BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 10:25 UK

How dangerous is South Africa?

South Africa policeman

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

With a multitude of tourists heading to South Africa for the World Cup, a question hangs on many lips: how dangerous is the country?

South Africa is a place where a lot of violent crime happens.

That much is hard to dispute.

Each day an average of nearly 50 people are murdered.

In addition to these 18,000 murders each year, there are another 18,000 attempted murders.

Murder is a staple of the news. In April, it was white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche. Earlier this month, it was Lolly Jackson, the flamboyant owner of the Teazers strip club chain, killed at a house in Kempton Park, just outside Johannesburg.

BBC World Cup 2010 masthead

In the run-up to the World Cup, British newspapers have been happy to convey a terrifying picture of South Africa.

One recently told its readers about "Cape Town's culture of gangsters, drugs, rape, robbery and a murder every 25 minutes".

So should football fans fear for their lives at the World Cup?

It's a complicated picture, says Johan Burger, senior researcher in the crime and justice programme at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.

The first thing is that the South African murder rate is going down and not up.

"Contrary to what many people think, the murder rate, while still extremely high, is down by about 44% since 1995. That's a huge decrease."

Lolly Jackson

The geographical and social spread of murder might also be relevant to visitors.

"What is important to understand about our high crime rate is that we know from research that approximately 80% of our murders happen within a very specific social context, mostly between people that know one another.

"There is something wrong within some of our communities in terms of the social interaction and the social conditions."

In blunt terms, areas with problems have murder levels that can be wildly above the national average.

Kwa Mashu, a township outside Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, has the unfortunate honour of being dubbed South Africa's murder capital by the media, with 300 last year. It took the unwanted honour from Nyanga, a township outside Cape Town.

These are not the kinds of areas that are regularly frequented by tourists.

Dr Burger says research done by other academics points to the social basis for a high crime rate in such areas.

"There are extremely high rates of unemployment in some areas. All of this leads to a large element of frustration. Often this is the thing that sparks violence.

"The gap between rich and poor is still widening and it leads to what is seen as relative deprivation. The people in the very, very poor communities, they see wealth.

"It is not just a gap, it is a visible gap. The situation is aggravated by poor service delivery. Many of our municipalities are in complete disarray, complete dysfunction. This then leads to dissatisfaction. People protest sometimes very violently."

Graph comparing murder rates in UK and South Africa

There are many other crimes apart from murder which are seen as problematic in South Africa.

The national figure of 203,777 episodes of "assault with the intent to inflict grievous bodily harm" might be alarming. It's hard to compare this with the UK where statistics are grouped differently, though the latter has a larger population (61 million compared with South Africa's 49 million.)

But like murder, many offences are geographically weighted, says Dr Burger.

Of the 18,438 house robberies in South Africa last year, 8,122 were in the province of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg. The likelihood of being a victim is twice the national average there.

Carjacking is a category of danger that would be novel to most visitors from western Europe.

Police in a stadium
Foreign media have sometimes been scathing

There are junctions which are signposted as carjacking blackspots, and there are areas where drivers will avoid stopping at red lights, particularly at night, preferring the risk of a fine to the risk of hijack.

"Many people may come in rented cars and then like everyone else they will run the risk of this," says Dr Burger. He notes that "most of the time" carjacking victims are "threatened or violently removed... not seriously injured".

Unlike most categories of violent crime, recorded instances of carjacking are on the rise in South Africa. The police do their best to fight it, says Pretoria News crime reporter Graeme Hosken.

"We have had a problem with gangs following tourists from OR Tambo airport [near Johannesburg] and the cops cracked down on that. I take precautions. I've been nearly hijacked myself on an open freeway."

He advises:

  • Keep your car locked while driving
  • Don't stop for strangers or people who have broken down
  • A blue light does not necessarily mean they are police
  • If carjacked, do not offer resistance
  • Carjacking is geographically skewed with half of the 15,000 happening in Gauteng
Flag seller

"There's another crime that poses some risk to visitors and that's street robbery," says Dr Burger.

"People are seldom seriously injured or stabbed or shot. In most cases people are threatened. Criminals will see the World Cup as a huge opportunity."

People can take a number of steps to reduce their chances of being robbed in the street, he says:

  • Avoid advertising. Don't show you have valuables on your person
  • Take precautions by trying to go to some of these places in groups of five, six, seven or more people
  • Most importantly, make a point of seeking advice

"The locals know which places people should avoid and the times people should stay away from certain areas."

If England win their group and make it as far as the quarter finals, they will play in Soccer City, Johannesburg.

There are areas in the city that have a disproportionate level of crime. Ask a local and they may advise against travel to Hillbrow or Yeoville at night.

At the same time, people could also point out that every city has its bad bits.

"I wouldn't go to dodgy areas in London, or the dodgy areas in Liverpool or Manchester," says Hosken.

But of course the crime issue is high on the agenda for the World Cup organisers.

The South African Police Service has prepared a plan that includes extra officers, high visibility policing, and deployment of specialist teams.

"I've seen the police plan, it's extremely impressive," says Dr Burger.

Police at a stadium
The South African police say they have a plan to tackle crime

But while there may be optimism about the police plans, there is still a deep sense of unease, says Hosken.

"The government says crime is going down, [but] 50 odd people are being killed every single day. There is scepticism about what is really happening.

"While crime might be going down, it is [often] extremely violent, armed robberies, hijackings. It is very in your face, it is very gruesome. The robbers will come in and not only attack a couple, [but] rape the wife, and severely assault the husband.

"People are worried about what the government is trying to feed them. The violence associated with crime is increasing."

And while the South African police can point to decreasing crime and the efforts they are making, fighting the fear of violence is harder.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I have lived in SA for 30 years and but for an aged father with dementia would be there still (I will return). I travel back each year and on my last three visits have taken my new partner. Initially she felt intimidated at traffic lights where your car can be surrounded by hawkers selling everything you've never needed. However she now tells people how she actually feels safer in certain places in SA than the UK, such as underground car parks that are well lit and heavily patrolled. My advice is enjoy the friendly people, take their advice on where to avoid and you'll have a great time.
Phil Shawcross, Manchester, England

British tourists walk around the streets of Cape Town central business district in their thousands from their hotels during rugby, cricket and other tours. Plenty of British schools have tours to South Africa for hockey, cricket, rugby etc. The existence of a tourism industry in Cape Town is due to the isolation of crime to areas affected most by poverty, areas not frequented by tourists. The Olympic Park in East London... now that could be more dangerous than walking around Cape Town stadium, the waterfront, CBD and many other parts.
Rafa, Cape Town

I, for one acknowledge that SA has a huge crime problem. But it's quite amazing how crime becomes a big issue when we are hosting the Soccer World Cup - a sport generally regarded to be a "black sport" in SA. But there wasn't any such negativity and talks when we hosted both the Rugby and Cricket World Cups - ironically sports associated with "whites" in SA. I wonder why that is? I admit that Rugby and Cricket World Cups are not as big as the soccer showpiece... But they do attract tourists nonetheless.
Sabonga, Johannesburg

This report throws up a much more pervasive problem within wider society. Fear of violence is more often than not a self-perpetuating problem. If someone is attacked, fewer people are willing to risk walking down that street or in that area, which increases the likelihood of being attacked. The best thing to do is keep going about normal business as long as humanly possible, show the criminals that you are not scared and make crimes harder for them to commit.
Emily, Lancaster

I am an American student living in South Africa now for almost six months. I have not seen any crime or been a victim of any crime. However, friends of mine have been. The circumstances always seems to be the same: late at night, alcohol involved, and not well light streets. As long as you travel in groups, use common sense, and use caution at night you should not encounter any problems.
Erin, Port Elizabeth, SA

Thank you for such a balanced depiction of the situation in South Africa.
Percy Molele, Pretoria, South Africa

My Mum is South African and I've visited many times. I think that as long as you are sensible and don't wear any flash jewellery or clothes, draw unnecessary attention to yourself or wonder around the streets at night then you should have no problems. I'd also warn people that the police are not always the most honest people.
Pete, W2, London

Pete makes a good point and it's something tourists should be aware of. Some police can be opportunist and manipulative. This doesn't mean all but some will be on the look out to make an extra few bucks here and there from naive tourists. But then, I have had some exceptionally efficient and pleasant dealings with police there which makes me believe that they can provide the security necessary for such a large event.
Neil, Herts, UK

These kind of reports are getting quite tiresome. Yes South Africa has a high crime rate but as is correctly pointed out much of the serious crime is located in certain areas. South Africa has hosted a rugby world cup, a cricket world cup a lions series and numerous other international sporting events without major incident. In fact the IPL relocated there last year because it was felt that South Africa was a lot safer than India at the time. I'm not denying that crime is a problem in South Africa, it is, but the continued media scare mongering over the issue is becoming very tiresome. Much like any city in the world there are areas that should be avoided and the best way to avoid any undesirable situations is a small bit of common sense.
Conor, London, England

I was in Jo'burg a couple of years ago with work. Whilst I didn't see any trouble I got a serious talking to from the guys in the office for walking the 300m from the hotel. They said I was mad to walk anywhere.
Johnny, Southport

We visited South Africa earlier this year and everyone (and I mean everyone) we spoke to about the possibility of violence during the World Cup said they were really worried about the football hooligans coming from England.
Helen Robinson, Henley-on-Thames

Sometimes seeking advice from the locals may give an exaggerated picture of crime in an area as well. I, for example, moved back from London to Durban about a year ago after spending 6 years in London. I asked friends and family about safety concerns. Basically, South Africans - at least in Durban - don't walk anywhere. I live 15 min walk from one of the busiest streets in Durban for bars and restaurants and people consider me crazy and have warned me not to walk there. I, however, do so regularly and have never had a problem. This is in a good area and a busy area as well but the general phobia is here too. South Africans like to dwell on the many things they can't do because of crime and getting a clear picture of what you can and can't do is very difficult.
Gareth, Durban, South Africa

"I wouldn't go to dodgy areas in London says Pretoria News crime reporter Graeme Hosken." This is nonsense, there is not any "no go" areas in London. Clearly some streets are best avoided after dark, but comparing South African cities with London is to give false confidence to tourists to that country.
Hugh, London

I have just (Sunday) returned from Jo'burg on business. There is an element of "it's really bad out here" but fear itself does breed fear. I am more worried about drunk English chaps thinking they have the measure of bad areas and taking on police, taxi drivers and others. Be streetwise and enjoy - it is a wonderful country.
Clive Hollingshead, Wokingham, UK

I was in SA for two months recently. I got robbed while sleeping in my bed and mugged outside CT station (don't look like you're a stranger in town - keep moving).
Hugh Kent, Shrewsbury, UK

I have lived in both London and Johannesburg. I have NEVER once been threatened or harmed in JHB. I have however been mugged... on Clapham High Street in broad daylight. It is about awareness - I defy you to walk around Stockwell or Brixton at night with a camera around your neck and see if you don't get done.
Matt, Johannesburg, South Africa

To every contributor who complains about scaremongering, the facts speak for themselves. Look at the BBC's graph - Britain's figures INCLUDE manslaughter and infanticide whilst SA's DOESN'T. If it did, the figure would be probably 36,000 v 660 odd. I grew up in SA and still have family and many friends there. I've now lived in the UK for over 14 years so believe I'm qualified to speak on behalf of both. In SA, there's a proliferation of firearms. Everyone (rightly or wrongly) likes to carry one around. It's important to be aware that most firearms aren't even LEGALLY sold. My wife and I walk about Edinburgh and other cities in the UK at night with little or no fear. We don't need to avoid stopping at red traffic lights; contemplate the prospect of miscreants posing as policemen; and heaven forbid risk rape and murder for as little as an expensive watch or cellphone. I strongly advise tourists to do as this article suggests - seek local advice and don't take any chances.
Justin Fryer, Edinburgh, Scotland

I lived in Johannesburg for nearly six years, loved it to bits but found I was in a siege mentality when I returned to Britain.
Be prepared for hectic driving, lock your doors, close your windows. Don't be frightened of the people walking between cars at the traffic lights, they are sellers and beggars. Keep an eye on anybody close to your vehicle - use your mirrors. At open-air car parks and on-street parking expect men and women to offer to watch your car. Sometimes they will even be in uniform. Only give them money when you leave and make sure you give it to the right person. Don't show jewellery. Keep a sacrificial wallet or purse. I always carried my passport but you may be advised not to. I just did not want to end up like visiting colleagues did, sitting in a room with suspected illegal immigrants who could not show a South African ID book. Be vigilant, don't expect to get away with wide-eyed "I'm a tourist, nothing bad will happen" behaviour and above all, enjoy the country. It is beautiful, vibrant and amazing, and deserves to have better times than it has right now.
Leigh, Walsall

I have just returned from South Africa, a two-month foot, bus and car journey. I stayed in hostels in all the major cities, townships, villages, slept in my camper and even camped out in random unnamed communities. If anyone had wanted a more vulnerable target then it would have been difficult to find one more obvious than me, a 50-something loner with a camera and backpack. However I met nothing but kindness, help and welcome.
Every day, bar/hostel TVs showed lurid news reports of incidents, some really disturbing. Did I ever feel threatened? Well yes. When you are lost at night, low on petrol, no obvious place to camp, and immersed in an unfamiliar culture, the mind throws up a thousand possibilities and few are positive. Every morning, however, the sun rose and my smile returned.
Matt Stewart, Glasgow

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