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How safe is South Africa for expats?


‘You’re going to South Africa? But isn’t it really dangerous there?’ 

When I told my friends and family I was going to be travelling around South Africa, several of them were noticeably worried for me. I had gained the opportunity to visit the country to collect data for ECA International’s Cost of Living survey and, at the very least, it would give me the chance to reflect on whether such concerns were valid or not.

Indeed, South Africa has one of the highest crime rates in the world. It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime. It was reported in 2001 that a South African is more likely to be murdered in a robbery than to die in a car crash. Today in 2018, an average of 57 people are killed every day, with the murder rate having increased by 6.9% since 2017.

As you can imagine, these statistics did make me question just how safe it was for me to be visiting. 

The first city on my itinerary was Johannesburg, and I must admit to being somewhat apprehensive at first about walking around too much, resulting in quite a few Uber taxis. However, key locations such as Nelson Mandela Square have a lot of security and I soon began to feel more relaxed out in the open, although I continued to avoid going around on foot at night.

ECA International currently publishes detailed Accommodation Reports on 298 cities. As an International Data Researcher, part of my role is to meet with local experts in the cities that we cover to ensure that we are providing our clients with the most accurate information and data. Durban is a new city that we are adding to our coverage, and as such I had the opportunity to get a good insight into safety and security for expats living in South Africa. 

Security is an extremely important consideration when choosing where to live in South Africa, and as such accommodation can be very different to what you might be used to. Expats prefer to live in secure compounds that have 24/7 security guards, CCTV, gates and fences. However, a result of this added security is that it has led criminals to target individuals on the street rather than breaking into homes.

In South Africa, it is now common for expats and locals to subscribe to an ‘Armed Response’ service. Armed response vehicles can be seen patrolling neighbourhoods. If you are attacked or mugged when walking down a street, you can activate an alarm that will immediately send an armed team to your location. This does not extend to your home and is only meant for public areas. If your home is attacked, then this becomes the problem of the guards that are paid to protect your home. 

This contrasting lifestyle is very different to what most expats are used to in their home countries. The local expert in Durban told me that expatriates are prone to getting too comfortable and letting their guard down. “They are not conditioned to it the same way that us locals are,” I was told. One local stated that they had a friend who had been followed from the shopping mall to her home and subsequently robbed, because she had worn a diamond ring in public. The risks and dangers associated with living in South Africa are taken into account by ECA’s Location Ratings team.

The truth is that by the end of my trip I felt very comfortable walking around in the main city areas. The people in South Africa are generally friendly and approachable. However, as it turned out, the security expert in Durban had been right to warn me not to get too comfortable. 

On my penultimate day in South Africa, I was walking around the City Bowl District of Cape Town in the early afternoon when I was approached by a man asking for money. I told him I had no cash on me, apologised and try to walk on. But he would not give up the pursuit. He was not being violent but nonetheless I found the situation intimidating. He said that he asked people for money so that he wouldn’t have to commit crime. 

I could see that the situation had the potential to turn violent as he was clearly very desperate. I walked towards a petrol station where there were other people and, turning to the man, shouted at the top of my voice to leave me alone. Finally, the man reluctantly walked away from me.

On this occasion there was no harm done, but nonetheless it served as a reminder to always be alert and keep your guard up in South Africa. 

South Africa is a beautiful country that has no shortages of culture, landscape and friendly locals, but it is vital not to be naïve about the risks and dangers present there too. 

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