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Crime and personal safety

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Despite horror stories of sky-high crime rates, most people visit South Africa without incident; be careful, but don’t be paranoid. This is not to underestimate the issue – crime is probably the most serious problem facing the country. However, once you realize that crime is disproportionately concentrated in the poor African and coloured townships, the scale becomes less terrifying. Violent crime is a particular problem not just in the townships but also in Johannesburg, where the dangers are the worst in the country.

Protecting property and “security” are major national obsessions, and it’s difficult to imagine what many South Africans would discuss at their dinner parties if the problem disappeared. A substantial percentage of middle-class homes subscribe to the services of armed private security firms. The other obvious manifestation of this obsession is the huge number of alarms, high walls and electronically controlled gates you’ll find, not just in the suburbs, but even in less deprived areas of some townships. Guns are openly carried by police – and often citizens.

If you fall victim to a mugging, you should take very seriously the usual advice not to resist and do as you’re told. The chances of this happening can be greatly minimized by using common sense and following a few simple rules (see Safety tips).

Drugs and drink-driving

Dagga (pronounced like “dugger” with the “gg” guttural, as in the Scottish pronunciation of “loch”) is cannabis in dried leaf form, South Africa’s most widely produced and widely used drug. Grown in hot regions like KwaZulu-Natal (the source of Durban Poison), Swaziland (Swazi Gold) and as a cash crop in parts of the former Transkei, it is fairly easily available and the quality is generally good – but this doesn’t alter the fact that it is illegal. If you do decide to partake, you should take particular care when scoring, as visitors have run into trouble dealing with unfamiliar local conditions. Strangely, for a country that sometimes seems to be on one massive binge, South Africa has laws that prohibit drinking in public – not that anyone pays any attention to them. The drink-drive laws are routinely and brazenly flouted, making the country’s roads the one real danger you should be concerned about. People routinely stock up their cars with booze for long journeys, and even at filling stations you’ll find places selling liquor. Levels of alcohol consumption go some way to explaining why during the Christmas holidays over a thousand people die in an annual orgy of carnage on the roads.

Sexual harassment

South Africa’s extremely high incidence of rape doesn’t as a rule affect tourists. However, at heart the majority of the country’s males, regardless of race, hold on to fairly sexist attitudes. Sometimes your eagerness to be friendly may be taken as a sexual overture – always be sensitive to potential crossed wires and unintended signals.

Women should avoid travelling on their own, nor should they hitchhike or walk alone in deserted areas. This applies equally to cities, the countryside or anywhere after dark. Minibus taxis should be ruled out as a means of transport after dark, especially if you’re not exactly sure of local geography.

The police

Poorly paid, shot at (and frequently hit), underfunded, badly equipped, barely respected and demoralized, the police in South Africa keep a low profile. If you ever get stopped, at a roadblock for example (one of the likeliest encounters), always be courteous. And if you’re driving, note that under South African law you are required to carry your driver’s licence at all times.

If you are robbed, you will need to report the incident to the police, who should give you a case reference for insurance purposes – though don’t expect too much crime-cracking enthusiasm, or to get your property back.

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