Is Cape Town safe? Is it safe to visit the city’s townships? These are questions being asked following the recent murder of Anni Dewani after the taxi she and husband Shrien were in was carjacked by gunmen. We asked some locals for tips to staying safe in Cape Town.
The British-based honeymooning couple were on their way back to the city from a winery visit, according to media reports, when they spontaneously asked the driver to take them to a township nightspot so they could experience the ‘real Africa’. The driver and Shrien were ejected from the car and Anni’s body was found the next morning with shots in the back of her neck.
While suspects have since been arrested, rumours abound as to whether the murder was the result of a planned hit or a random act of violence. Regardless, questions are being raised as to whether it is safe to visit Cape Town’s townships.
We spent a lot of time in the townships during our two-week stay in the city: we went on a ‘jazz safari’ to Gugulethu and saw bands at Swingers in Landsdowne, in Langa; we also did a drumming class, a walking tour and watched a riveting performance by an extraordinary actor at a community centre in Langa; we drove through the Victoria Mxenge development and Khayelitsha township, where we visited a successful small business; we visited a handful of non-profit organizations and community centres across several townships; and we even enjoyed lunch and dinner in local’s homes.
We did all of those activities with local guides from small sustainable tour companies Cape Capers, Andulela and Coffeebeans Routes, and made that decision after consulting locals, the owners of our holiday rental, travellers who’d visited the townships before, and Cape Town Tourism.
In view of the recent media attention on Cape Town and the questions being asked about safety there, we decided to ask those people for their opinions and tips on staying safe in their city. We sought advice from Shirley Engers, owner of Camps Bay our vacation rental; local tour guide Sabelo Maku; Monique Le Roux, owner of Fair Trade-accredited tour company Andulela; Faizal Gangat, award-winning tour guide and owner of Cape Capers; Iain Harris, owner of responsible tour company Coffeebeans Routes; and Mariette du Toit-Helmbold, CEO of Cape Town Tourism.
Tips to staying safe in Cape Town
Is Cape Town safe?
Shirley Engers: Parts of Cape Town are very safe, but parts are less safe, and you need to be vigilant wherever you are.
Sabelo Maku: Yes!
Monique Le Roux: As safe as any city could be if you are respectful of its set of street-wise rules and follow them.
Faizal Gangat: Absolutely, if you use common sense and a reasonable amount of awareness, and don’t flash expensive jewellery and cameras or open your wallet in street.
Iain Harris: the majority of Capetonians are law abiding and hospitable people. There is a tiny rogue percentage, and unfortunately their acts are so appalling that the goodwill of the 99 percent good people is wiped out of the equation.
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold: Cape Town has a good reputation when it comes to visitor safety. There is no denying that Cape Town does have its problems with criminal behaviour, but it is mostly confined to specific non-tourism areas. It is important though that visitors do not explore recklessly, without guidance and knowledge. Don’t let your guard down completely. Put your holiday into the hands of people who are trained and registered to ensure a hassle-free, safe experience.
Are Cape Town’s townships safe?
Shirley Engers: Yes, if you take the necessary precautions. No, if you don’t.
Sabelo Maku: Yes!
Monique Le Roux: A township is a district, suburb or area like another. Townships differ from each other, as do different sections of each township. Visitors should not miss out on a township experience!
Faizal Gangat: Absolutely, with common sense and awareness, as displayed by local inhabitants who know that during the day everybody can walk anywhere in the townships, but not at night. There are no-go areas at night when the baddies prowl for victims as the streets are quiet.
Iain Harris: we are in areas like Guguletu several times a week, at night, visiting people at home. We have been doing this for years, with no incident. My wife was attached in Woodstock. A neighbour of my parents in Ottery Road, Wynberg, was murdered. Someone pulled a knife on me in Long Street once.
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold: If you use a registered tour guide who knows the area and the people the tour visits. There are many townships/areas within townships that rely on tourism for their livelihoods and understand the benefits of safeguarding township visitors, but there are dangers in going into a township alone without guidance, knowledge of the people and their language.
What precautions should visitors to Cape Town take?
Shirley Engers: Try not to look too much like a tourist.
Faizal Gangat: One is most vulnerable at an ATM. Do not accept help from anyone at an ATM.
Sabelo Maku: Don’t stand out, carry only what is necessary when on tours.
Iain Harris: practice the same caution you would anywhere else in the world.
Monique Le Roux: Whilst being paranoid won’t help, being naïve won’t either. Know where to go, when to go and with whom; be aware and respectful of where you are and the context.
What precautions should visitors to townships take?
Monique Le Roux: Same as for any city! If you’re visiting an area with a high level of poverty it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone there is a thief, but out of respect, don’t wear your diamond necklace and stroll down the street like it were appropriate!
Iain Harris: I think that there is one blanket approach to safety that covers the whole city, and not in townships specifically. I don’t think there are any additional safety requirements for any specific area.
Faizal Gangat: Always take a tour with a recognised company who specialises in Township/Cultural tours. They employ experienced, registered guides, and are well known in the townships. Do not use taxi drivers, as that is all they are, and legally a taxi is not allowed to conduct tours that entail numerous stops at sights.
Should visitors ever go to townships on their own?
Shirley Engers: Stick to an organised tour.
Sabelo Maku: Go with a guide or a local trustworthy person who knows the township and is known in that area.
Faizal Gangat: The first time you go, it should be with a recognised company who specialises in Township/Cultural tours. After having been on a guided tour, you are definitely encouraged to drive out there yourself, but stick to the main routes as followed on your tour, stopping at craft markets and restaurants, etc.
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold: Despite the fact that the majority of people living in the so-called townships are law-abiding human beings, we advise visitors to not go into a township alone at any time as there are known areas that are prone to criminal activity. Use experienced, registered guides, as they are well aware of which areas to avoid and have contingency plans in the unlikely event of an incident.
Should visitors go to township restaurants or music venues, such as Swingers, on their own at night?
Shirley Engers: No, I wouldn’t recommend it.
Sabelo Maku: No.
Monique Le Roux: If visitors are with reliable locals who know the area well (even better, come from the area) and are respectful of the context, it could be a great evening. Otherwise they need to stick to reputable responsible tourism organisations which specialize in these evening events and experiences.
Faizal Gangat: Definitely not, and certainly not with a taxi driver. Do a night-time dinner or jazz tour of the townships with a company that does it regularly.
Any other general advice on staying safe in Cape Town?
Faizal Gangat: Daylight tours are best – go on a walking tour with a local guide. Remain in the city centre at night if on your own. Venture out into the suburbs only during the day, and preferably with friends. When walking on Table Mountain, Devils Peak, Lions Head and Signal Hill, ensure you take water, a waterproof jacket, a cell phone with an emergency number pre-dialled, check the weather, walk in company, and carry a long, strong walking stick. Muggings are sadly a feature in these places. On Long Street, watch out for extortionists, con artists, prostitutes and drug dealers.
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold: Research the culture of the area you intend to visit before arriving at the destination; learn some of the local language – a simple greeting or thank you in their local tongue will see you embraced by the community as a guest and not just a visitor; and respect the dignity and privacy of others – ask permission before you take a photo.
Shirley Engers: Be aware of your surroundings and take care. Like every city, Cape Town has its share of criminals, however, there is no need to assume that every person near you is out to mug you.
Faizal Gangat: Make eye contact, smile and greet people. When you do this, it places the responsibility for your safety on them.
Mariette du Toit-Helmbold: Cape Town has a very good track record for tourism safety. The recent incident is as unusual as it is tragic. If you are not friendly with a local, we urge you to make use of Cape Town tourism. Call us on +27 21 487 6800, email email@example.com or visit www.capetown.travel
20 Tips to Staying Safe in Cape Town
The following tips have been compiled from advice from the savvy locals above:
1. Use accredited booking agents and choose accommodation that has been graded or endorsed by a local tourism authority.
2. Heed the advice of your hosts on travelling around Cape Town, especially after dark.
3. Keep certified photocopies of all travel and valuable documents in a safe place.
4. Be constantly alert of your surroundings and aware of things that might look out of place.
5. Avoid carrying large sums of cash, wearing expensive jewellery, and flaunting valuables, such as expensive camera equipment and mobile phones.
6. Use bags with zippers, keep your bag closed when not in use to deter pickpockets, and never leave your belongings unattended anywhere.
8. Use ATMs in a busy place like a mall or preferably within a bank, insist that people stand well away from you, and don’t allow strangers to assist you.
9. When driving, always keep your car doors locked, don’t open your door or window to anyone you don’t know, and don’t leave valuables in your car.
10. After dark, be sure to park in a secure, well-lit area.
11. When parking, be aware of any suspicious-looking characters in the vicinity before leaving your vehicle.
12. Do not walk alone at night, don’t walk down dark empty streets, stick to well-lit busy areas, and take care at isolated lookout points.
13. Do not venture into unknown areas alone and always let someone know where you are going and how long you expect to be.
14. When reporting an incident to police, ask for identification: all City of Cape Town police and law enforcements officials, and South African Police Service (SAPS) officers carry an identification card.
15. If police or law enforcement officials approach you, you have the right to ask officers, uniformed or not, to identify themselves with their cards, so make sure you do so.
16. Try not to profile people: don’t assume that certain people are more criminally inclined than others.
17. Avoid acting afraid, which draws predators: you make yourself a target for the alert opportunist.
18. Make friends in the city: there is safety with locals, as they know best how to manage situations in their city.
18. Be careful who you’re making friends with! As a visitor, you are probably safer here than the locals, as most violent crime is perpetrated by people known to the victims, so be cautious.
20. Drive carefully! Statistically, there is more chance of you being involved in a car accident than an incident of crime, so keep your wits and your humour about you, and take care.