How safe is it to visit South Africa?

Eilidh Thomson, Associate Security Consultant – Africa at Healix International comments on the risks involved when visiting South Africa.

South Africa situation report

We consider South Africa to be a MODERATE risk country (ranked third-highest on a five-tier scale), though some townships and lower-income areas of cities carry a HIGH risk owing to the heightened impact and likelihood of violent crime. Tourists are attracted to the country for its cities, beaches and wildlife parks, but as one of the African continent’s largest and most developed economies, South Africa is also a common destination for business travellers and expatriates.

Ruled until 1994 by a white-minority government that enforced a separation of races under a policy of apartheid, South Africa still feels the effects of this history today in the form of crime and civil unrest. There remain deep-seated disparities in wealth, education levels and employment rates. There also remains a geographic disconnect between the wealthiest and poorest elements of society, with the latter still largely living in townships on the periphery of towns and cities; these were previously purpose-built ghettos reserved for non-whites. The risk environment still reflects this history, with many of the more dangerous areas located in areas that were historically lower-income and marginalised by the government of the time.

Primary risks

Crime

South Africa has one of the highest recorded rates of crime in Africa. There is an elevated risk of crime in the less-developed townships and informal settlements. A number of townships have increasingly gentrified over recent years, and some are becoming safer. However, the majority continue to pose a risk. Although a lot of violent crime is concentrated in lower-income communities, no area of the country can be considered immune to the risk.

The majority of crime in major cities is of an opportunistic nature, such as pick-pocketing, bag-snatching and smash-and-grab incidents. Central Business Districts house opportunistic street gangs, in particular at weekends and evening hours. ATMs are also regularly targeted by criminals, either for muggings or for ‘bombings’, which occur late at night. Violent crimes including street mugging, carjackings, armed robberies, residential break-ins and home invasions also occur, and vary in sophistication. During muggings, criminals will generally pull a knife or a gun on their victim. In city centres, their primary concern is taking money as quickly as possible and making their escape, so unless they face resistance, it’s fairly rare that attackers will resort to violence.

Though mugging often occurs down secluded streets or at isolated ATMs, other opportunistic crime often occurs in areas where large crowds gather, such as tourist attractions, busy shopping centres, sports grounds and transport hubs. Crimes in more remote areas occur less frequently but often carry higher levels of violence. In a number of cases some opportunistic muggings have turned into sexual assaults.

Unrest

Social unrest occurs on an almost weekly basis and tends to increase in scale and intensity around political events, such as the upcoming general elections in May 2019. The elections will likely be preceded by a period of protests throughout the country. Political unrest is historically worse in rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal province. Leftist youth activism has also become an increasingly influential political force in recent years. Student groups have protested over issues such as higher education fees and the colonial and apartheid legacies of social institutions.

The primary driver of unrest is socio-economic grievances, which again largely stem from high levels of economic inequality in the country. Most often, these protests are over the perceived disparity in the delivery of basic services, with the townships and lower-income areas predictably exhibiting the highest levels of discontent. Protests often start with little or no warning, most commonly in the morning. Protesters are liable to block roads with debris and engage in vandalism and arson. Townships and the roads leading into and out of them are known flashpoints, as are central business areas, political and judicial sites and university campuses.

Kidnap

Express kidnapping, whereby a victim is temporarily taken hostage by a criminal or criminal gang and forced to take money out from ATMs, is the most common form of kidnap in South Africa. There have also been cases of express kidnappings where the victim has been taken to their residence and is subsequently robbed. Violence does sometimes occur during these attacks, and there have been occasions where the attack ended in sexual assault or murder.

There is no established kidnap industry in South Africa, and reports of longer-term kidnaps are rare. These most often target local nationals and are linked to gang activity, or are driven by domestic, business, or personal vendettas. There have also been cases of the threat of kidnap being used for extortion, but these threats are not typically credible.

Terrorism

There have been no terrorist incidents in South Africa in recent years. However, there are occasional reports of terrorist elements based in the country. Threats are issued sporadically, often against European or US diplomatic buildings, and are generally assessed to be linked to groups or individuals associated with the al-Shabaab extremist group. The US has closed its diplomatic premises several times in recent years due to threats issued by terrorist groups which have never materialised. The operational capability of cells in the country likely remains limited, and the security services are effective at pre-empting and preventing attacks before they enter the operational phase.

Additional risks

Xenophobic violence occurs on a semi-regular basis in South Africa. Outbreaks of xenophobic unrest and violence occur in cycles every three to five years but when they do occur, they can result in weeks of acute violence. There is a perception among elements of the community that immigrants undermine locals’ employment opportunities and fuel rates of crime. Anti-foreigner sentiment is often targeted toward migrant African communities, particularly those in lower-income areas. Violence in recent years has targeted migrants from Zimbabwe, Somalia, Pakistan and Mozambique, but no migrant communities are immune to the risk.

South Africa is heavily unionised, and strikes and other forms of industrial unrest occur regularly. The mining sector is often worst affected, but the agricultural and manufacturing industries have also experienced recent unrest. There have also been cases where rivalries between trade unions have resulted in tit-for-tat violence. The period between June and August is most vulnerable to the risk, as workers use the so-called ‘strike season’ to try and leverage better working conditions or pay.

Healix advice

  • We advise first time travellers to organise a meet-and-greet. It’s better to arrange a proper meet-and-greet with trusted local contacts or your hotel when you first arrive. Before leaving with a driver, check that they have the correct passenger details (names, arrival time and drop off location). It is sensible to arrange a password ahead of time which only the individual who you have agreed will pick you up knows.
  • During road travel, keep the windows closed and be alert to suspicious activity whenever stationary. All journeys after dark should be done in a car. Extensive congestion during rush hour can provide an environment conducive to opportunistic crime; keep valuables at your feet and be alert to suspicious activity in the road.
  • Maintain a low profile and avoid overt signs of wealth. Keep valuables close on your possession and not in exposed pockets. Minimise pedestrian travel in remote areas, or in lower-income areas or townships where foreigners are easily identifiable and present an attractive target.
  • Only use ATMs in secure complexes and check the machine for signs of tampering. Always check behind you for suspicious behaviour, including individuals standing over your shoulder. Never resist a robbery because the attacker is liable to be armed (even if they have not overtly shown a weapon) and preapred to use their weapon; remain compliant and avoid aggravating the attacker.
  • Monitor local and social media to stay up to speed on developments that may result in civil unrest. Minimise time in the vicinity of known flashpoints for unrest. In the event of unrest, bystanders are not likely to be at direct risk, but should relocate from the immediate area to a safer location.

Employers should ensure that they have an understanding of the operating environment that they are sending their staff to and that there is a robust travel risk plan in place for staff. Responsibility for staff overseas should be delegated to a risk manager or security team in accordance with local knowledge and expertise. Alternatively, employers can outsource this task to an organisation such as Healix International (see Security Services), who have dedicated regional intelligence and operational teams. These teams monitor developments and maintain a network of local assets able to assist in protection or emergency response.

Health risks

Written by Dr Adrian Hyzler, Chief Medical Officer.

South Africa (RSA) has a well developed private healthcare system of an excellent standard in the major cities. There are a number of network hospitals that provide gold standard care, especially in Johannesburg and Cape Town, but they also have suitable medical facilities in the other large cities in RSA. It should be noted that these hospitals will ask for a credit card on admission and failure to provide one is likely to result in transfer to a public facility. In stark contrast to the private hospitals, the public system suffers from chronic overcrowding and underfunding and the standard is generally very poor.

Anyone travelling to RSA should ensure that all national immunisation schedules are up to date, in particular tetanus and MMR – there have been no specific reports of measles outbreaks in RSA but there are global concerns regarding this highly contagious disease. All travellers should be aware of safe water and food hygiene to avoid such illnesses as typhoid, cholera and traveller’s diarrhoea – only drink bottled or boiled water and eat well-cooked food. Visitors should visit a health professional and discuss the option of Typhoid vaccine, and also Hepatitis A vaccine, which is well tolerated and affords long-lasting protection. Consideration should also be taken to vaccinate for: Hepatitis B if there is any risk of coming into contact with blood or body fluids since there is an intermediate/high prevalence of Hep B infection in the local population; Rabies is considered a risk in RSA and has been reported in domestic animals. Vaccination is available and a full course will simplify the course of post-exposure treatment and also negate the need for rabies immunoglobulin which is in short supply worldwide.

There is no risk of yellow fever or Zika in RSA. However, there is a risk of malaria but only in the low-lying areas bordering Mozambique, Swaziland (Estwatini) and Zimbabwe – this includes the Kruger National Park. Anti-malarial prophylaxis is recommended if travelling to these areas during the transmission season, September to May. There is no risk of malaria in Johannesburg or Cape Town – it is recommended to consult a malaria map in order to assess requirement for prophylaxis. All travellers should practice bite avoidance measures, and also be aware of tick bites, especially when on game reserves, as these can cause unpleasant symptoms.

All travellers should always ensure they have appropriate travel health insurance with up-to-date declarations and it is advisable to carry a credit card in case of emergency.

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