How do South Africans cope with the high crime rate?

Electric fence

Electric fence (photo by Paul Keller - CC-BY)

By some statistical measures (but not others), South Africa has the highest crime rate in the world. Robbery, murder and rape are astonishingly high. How can people live in a place like that?

First, it should be said that the statistics, horrendous though they are, are somewhat misleading. South Africa is unusual in that it has high crime levels combined with a reasonably reliable reporting infrastructure. It’s likely that there are many other countries, particularly elsewhere in Africa, where crime is as high or higher but does not appear in the official statistics.

Second, it’s the case that South African crime is not evenly distributed. It is much higher away from the main tourist areas, and is particularly high in downtown Johannesburg and in the high-density urban areas around Johannesburg. By way of contrast, crime levels in the coastal and inland towns of Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces are lower, and life in these parts seems almost normal.

Even so, tens of millions of South Africans live with a very high risk of crime every day. How do they cope?

Humans are remarkably adaptable creatures, and by taking a range of precautionary measures the personal risk of crime is greatly reduced. Here are some things which we noticed in our travels through the Cape provinces, including Addo, Cape Town and the Garden Route:

  • In most places, people don’t walk around at night. If you go out to a restaurant, drive there, and drive straight back afterwards. There’s no taking a stroll around after dark. Save walking for the daytime. Away from the Cape, there are places where people won’t even drive at night.
  • An industry of car guards has sprung up in recent years. These car watchers patrol a car park or a stretch of road, keeping an eye out for crime. They are generally unpaid and depend on tips for their income, and they sometimes put pressure on motorists to pay. It sounds like a protection racket (“better pay me, otherwise something bad might happen to your car”) but that’s not how it works because you can pay the tip when you return to your undamaged and unstolen vehicle. The expected tip would be R2 or R5, which is less than a US dollar.
  • Are you wanting to walk through a quiet park, or go on a hike? Better go in a group instead of alone. Four people is generally considered enough to greatly reduce (although not eliminate) the risk of mugging.
  • Don’t display valuables! Make sure your car looks completely empty (even if you have valuables in the boot). Don’t display jewellery, flashy watches, mobile phones, etc. Oddly enough, despite this we did see a large number of photographers with expensive cameras and big lenses.
  • You may wish to fit your car with smash-resistant side windows. And always drive with the doors locked.
  • Protect your house with burglar bars on the windows, an outer steel door, and a high wall or fence (possibly electrified).
  • Perhaps live in a gated estate.
  • Don’t use ATMs in quiet areas. Find an ATM in a bank, shopping mall or hotel. Don’t approach the machine if there are people “hanging around”. If anyone approaches you while you are withdrawing money, cancel the transaction and leave the area. The US Department of State advises that if you see a device attached to the ATM you should move away and take cover to avoid shrapnel wounds, because someone may be in the process of blowing up the ATM. Really!

Around Johannesburg, the rate of car-jackings (a car being stolen by forcing the driver out of the vehicle) is very high. When stopping at traffic lights, many drivers leave an extra gap as “wiggle room” to make a hasty exit if attacked. Some drivers always keep the gas tank less than half-full, believing that the car-jacker is likely to choose a car showing a full tank of petrol.

How can you ever relax in such a place? Well it turns out that you can. Many places are gated, with an attendant controlling the entry and exit. If it’s also a place that has an admission charge, that keeps out most of the troublemakers. And so you will find that as you enter the gate around (say) a fenced national park, you’ll need to show your identification and booking details. Once inside, you can relax and enjoy life as you would in other countries.

I don’t want to discourage people from visiting South Africa as tourists. It’s a fabulous place, but you need to switch your default behavior from “there’s not much risk of crime happening to me” to “crime is all around, and I need to modify my behavior to make it unlikely to happen to me”.

For more reading, see this discussion, these statistics, this crime map and these trends.

Oh, and one more thing. Don’t get food out when there are baboons around. They’ll steal it for sure.

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