cautious and aware of our safety but we were not to know a particularly notorious township lay just a stone's throw from the perfect surf that had caught our attention.

Being on a guided tour, as many Aussies will be over the world cup, is always a safer option as you have the benefit of constant local knowledge and safety in greater numbers. While being in a group does not guarantee safety it certainly will take away some of the worry.

However you decide to travel, South Africa is an amazing place and an assault on the senses. The best and worst of people and place combine to leave you with a memorable experience. Just remember to try and enjoy the place while being constantly aware of your safety and never taking simple things like parking your car for granted.

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