This question began to haunt us from the moment we decided to move to Joburg. We took the plunge anyway, and am so glad we did….but even today, we haven’t been able to totally rid ourselves of this question! And I know that most people who are either planning to move to Joburg or just planning to visit worry about safety. And its a good thing too because that is the only way we will be not be reckless & irresponsible. But this doesn’t mean that we become paranoid and spend the entire time cooped up within the high walls of our electric-fenced homes.
Coming to whether its a safe city or not….while I may not be an expert on this, but after having lived here for almost a year now and exploring it a fair bit, I can tell you what I think – Joburg can be as safe or unsafe as you want it to be. It all depends on how you choose to live.
Yes, safety is an issue here but not to the extent that it has been made out to be. Anyone reading online reports & blogs will assume crime is rampant here and murders & robberies – the order of the day. But I cannot emphasise more; this is not the real truth. One just needs to be cautious and aware, like you would be in any new city, whether its New York or Joburg.
Don’t be careless and leave valuables in your car in plain sight when you park on the road. It WILL attract trouble – in any part of the world, especially in places where a vast population is unemployed, with no means of supporting their families. The bigger problem here is, if your car gets broken into in Joburg, you immediately become yet another addition to the crime stats of this city that most people are looking to quote. But the same crime may not attract much attention in another city.
Can you walk in Joburg? Yes, of course you can! Whats more – you can run and cycle too! South Africans are very athletic & outdoorsy people. Of course, after dark its not advisable unless its an area you know very well. I was very wary of walking in London once when I kinda got lost and reached a not-so-nice neighbourhood. So it can be scary anywhere.
What about the centre of town? A lot of people come to Joburg filled with horror stories about the CBD. Its true that areas such as Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville, etc are notorious and have been riled with crime. But things have been on the mend over the past few years. Several initiatives undertaken by the government & local communities have been working together to improve these areas. This has consequently led to the revival of arts & culture in the inner city. Places like the Market Theatre, Maboneng, Newtown & Braamfontein attract a lot of locals as well as expats and walking tours in these areas are organised regularly (read my post on Graffiti Tour in Newtown). However, unless you know your way around and are comfortable with the area, go in the day with a local.
While driving, when you stop at robots (traffic signals are so-called in SA), don’t get intimidated by the beggars that are most likely going to approach you. If you feel nervous, because they come real close, just keep your windows up. Otherwise, just a nod and a polite no is enough to make them move on. I have heard they can be quite the story tellers ( I have never spoken to any)! so don’t engage them in a conversation.
ATM and financial scams – now these are quite rampant in SA and most other African countries. So it is advisable to only use ATM’s at safe places such as inside malls, streets and gas stations that you are familiar with, etc. In case you get approached by any unknown person whilst at an ATM just cancel your transaction and walk away. Do not engage in any conversation.
Muggings and smash & grab – yes they happen, as much as they happen in New York or any other city. My wallet was stolen from a tram in Lisbon! So its a reality wherever you choose to live. Simple way of preventing this is by paying attention to your surroundings and by not driving via short cuts that run through dark alleys & poorly lit back roads. Its a good idea to get a smash & grab film for your car windows. The film holds the broken glass in place & prevents the intruder from getting access.
Invest in a GPS. Joburg is a really big city and it can be a tad difficult to stop on the expressway & ask for directions! Also, to avoid getting lost & ending up in a dodgy part of town, its good to get one of these.
And my final & most important point which I reiterate again and again – don’t believe everything you read. A lot of it is hype & over wrought nerves! I was pretty shaken too when I first came to Joburg. But since then, I have realised how mis-placed most of my fears were.
Once you get to know the city & its people, you will like and enjoy it as much as I do.