Studying In South Africa: Safety Concerns

by Djulia Montana de Veyra

So you are interested in studying abroad in South Africa. Maybe you’re wondering if it’s safe to live, work, and study there. Like most places, this country is not without danger, but such threats should not keep you from choosing South Africa for your study abroad destination. It is a huge travel and tourism destination, and most visitors come and go without mishap.

South Africa university students

Before you get there, make sure that you only deal with credible study-abroad program providers for South Africa. Look for positive testimonials and get a hold of program alumni. When you’re in the country, awareness of possible threats and precautionary measures should keep you safe and protected. Here’s the real deal on staying safe while studying abroad in South Africa — they’re also good common-sense tips for traveling anywhere in the world.

Theft And Robbery

South Africa’s history (due to its former apartheid government) created a highly unequal distribution of wealth among its citizens. The gross disparity between the rich and poor resulted in high rates of robbery and theft. Even though apartheid no longer exists there, the income gap remains, and “wealthy looking” people remain targets (including international students, regardless of how lean their budget may be). Learning about the common schemes in South Africa will help you stay vigilant and keep you from falling victim.

ATMs are hotspots for robberies. Beware of the “Good Samaritan” ploy, a common scheme where a stranger offers to help you with your ATM transaction only to rob you once you’ve withdrawn your cash. Refuse any offer to assist from strangers. If you notice anyone approaching you at an ATM (appearing more interested in your transaction than in using the machine), cancel your transaction and leave. Use an ATM only during normal business hours, and at highly populated places. Avoid ATMs in remote areas. The best places to withdraw money at an ATM are inside banks, shopping malls, hotels, and other high-traffic areas that have security guards and cameras monitoring the place. Be observant and watch out for any suspicious person or activity near the ATM. Also, be wary of cords or foreign objects attached to the ATM. If you notice any suspicious device, leave at once and notify the police.

Avoid conspicuous display of wealth. Another ongoing scheme in South Africa involves crime gangs that target individuals in public places, particularly shopping centers. They identify a person that looks wealthy, and follow that person home where he or she is robbed. The victim is sometimes held at gunpoint, though such use of force is generally only done when the target offers some form of resistance. These gangs commonly target people who appear affluent. Do not wear flashy jewelry or display large amounts of cash, and be discreet about making expensive purchases. If you are carrying a lot of cash or an expensive item, avoid walking, and opt for a taxi to your destination. Always watch for people who appear to be watching you. If you feel you are being followed, head straight to a high-traffic public place or to a police station.

Criminals often go after ‘soft’ targets. These are people who appear preoccupied or not very attentive of their surroundings. A distracted person is a good target, so be observant: don’t walk while you’re texting, reading, looking at your phone or music player, rummaging through your bag, and other such things. If you must do any of the above, stop and do it in a safe, visible, well-populated area, then continue on your way.

Choose airport transportation wisely. Although generally rare, visitors leaving the airport are targeted by criminals. Be extra watchful when leaving the airport. Make sure you choose your mode of transportation well. Only hire vehicles approved by the airport, or arrange your transportation with the organization hosting your study-abroad program in South Africa.

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Table Mountain, Cape Town

Traffic And Road Safety

South Africa has a high rate of deaths from road accidents, mostly due to a combination of inadequate enforcement of traffic laws, substandard driving skills, driving under the influence of alcohol, aggressive driving, and road rage. Steer clear of minibus taxis: these are white vans that are usually operated by unlicensed drivers. Minibus taxis charge fixed rates, which makes it profitable for them to get to their destination and back as quickly as possible. They usually disregard traffic signs and speed limits. Make sure you choose marked, metered taxis that are associated with established taxi companies.

Pedestrians are advised to be extra careful. Drivers in South Africa are known for being aggressive to pedestrians and often fail to give way even along marked pedestrian lanes. Needless to say, the extra caution must come from the pedestrian.

Diseases/Health Risks

Most parts of South Africa are malaria-free. You do have to take precautions when visiting low-altitude areas in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, particularly the Kruger National Park and other game reserves. Malaria risk exists in KwaZulu-Natal, particularly in the coastal lowlands. Taking preventive treatments, like a malaria prophylaxis, is highly advised. As additional precaution, you may choose to visit these areas between June and September when the risk is much lower.

Tuberculosis is a health issue in South Africa, but exposure to the disease is highly unlikely. Take extra care when visiting risk areas like hospitals, homeless shelters or prisons. The parasitic disease schistosomiasis is also present in the country, but is mostly isolated in distant eastern and northeastern coastal freshwater bodies. Avoid exposure to high-risk freshwater.

Another known health risk in South Africa is the prevalence of HIV and AIDS, with more than a quarter of the population infected by the disease. Always practice safe sex. Avoid intravenous drugs. Never share razors and other personal care items.

You can expect high-standard medical services in private hospitals in the urban areas. Make sure that you secure travel insurance before traveling to remote areas. Travel insurance plans usually cover emergency helicopter lifts from remote areas to hospitals in the city. Be aware that most travel insurance plans do not include coverage for accidents while doing adventure sports like rappelling, mountain biking, hiking, and kite surfing.

Capte Town, South Africa

Capte Town, South Africa

Natural Hazards

As with most adventure destinations, South Africa is not without danger. Table Mountain alone has more fatalities than Mount Everest. Fatal hiking accidents happen almost on a weekly basis. Make sure you are well equipped and dressed appropriately for your hiking adventure. Never hike alone, and have a mobile phone with emergency numbers already plugged in if you should need to call for help.

Shark attacks have been reported along South Africa’s coastline. Local authorities are on constant lookout and are ready to sound a warning siren in case a shark appears near the shore. Hypothermia deaths and drowning are also common along the country’s coastline. Make sure that you limit your water adventures along marked areas. Wild animal attacks on tourists in game parks have also been reported. When on a safari, make sure you don’t leave your vehicle.

Safety Of Women

South Africa has the highest reported incidence of rape in the world. Foreigners are usually not direct targets, and these incidents mostly happen in the townships. Women who travel alone in South Africa may experience some sort of harassment, but it is usually more annoying than threatening. Women are advised to dress conservatively and to wear sunglasses so they can avoid eye contact with strangers. If going out at night, women should travel in groups. It is best to ignore catcalls and whistles from men. If asking for directions, women are advised to inquire from other women. Women who feel that they are being followed should walk into a shop, hotel, or any establishment where they can ask for help. If you feel someone groping you, make a scene and get the attention of any police or security nearby.