Johannesburg is a city that many travelling to South Africa might choose to skip – flying into the airport and quickly heading off to Cape Town or Kruger National Park. The city’s notorious reputation for crime (which is often over-exaggerated) instantly puts people off. But skipping Jo’burg is a mistake. It’s the largest city in southern Africa, and it’s filled with friendly people and a fascinating history that’s essential to understanding this country.
Culture Trip asked Jo’burg resident Heather Mason, a writer and photographer who moved from Washington, DC, to the city in 2010, to share her tips about how she stays safe.
Mason has lived in Jo’burg for ten years, exploring the city extensively as a writer and photographer, and for most of that decade she’s lived alone. While she’s experienced one or two instances of petty crime (pickpocketing), in most ways life in Jo’burg is the same as life in any large city. You can be smart and cautious without living in fear. Here are her top tips for being safe in Jo’burg.
In most parts of Jo’burg, walking during the day is safe as long as you follow a few rules. Know where you’re going before you set out and try to smile and greet anyone you meet along the way. Once you’re out and about, pay attention to your surroundings and remember not to look at or use your phone while walking.
Any cameras or valuables should be kept out of sight when you’re not using them, and don’t wear flashy jewellery. Try not to walk at night, but if you must, walk in a group. If you decide to try a bit of al fresco dining (day or night), ensure your valuables are stowed safely under the table or between your feet. Don’t hang a bag on the back of your chair, as this is the best way to get pickpocketed.
If you choose to hire a car and drive, make sure to keep your doors locked at all times. If you’re catching a ride with someone, do the same. Try to keep car windows rolled up, but if you do open them, be aware of what’s going on around you and be firm, but friendly, with anyone who approaches your car. Store handbags, laptops and other valuables in the boot or under a seat.
Avoid looking at your phone while driving, especially while stopped at traffic lights. (Street intersections are popular crime hotspots.) Know where you’re going in advance, and if you’re following your phone’s GPS, keep the phone out of sight.
Jo’burg’s informal minibus taxis are famously erratic, and traffic is generally heavy and always unpredictable. Stay alert while driving and be prepared to stop without notice.
Always park your car in a locked garage or guarded area and don’t forget to lock your car doors. Public streets and parking lots are often manned by informal ‘car guards’ who watch over cars for tips. It’s customary to tip a car guard just before you leave a parking spot (not when you arrive); 5 to 10 South African rand (£0.25 to £0.50) is an acceptable tip.
Uber is the safest and most efficient form of transport in Jo’burg – don’t hesitate to use it, especially if you’ve been drinking. (Drink driving roadblocks are common.) The city’s Uber drivers are exceedingly professional and courteous.
When using Uber, take care while waiting outside with your phone out. Pickpockets look for people distracted by the Uber app, especially outside restaurants and bars. Make sure the Uber car’s license plate number matches your app before getting into the car.
Catching an Uber from O.R. Tambo International Airport is a bit complicated, especially if you haven’t done it before. When arriving at Jo’burg’s airport for the first time, it’s wise to arrange in advance for an airport shuttle – do not hire a metered taxi upon arrival, as they are notoriously unreliable. Most hotels, guesthouses and Airbnb owners can arrange shuttle service.
For touring the city, the Jo’burg red bus is a great way to ride around town without the stress of driving your own vehicle.
Jo’burg accommodation tends to have very good security. When staying in an Airbnb or guesthouse, ensure your host explains the home’s locking and security system. If your accommodation has an alarm, use it.
Certain areas in and around downtown Jo’burg – including Hillbrow, Yeoville and the Central Business District (CBD) – are intimidating for tourists (and locals) who aren’t familiar with them. The same applies to Alexandra Township and parts of Soweto. Visit these areas with an experienced local guide, who will also provide essential historical background and cultural context.
Jo’burg has several great companies, one being JoburgPlaces, offering walking and cycling tours around the city.
If you do fall victim to petty theft or car theft (the most common crimes), visit the nearest police station immediately to file a report. You probably won’t get your valuables back, but the report is important for insurance purposes. And make sure any travel insurance does cover you for theft.
Jo’burg offers high-quality and relatively affordable private healthcare. If you’re injured or sick, don’t hesitate to visit the nearest health clinic.
Despite the stories you might hear, tourists are extremely unlikely to experience crime – especially violent crime – while visiting Johannesburg or anywhere else in South Africa. Don’t get caught up in statistics, which are often unreliable, or online doomsday stories, which cannot be verified.
The best advice is to be aware of your surroundings and use common sense at all times. Then just relax and enjoy your visit.