World Cup robberies: Six tips for a safe visit to South Africa

Three foreign journalists were robbed Tuesday night near the Portuguese team's base camp north of Johannesburg. Security expert Johan Burger offers six safety tips for World Cup tourists, to prevent pickpocketing, robberies, and muggings.

Carlos Barria/Reuters
A security guard stands outside an ATM machine in downtown Cape Town, South Africa.

The armed robbery of three foreign journalists sent to cover the World Cup on Tuesday night – near the Portuguese team's base camp in Magaliesburg, north of Johannesburg – underlines what many South Africans consider to be their country’s greatest challenge for the World Cup games: Security.

Initial reports of the robbery of the journalists indicate that thieves broke into their rooms at the four-star Nutbush Boma Lodge near Magaliesburg at around 4 a.m., while the journalists were asleep. The robbers held their victims at gunpoint, and stole cameras, passports, and cash.

South Africa’s violent crime rate – for rape, aggravated robbery, and murder – is among the highest in the world, although increased spending on law enforcement has steadily brought those numbers down since the end of apartheid and the beginning of majority rule in 1994.

Statistically, the vast majority of the estimated 325,000 visitors coming to attend the World Cup games will likely be untouched by all of this, but here are some security tips, from Johan Burger of the Institute for Security Studies and from the South African Police Service, to help reduce risk.

1. Don’t advertise that you are a stranger in town. Criminals look for those who may seem fearful or unfamiliar with an area, or who may not know to take certain precautions, such as putting your wallet in your front pocket, rather than in the back pocket. Try to get directions from people you can trust, such as hotel staff, police officers, or store personnel. If someone is pestering you, politely refuse to take their help, and keep moving toward your destination or to a place of safety.

2. Hide the bling. You may have beautiful taste in watches or jewelry, but South Africans know to wear costume jewelry, if they wear any at all. Keep most of your valuables (including passport, cameras, etc.), locked away either in a hotel safe or locked in your bags at the hotel room. If you are withdrawing money from a bank, stand close to the automatic teller machine to obscure the view of others on how much you are taking out.

3. Travel in groups. There are areas that are safer than others in South Africa, as in any major city of the world. But you can still pay visits to historic monuments in South Africa – many of which are in older, urban areas – or to poorer townships such as Soweto and Alexandra, if you travel in a group organized by a tour operator recommended by your hotel.

4. Listen to locals. Ask the concierge or manager of your hotel or guesthouse for recommendations of what to see and when it is safe to travel. Many restaurants and nightclubs are clustered in areas that are generally safe, but it is always good to take the advice of local people on where to visit and when it is safest to return home.

5. Stay alert for carjackers. In most cases, it is the car that is the target and not the drivers or passengers. If you find yourself facing a gunman, simply get out of your car and hand over the keys without argument or delay. If you are being followed by someone who appears to be acting suspiciously, try to drive to the nearest police station, or to a public place like a shopping mall where there may be more protection and visibility.

6. Watch for “smash and grab” robberies. Try to keep valuables such as cellphones, purses, computer laptops, or other valuables out of sight, or better yet, locked away in the trunk of the car. Again, if you are the victim of a smash and grab, do not add to your risk by resisting the robber.

For more tips, check out the South African Police Service’s website.


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