South Africa, with its astounding natural beauty, sun-soaked coastal cities, big game populations, and blend of different cultures is a rising star on the African tourism scene. It’s the southernmost country on the continent and full of surprises from its dynamic cuisine to its bustling urban hubs, but crime continues to taint South Africa’s reputation.
South Africa demonstrates high rates of crimes across the board, from carjacking to sexual assault, homicide to corruption. Political instability and poverty have always been a concern and apartheid left the economic situation of South Africa in ruins. The risk of violent crime to visitors in tourist destinations is still low, but some places should be avoided and you should remain vigilant wherever you go.
This guide looks at the most dangerous places in South Africa from the highest murder rates to the least efficient police forces. South Africa isn’t off-limits in 2023, but safety should always be a priority. Let’s get into it.
Although Cape Town is South Africa’s official capital city, the government was actually divided into three sections as early as 1910 in a bid to distribute power and prevent too much control from being harbored by any one city. Pretoria is one of these three capital cities and serves as the seat of the executive branch of government, but that doesn’t mean it is free from trouble.
Pretoria is an important rail and industrial center, landlocked in northern South Africa, just one hour by car from Johannesburg. The city might sound like it suffers from high poverty rates with 35 percent of the population living below the poverty line, but this is still quite low for Africa and you’ll find wealthier suburbs here than you will in nearby Johannesburg.
Murder rates are also lower in Pretoria than in Gauteng’s capital at 38 per 100,000 inhabitants, but Pretoria is still one of the most dangerous places in South Africa and the most crime-riddled cities in the world. The population is just 741,650, but corruption is high and armed robberies are common.
Safety indexes change all the time, but as of 2023, Pretoria ranks at a safety rate of just 18.02, with a crime index of 81.98, second only to Caracas in Venezuela when it comes to the world’s most dangerous cities. However, it’s important to remember that crime rates are calculated only from reported crimes, hence why war-torn cities, which are almost always off-limits to tourists, don’t always rank as high as they should.
Pretoria doesn’t get a lot of publicity, but it’s not all violence and crime. As we’ve said, it has one of the lower homicide rates of any South African city, almost half of that in bustling Cape Town. The lifestyle is more laid-back in Pretoria than in Johannesburg and there are hiking trails and nature reserves surrounding the city. Still, it’s not safe at night and not advised for solo female travelers.
Johannesburg, once a modest mining town is now a major world city and economic capital of South Africa, as well as in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s earned quite the reputation for its townships and apartheid struggles, but is Johannesburg as unsafe as they say?
Although Cape Town is South Africa’s capital, Johannesburg, or Jo’burg as its affectionately known, is the country’s largest city. It’s located in the Gauteng province, which is actually the richest region in Africa, and South Africa’s industrial and financial capital. Johannesburg is technically no less safe than surfer-city Durban, due to downtown slums in both and widespread political corruption in South Africa at large. That said, you shouldn’t visit without taking some extra precautions.
Jo’burg comes from humble beginnings but became a thriving gold-mining region in the 19th century. Political upheaval in the 1940s led to mass segregation in South Africa and several hundred thousand black Johannesburg residents (and four million from around South Africa) were forced into Bantustans, or “ethnic homelands”, under apartheid. These rural regions were designed to push black people out of South Africa and stripped Jo’burg’s residents of their lands. Those left behind had no control over the wealth which remained in the hands of white South Africans, and non-white racial groups were relegated to the bottom of the income chain.
Although apartheid came to an end in the 1990s, disparities in resources and educational opportunities have had a long and irreversible effect on many South Africans. Apartheid reached all areas of the country, but Johannesburg is known for its stark disparities in wealth, which haven’t helped the high crime rates. It might be situated in Africa’s richest province, but Jo’burg is well-known for its sprawling Soweto township – the designated slums for non-white occupation under apartheid – of which Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are former residents.
Mandela’s former home is now the Mandela House museum that tourists can visit, but Soweto is still inhabited by 32 townships clustered together under a vibrant umbrella of different cultures. Still, all are blighted by poverty, drug crime, and violence.
Johannesburg’s population is the largest in South Africa with 5.8 million people living in the wider metropolitan area. The crime index is 80.55 and the safety index is 19.45, making it one of the top ten most dangerous cities in the world. The homicide rate is just shy of Pretoria’s with 37.9 murders per 100,000, but the worst crimes are corruption, kidnapping, and robberies, all of which pose a risk to tourists.
Pietermarizburg is the land-locked second-largest city in KwaZulu-Natal and the capital of the province. It might be known as the “City of Flowers” for the azaleas and rose beds that punctuate the National Botanical Gardens, public areas, and pretty butterfly conservation center, but Pietermaritzburg is certainly not all sunshine and roses.
The city is famous for its sporting events like the Comrades and Dusi Marathon and is surrounded by natural beauty, lying in the Msunduzi River Valley just inland from Durban. Pietermaritzburg is pretty and vibrant, as South African cities go. There are several well-preserved 19th-century buildings in the center, from the Old Colonial Building on Church Street to the historic Supreme Court building, now housing the Tatham Art Gallery too. The Msunduzi Museum, home to the Voortrekker Complex, the KwaZulu-Natal Railway Museum, and the Natal Museum are other cultural highlights.
The provincial capital is a growing industrial and business hub, with furniture, footwear, and aluminum all manufactured in the city. However, Pietermaritzburg’s high crime rates cannot be ignored. It’s one of the least populated cities on this list, but the number of police officials still isn’t sufficient for the number of residents and the city has a crime index of 81.31, higher than Pretoria and Johannesburg, making it one of the most dangerous places in South Africa.
The risk of being mugged, attacked, or scammed is high in Pietermaritzburg, even for tourists, and despite its great highway and rail connections, public and private transport can be very dangerous.
Visitors shouldn’t handle cash in public, wear obvious jewelry, or take unbooked transport. Violent crime is most common at night, and usually as a result of botched robberies or carjackings so visitors should always be on high alert and avoid being out after dark.
The population might be small with just 475,000 people living in the metropolitan area, but there are only six corresponding police stations. Bribery and corruption are less of a concern here than elsewhere in South Africa, but residents fear armed robbery, home break-ins, and muggings on a regular basis, with a low safety rating for walking along during the day as well as at night.
Nestled on South Africa’s east coast, Durban is a major seaport and up-and-comer on the tourism scene. The third-largest South African city is flanked by the “Golden Mile”, a surfer’s paradise of sprawling sands lapped by the Indian Ocean, and it’s also well known for its distinct mesh of cultures, with the colonial history, Indian culinary scene, and Zulu influences that all co-exist in the city.
It’s easy to feel at home in Durban, with its historic center, waterfront promenades, and colonial influences all similar to that of a European or American city. But despite becoming an urban hub in recent years, Durban is not a safe city.
There might be heavy police presence around Durban’s touristy beachfront strips, but petty crime, harassment, and robberies are still rife here, and downtown Durban is even less safe. Poverty is a huge issue and many people live in slums, turning to a life of crime just to survive.
Political instability hasn’t helped, and although the risk of terrorism is near-non-existent, corruption is a major concern, and this has trickled down into the unstable security situation. Durban demonstrates high rates of murder, rape, and other violent crime, with a safety index of just 19.40 and a crime index of 80.60. Durban has a homicide rate of 43.4 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022, second only to Cape Town when it comes to the most murderous cities in the country.
Walking around at night is strongly ill-advised, even in company, and some districts like Pinetown, Verulam, and Umlazi, all hijacking hotspots stricken by poverty, should be completely avoided. Stick to tourist attractions and book tours and transport through trusted operators in advance and you should be fine. Don’t display wealth in the form of flashed cash or jewelry and always keep an eye on your belongings.
Bustling Cape Town, known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world with its backdrop of Table Mountain and sweeping views of Table Bay, is South Africa’s official capital and most popular city. It’s not hard to see why more than three million tourists visit the city every year with the incredible natural beauty of its surroundings, and the capital’s distinctive urban edge. However, Cape Town is home to South Africa’s most murderous metropolitan area, despite also being the safest major city in the country, so how can this be?
If you’re considering a holiday to South Africa, there’s a high chance you’ve considered Cape Town as one of your number one bucket list spots, and its bad reputation shouldn’t put you off. We’ve all heard horror stories about kidnappings and carjackings, but Cape Town has a crime index of 73.13. This might sound high in the western world, but compared to the other cities on this list, crime across the board in Cape Town is less of a concern.
What is worrying is the homicide rate, coming in at 64 per 100,000 inhabitants, on par with some of South America’s most dangerous cities like Fortaleza in Brazil and Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela. Cape Town has come to be known as a “murder capital”, and rates are only on the rise, despite the national homicide rate dropping to around two-thirds of the numbers that Cape Town demonstrates.
Still, much of the crime is limited to the townships that fringe the cities and where tourists rarely venture. In fact, 91 percent of all gang-related murders in the first nine months of 2022 in South Africa took place in the Western Cape, with just seven murders as a result of gang violence being isolated to the Eastern Cape. This might make Cape Town, in the west, sound more daunting, but for tourists, this is less of a worry.
Inter-gang violence tends not to affect visitors, and crimes like robberies, harassment, kidnapping, and carjacking are more of a concern, all of which Cape Town demonstrates lower rates for than cities in the east. Cape Town remains a vibrant tourist hub because the risk of violent crime to tourists is generally low. Still, this isn’t to say you should relax too much. We wouldn’t recommend walking around Cape Town at night, flashing wealth, or getting in unbooked transport.
Is Johannesburg safe for tourists?
Johannesburg might not be a safe city, but it isn’t a war zone either. Certain districts should be avoided, such as townships and some busy commercial areas, but Johannesburg might not be the lawless city you’ve heard it to be and it isn’t off-limits to tourists. That said, you shouldn’t walk around at night, display wealth, or take unbooked taxis. Carjacking is common and we don’t recommend hiring your own vehicle when visiting. If you do, always lock doors as soon as you get in.
Is South Africa safe from natural disasters?
Not only is crime rife in South Africa, but the southernmost country on the African continent is also vulnerable to a number of natural hazards like droughts, floods, wildfires, tornadoes, and earthquakes. However, the tsunami risk is low in South Africa. The only threat would come from a mega-earthquake associated with subduction zones of the Indian Ocean, which are considered very rare.
Where are the safest places in South Africa?
The sparsely populated west coast of South Africa is considered to be the safest part of the country. Towns like Yzerfontein, Churchhaven, and St. Helena Bay are home to vibrant ex-pat communities and family populations, and they all demonstrate much lower crime rates than South Africa’s major cities. South Africa might have high crime rates across the board, but much of the violence on the west coast is isolated to gang-related crime that is less likely to affect ex-pats and tourists.