The first time I visited South Africa in 1996, it was anything but a vacation.
Nelson Mandela was riding high as the country’s first black President, the myth of the African National Congress had yet to be punctured, the post-Apartheid doors had been thrown wide open, and everyone who had boycotted South Africa (myself included) came steaming through.
And we were warned – warned about carjackings, kidnappings, rape and killings. Don't walk alone. Don't stop the car. Keep the doors locked.
I remember being struck about how a friend shackled everything when she got home: she clamped the steering wheel of the car to the shaft, locked the car itself into a cage - it looked like a perfect little automotive prison - and then barricaded herself indoors, all this in one of Pretoria's safer districts.
And then there was that hapless backpacker I met along the Garden Route who put his shoes outside to air one night and had to spend the next day walking around in his socks. South Africa is a country with a large and poor population and poverty and theft often go hand in hand. I'm sure the shoes were put to good use.
South Africa is quite safe to visit, but it is a destination that demands you keep your wits about you.
Rape is rampant and is more frequent than most any country on earth, with fully a quarter of all men having participated to some extent in sexual violence, an untenably high figure. As far as a traveler is concerned, much of that violence takes place within the South African community and is rarely directed at foreigners. Good for us, but terribly sad for South African women.
Carjacking remains a problem, mostly in Johannesburg. I still remember whipping through red traffic lights at night to make sure we weren’t stopped and robbed – better have a crash than be carjacked, which often led to murder. These days the violence has abated, and local governments have the courtesy to put up signs around heavy hijacking zones.
I’ve been back at least half a dozen times and stayed in every type of accommodation, from backpacking hostels to high-end rooms – hotels in South Africa cover the full range. Airbnb has also expanded across the country into most major and many minor towns. While I love a moderate level of adventure on my travels, South Africa is one place I’d recommend paying a bit extra to make sure you’re staying in a safe neighbourhood.
I usually visit even the remotest places on my own without a thought but in South Africa, I'd take a small tour if I were headed out of tourist bounds, to hike or cycle or visit Soweto, for example.
On the surface things look quite calm, and you can travel for weeks in South Africa without witnessing any violence or harsh behavior, in Sandton or along Cape Town's Waterfront. In some parts of the country you could actually think you are in Europe - but it's when you scratch the surface that some of the fissures appear.
The issue of road safety is one you should keep in mind when considering any South Africa travel. Fatal road accident rates are among the highest in the world, despite a good road system. This is due to any number of reasons that reduce the roads to chaos: drunk driving, recklessness, speed, pedestrians on the road at night, minivans in poor condition that cause accidents...
In fact more people die of road accidents than of lung or liver cancer, and the death rate is nearly triple that of the United States. (And no, I wouldn't recommend going without travel insurance.)
South Africa is a large country with huge distances so flying is an option. There are several domestic airlines but prices are high. There is also a bus system between cities that is apparently safe and clean but I haven’t tried it myself. What I have tried and can vouch for is the train system, a bit slow and rickety but then, I love slow travel. If your budget is up to it this is the place to try luxury trains (think Blue Train). I also did a circuit on the Baz Bus, a long-distance hop-on hop-off bus mostly used by backpackers which hits the major cities in the country’s East and South (these days it’s not just for backpackers anymore).
In larger towns buses can ferry you around but – they are holdovers from the Apartheid era when workers were bused in from the ‘homelands’ for the day and driven back home at night. In other words, low quality service and inconvenient schedules. Check with your hostess or lodgings or restaurant for a reputable taxi – don’t wave one down on the street.
South Africa is one of the least homogenous countries I know, its 50 million people from many different ethnic groups and races. There are even 11 national languages, many of them widely spoken, and quite dissimilar from one another.
It is an increasingly urban culture, with half the population living in cities, its diversity stretching beyond culture to the landscape. You'll find everything from desert to coast to cosmopolitain cities to wineries and mountain ranges and, of course, an incredible array of wildlife, which is why so many visitors want to go on a safari to South Africa.
Getting to national parks can be difficult on your own and I probably wouldn’t venture along country roads solo (even if I could manage to drive on the left side of the road, which I cannot). If you're keen on a safari please do some research because you’ll find everything from hunting outfits to the greenest of eco-tourism lodges. This is one trip for which I'd take a tour (unless you have your own vehicle). If you're in Durban, visit Hluhluwe; from Johannesburg Pilanesberg is nearby; and then there's the massive Kruger, one of the largest reserves in Africa.
Poaching is a huge problem and some species are nearing extinction because the land is too huge to patrol and poverty turns otherwise ethical individuals into illegal hunters, egged on by demand for animal parts from Asia. Don’t forget to take some cash for you – ATMs in the bush are rare. Make sure you’re wearing your money belt because you won’t have anyplace to leave your extra cash.
Official racism – known as Apartheid – has disappeared but that doesn’t mean that all races live in harmony. Most people do try, and if things go wrong there are now laws that protect people from discrimination, whether based on race or sexual orientation or any number of factors. In fact South Africa’s constitution ranks among the most liberal and advanced in the world, thanks to Nelson Mandela.
In reality, though, this is a deeply conservative country, where men consider themselves superior to women. It is also a deeply corrupt country, with some politicians at the highest level squandering the country's wealth. As a result the country's promise has yet to be fulfilled and gains made since the end of Apartheid require constant vigilance to avoid being rolled back.
Some of that conservatism plays itself out in the gender arena, as we know from the deplorably high statistics on rape and sexual violence.
While women can feel relatively safe on their own in tourist areas during the daytime, I would be cautious away from these enclaves – even during the day. I have visited Johannesburg and Durban and Cape Town on my own but keenly felt some zones were no-go.
Threats can range from soft – stares, insidious comments and sounds – to critical, as in physical violence. I’m happy to say I’ve only experienced the former, despite the fact that solo travel for women is quite unusual in these parts.
Sometimes gender attitudes can be baffling, because anyone who has met women from South Africa may have come away feeling energized and empowered by these highly educated and often high-ranking icons. Sometimes it’s a mixture of race and gender, with black women at the bottom of a racial pyramid that only ended officially in the 1990s.
Bottom line: yes, you can go alone, but this isn’t the place to show off your adventurous skills.
Much of South Africa's conservatism is nearly invisible in cities, where you can wear pretty much what you would at home. One thing I did notice is that you can show more top but less bottom than you would in a European city. So bare shoulders are more acceptable than bare knees…
A couple of seasonal provisos: it rains, so make sure you have your umbrella. And if you’re visiting in winter – that’s July! – and you’re headed to the far South, do yourself a favor and bring very warm clothes. I landed in July for my first visit and had to rush and buy a pair of long underwear just to survive my first (unheated) night.
My shopping sprees have been limited to local arts and crafts, but these are magnificent, like the brightly colored beadwork of Ndebeleland. Once I find a good street market it is hard to drag me away and you may well find you feel the same. Unlike markets in many other parts of the world, you aren't really expected to haggle here; a few of the highly touristed markets may hike up their prices a bit in the expectation that you might try to bring them down but I found most prices to be relatively fair. Relatively.
You've probably heard that South Africa is famous for its gold and diamonds but if you're looking for a real bargain you probably won't find it. You might save a bit on the tax but prices won’t be much cheaper than back home or in Antwerp, Belgium, where most diamond dealers do business.
South Africa has a growing gourmet scene and food can be both excellent and inexpensive, ranging from Moroccan fusion to the local BBQ, the braai. For liqueur try Amarula and for sheer local flavor, rooibos tea (red and a bit bitter), Boerewors spicy sausage, and biltong (I’ve known South African expats to go into withdrawal when denied their dried beef for too long!)
If you’re a carnivore you’ll be in heaven, although heaven might surprise you with its variety. You’ll be able to taste things you wouldn’t find at home, like crocodile and springbok.
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best grade, I’d give South Africa a 2.5. The constitution may be strong but treatment of women on the ground still has far to go. The safety issue is also key - traveling alone simply isn't advisable unless you stay on the beaten track. Very beaten. You'll be fine in resorts, in the tourist hubs of cities or on the Gautrain and in chic restaurants but strolling around to explore isn't quite advisable yet.
And then there's the driving.