How safe is South Africa to travel solo as a female?
June 4, 2017 10:58 AM   Subscribe

Do travelers get taken advantage of? How could I protect myself against this to minimize my chances of risk?

Been doing research and want to travel to South Africa in the fall for about a week. Upon my research, I seem to run across a lot of literature about people writing about the safety of South Africa. Even on youtube, there are expats who live in South Africa who describe that they were encouraged to not walk alone at night, and to hide their valuables and to dress down, not fancy. Compared to other countries I've researched like New Zealand, where solo travel as a female seems "ok" and the vibe is there more or less, crime doesn't exist. Which makes me wonder what people's experiences in South Africa were like. There are also news reports of gated communities where people still get robbed at gun point in their homes. I think visiting would be something different as you can see that the country was settled by Europeans in Africa and that apartheid and divisions can exist. I also have heard that it is quite beautiful too in South Africa.

My tentative plan is to do a group tour in Capetown, but I would have to get in early the day before and find a place to stay. Any experience of anyone as a solo-female traveler around that area and if they felt safe? What other things should I consider if going?
posted by proficiency101 to Travel & Transportation around South Africa (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I am a woman who lives alone in Cape Town.

South Africa is an amazing, beautiful country with experiences to fit nearly any interest. Compared to much of the world it's an easy place to travel. I don't feel as though my life is limited or scary - I just feel lucky to be in a place where I can do so many spectacular hikes and drink so much great (and incredibly affordable) wine. I've had lots of people visit me here, both on their own and with others, and they have without exception had an amazing time. If you get to the point when you're looking for recommendations on what to do, PM me and I'll talk your ear off.

That said, it's not Switzerland. As a traveler, you'll have to take precautions that you might not in your home city (depending on where that is, of course). You can walk down some of the busy streets at night without worrying much, as long as you aren't incapacitated by drink or drugs, but in general as a woman I don't walk alone at night in places which are not familiar (and that includes places that *feel* safe. One of the things that's hard for foreigners to recognize, at least in Cape Town, is that there are lots of beautiful and prosperous areas that feel safe from your frame of reference, but that doesn't mean that that's the case). Home invasions happen even in gated communities (in almost every case, you pretend to be asleep or otherwise make it clear that you aren't going to inhibit the theft and you won't be at risk of physical harm. Plus if you're in a hotel this doesn't apply). You should never drive down the street with your handbag on the passenger seat and the window down. To me, these are manageable risks that wouldn't prevent me from visiting or recommending that my family and friends do so, but everyone has their own calculus.

No matter your personal security calculus, you should have very few worries about arriving, finding a place to stay, and joining up with a tour group the next day. I think you should totally do this trip, and, in order to be extra conscientious on the safety front, you should take these basic steps (many of which apply everywhere in the world, and most of which are moot if you're with a tour group the whole time):

Keep your bag/possessions in a sheltered, visible place at all times.

Don't get inebriated in public, unless you have a trusted car and driver waiting to take you home.

Don't walk around with your fancy camera strapped across your chest. Avoid using high-end technology when you're alone in unfamiliar/vulnerable places (street corners at night, sparsely populated stretches of road, things like that. You can pull out your camera all you want when you're on safari or inside a restaurant or whatever).

Don't walk alone at night. Try to stay in groups where possible during the day if you're unfamiliar with the area.

This may be controversial, but don't do a township tour/township voluntourism. Crime in these areas is a real concern, and poverty tourism isn't cool. Find one of the many other ways to explore the different strands of South African society, and if you feel moved to help, find a good recipient of your money rather than volunteering to play basketball with kids for a couple hours in Khayelitsha.

If you stay in an airbnb, make sure it has basic security features - a gate or bars on ground floor windows, an alarm, things like that.

Uber is safe and affordable, so are the citibuses. The train to Muizenberg is nice on the weekends. Avoid other forms of public transport.

Good luck!
posted by exutima at 12:36 PM on June 4, 2017 [12 favorites]

Well, to be honest most places are less safe than New Zealand, and SA definitely is.

However, it's not Mogadishu. For what you're describing, i.e leaving the airport and spending a night somewhere before a tour, I think it's very doable, and it's an amazing country, just incredible.
posted by smoke at 2:23 PM on June 4, 2017

I have been to SA three times now, twice combining work and leisure travel and once purely vacation (and I incidently live in Switzerland). I was travelling solo on the work trips and with a female friend for the vacation trip. It is an extremely beautiful country and I would love to go back. Based on my experiences on those trips I would have zero concerns flying into Cape Town, spending the night and joining a tour group. But listen to Exutima about perceived safety of places. I never got harassed in the way female travellers get harassed in some parts of the world so in my mind the risks are more 'vulnerable western tourist' not 'female travelling alone'.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:52 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I visited Cape Town in late 2015. I arrived with work colleagues, for a conference, staying at a large hotel close to the convention centre (Southern Sun Cullinan - lovely but a bit isolated). I continued my trip alone, switching to a hotel downtown (The Grand Daddy) and hiring a private guide for a couple of days of touring.

I specifically chose the hotel downtown for the time when I'd be travelling solo so that it would minimise the chance I'd be caught walking by myself at night (and if I was, I would be out walking surrounded by other people, rather than on a street completely alone). It was super close to great restaurants and cafes, and I scouted these out online in advance, so I had a rough idea of where I'd be going, where I'd be eating, and I could minimise looking like I was wandering "aimlessly" (also to minimise the times where I'd be pulling out a map, looking like a tourist)

I made a point to always talk to the doorman at the hotel, letting him know roughly where I was going and get his perspective on whether this was ok or not. I found the doormen at the Grand Daddy particularly friendly and helpful and felt like I could trust their opinion/advice.

I did have a couple of issues with attention from waiters at restaurants where I was dining alone. It started friendly but over the course of the meal became inappropriate. In these cases I kept being friendly but just lied (with respect to their questions regarding where I was staying, what my plans were etc etc) and made sure to pay in cash.

I had an amazing time in Cape Town and would love to go back. The scenery is stunning, the food is amazing, the people are (mostly) very friendly and kind... you'll have an absolute blast! I'd go back in a second :)
posted by unlaced at 7:54 PM on June 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

When I asked similar questions about traveling to Johannesburg (as a male), the unanimous answer was that I should go to Cape Town instead. It started to feel somewhat insulting, like Cape Town is a beloved destination like Paris and Joberg is like a blighted and on fire Detroit.

But I didn't have a choice, because the conference was in Joberg. I went, and had a really amazing time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And then on the last day, chaffing against the tight leash they had put on us, I went on a walk in broad daylight at lunchtime. And I got mugged. So. That was a shame.

Have fun on your trip!
posted by jragon at 11:28 AM on July 21, 2017

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