Word on the street is there’s some major South Africa bashing going on in European media, particularly in relation to crime and safety during the World Cup. While American reporters seem to be less paranoid or perhaps less biased, safety is generally on the minds of most visitors (and locals) to the country. So what is it actually like here and what are the real concerns?
I’ve had a few conversations with expats lately around the topic “why do we love it here (and stay) despite certain concerns and even though we have foreign passports?” The answers vary but most centre around the freedom from overbearing beaurocracy, the lack of “nanny state” governance, the work/life balance, and the stunning setting. From my first visit to this place, two things have represented some of what I love about Cape Town:
1. The fact that you can go practically anywhere barefoot- you won’t be seeing signs stating “no shoes, no shirt, no service” here; step on glass, that’s your own problem. Enjoy the freedom and the responsibility for it
2. There is a word (“sundownders”) for enjoying a drink at sunset. What a great place when a lifestyle habit, such as taking time out from the rush, is the norm, not some long forgotten experience from holidays only.
I know, a bit simple, but perhaps that’s part of it, remembering the basics of living life.
So, back to the issue of crime and safety. While foreign media is busy portraying South Africa as a state of chaos, crime, and danger; how does it really feel here? Everyone has their own experiences, some good, some bad. Speaking for myself, I’ve lived in the country for nearly 8 years and have personally experienced only 1 minor encounter with crime. Way back in 2002, on my first stay in the country, my cell phone was taken from my bag while riding on the train. No confrontation, no violence, a bit of shock. There were several things I had done “wrong” to lead up to this situation (a bit about things to do/not to do below). At the time, I had thought that perhaps it was a normal thing to experience. Co-workers were shocked and insisted I speak to the train manager. I like to think that their indignence is a sign that even “minor” crime is not the norm. So, sure, I personally know of others who have had cars broken into, items stolen from their house, been mugged, or the like. Yes, the South African media also relates story of more violent crime. And yes, I never experienced any of the above during my time in the States. But to calm your nerves, its not as bad as the media makes it out to be.
There are definitely things you can do to increase your safety while visiting Cape Town. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Try not to display too many valuables (cameras, phone, jewelry)
2. Be aware of where you’re walking- speak to locals about whether certain areas are safe to be in, especially alone and at night
3. On public transport (trains, bus, etc) try to get in occupied vehicles rather than riding alone. Don’t get too distracted during your trip and avoid showing valuables at the station of on the transport.
4. Dont leave bags or valuables visible in your car
5. If your hotel room is at ground level, dont leave valuables within reach of windows
6. Remember the phone number for the police is 10111. There are also private security companies around, if you are staying at a self-catering place, ask the manager for the security provider’s details. If you are walking on the mountain, take note of the number for mountain rescue- 021 948 9900.
Speak to any local for their take on the situation, its a friendly country and people are always willing to help. Remember that everyone has their own take on things and by the end of your visit, hopefully you will have a better picture of the what this place has to offer.
Sure, there are some major issues in the country- poverty, unemployment, AIDS, etc- and the crime that results from these; but things are changing and improving. Despite the warnings of naysayers abroad, this is a country of resilient people who have seen the ability to bring about progress. It’s a positive, vibrant country that has been succeeding in the face of constant doubt. As with anything, change brings some uncertainty, some mistakes, and many lessons; but surely its better to face these issues rather than sit back and accept the way things are? Perhaps its partly that spirit that makes this place such an inspiring home. It would be nice to see the European media portraying this side of the country, but I suppose it wouldn’t sell, especially to readers educated to live in fear of action, change, uncertainty, and possibility.
On your visit, be aware, both of possible risks and, perhaps, of what’s become your “normal” way of living. Cape Town might just challenge you to live bigger and see beyond the headlines.