Safety-First Tips Honed in South Africa

Our South Africa mis-Adventure by Irene Butler
Our South Africa Photo Gallery



“Because you only have one-ass-to-risk. Be careful out there! You live in a high risk environment.” This slogan is emblazoned on signage at the Sharpe Edge/Sharp Shooter Store in Johannesburg, an upscale retail outlet stocked equally with culinary tools and defence paraphernalia. My husband, Rick and I never dreamed this catchphrase would impact us on such a personal level, until we were added to the aggregate of victims mugged at knife point in a South African city.


Warnings by our hotel staff about the dangers of walking the streets, advising us to take a taxi even for a few blocks, congealed our decision to escape the confines of Jo’Burg (as it is known to locals) and hop a bus to the seaside resort city of Durban.More….


The turquoise Indian Ocean glistened in the mid-morning sun as we strolled along the stretch of beach hotels on Parade Marine Drive, considered a safe area. Though not overly busy, people were going about their business.

Two well-dressed fellows in their mid-twenties crossed the street ending up slightly behind us. I flinched with foreboding as one man skipped in front of me, but the feeling was dismissed as he laughingly chatted over his shoulder to his friend who was trying to catch up. In a flash the second man wedged between Rick and I; both pushed Rick sideways and corralled him against a brick wall. Guttural grunts and laboured breathing roiled from the vicious attack “oh God,” my heart jolted at the glint of a steel blade. Panic stricken I spot four men across the street. Lung-bursting screams for help consumed me for the next few seconds – the men looked our way – but didn’t move. My eyes flashed back to Rick; one of the hoodlums was pinned behind him against the wall; the other was madly ripping at Rick’s front pockets. Hysterically I charged, kicking the legs of the exposed attacker. Two of the men from across the street were now galloping over. The assailant from behind Rick darted down the street. One of the rescuers caught the second culprit by the shirt-tail. He twisted free, throwing Rick’s I.D. folder into the air shouting, “Don’t got nothing.”


Duly shaken, adrenaline surging, the rescuers empathizing, Rick’s hand is crimson – we look for the source. The back of his safari pants are now flapping in the breeze like drop-drawer long johns and seeped through with blood. Butt, all was well in the end; current tetanus shots, antibiotic salve, and plastic sutures mended the superficial slashes and a few deeper punctures. We considered ourselves fortunate.

In the United Nations survey (1999-2000) South Africa was ranked second for assault and murder per capita out of 110 countries surveyed. There is no satisfactory explanation for this tsunami of crime. Some stated contributing factors are the ongoing post-apartheid political and socio-economic transition, a connection between the country’s violent past and contemporary criminal behaviour, changing demographics from rural to city resulting in extreme levels of unemployment, and the consequence of a poorly performing justice system. Victimization is not race specific; anyone on a public street is a target, making violent crime a national obsession.

What a perfect environment and unsurpassed opportunity to sharpen our street savvy. In past travels through 43 countries, being occasionally slicked out of items by pick-pockets were luckily our only crime related incidents. Our experiential mugging 101 dissolved our misconceptions of a mugger verbally demanding your valuables or else; most victims report a brutally swift physical assault. For the next month we asked locals from all walks of life how they stay safe, adding greatly to our roster of SAFETY-FIRST TIPS – particularly for those who choose to explore countries without the protective umbrella of an organized tour.

1) Check Foreign Affairs Canada web-site for current conditions and travel alerts, and locations of Canadian Embassies and Consulates in the country you plan to visit.

2) Bring along a good guidebook with maps and information on hazards in specific areas. Refrain from announcing yourself as a newcomer to the unscrupulous by carrying the guidebook with you into the streets; instead, remove the map page to take with you or figure out your route beforehand making directional notes. Never look lost or bewildered, even if you are. Keep going until you can stop for directions at an office, police station, hospital, or other trusty establishment.

3) Leave not only gold and diamonds in a safety deposit box back home, but also glitzy costume jewellery. Bedeck yourself in locally produced baubles and beadwork, which are not black-market fare for thieves, and also serves to boost the economy at a grass roots level.

4) Dress casually and with country-appropriate coverage, not only out of respect for the culture but to avoid bringing added attention to being “rich foreigners”. The fact that your airline ticket cost more than the local average wage for two or more years puts you in this category.

5) Leave your passports, visas, travellers cheques, and credit cards locked in the hotel safe when walking the streets. Of course, thieves know these items are on your person leaving airports, bus and train terminals, therefore, upon arrival take a registered taxi straight to your hotel.

6) Carry some ordinary item which could suffice as a defence weapon (not missed by a mugger in his flash-assessment of job-ease). The trend in South Africa is a walking stick purchased from a roadside vendor. A great number of citizens wear a 16-20 inch nylon band around their necks with an inordinate wad of keys attached to the end.

7) A basic self-defence course is invaluable in making the best judgments in hostile situations.

8) Increase your awareness quotient. Gut or intuitive feelings of impending danger are seldom wrong. Take immediate precautionary steps, such as crossing the street or turning back.

9) Always carry a small amount of local currency, so if mugged, the weapon-wielding thief’s anger is not provoked because of having to leave empty-handed.

10) If attacked, the best self-defence tool sits between your ears – your head. Your goal at this point is to react so as to come out of the mugging physically unscathed. Uphold the adage, “nothing in your pockets is worth your life.”


The unsurpassed beauty of South Africa is not to be missed. Safaris in national parks are manditorily guided in order to safely see such wonders as the king of beasts languishing under an acacia tree. Extending this safety net to include reputable tour companies for jaunts between cities, urban sightseeing, and visits to villages steeped in tribal culture, will greatly ensure leaving the country imbued only with cherished memories of dynamic landscapes, awesome wildlife, and warm friendships. In retrospect, the mugging remains but a glitch in our magical journey. It has not left us antipathetic of discovering destinations on our own, but has instilled an appreciation for organized excursions when reliable sources indicate there may be an excessive risk to any part of our precious anatomy.

Some information web-sites:

Canadian Foreign Affairs Canadian Embassy (Ph: 012 422-3000) 1103 Arcadia St, PRETORIA Open 8 a.m. to noon weekdays

Suggestions for Organized Tours

South African Tourism

Zululand Eco-Adventures, tours to Zulu communities

South African National Parks Safari

South Africa’s Position in Africa’s Crime Rankings, 1997 Interpol Statistics


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