Be aware that Johannesburg has high crime levels, though tourists are seldom victims. Like many other cities with a crime problem, some places are quite safe while others can be quite dangerous, and, in some places, crime may depend on whether it is day or night. Armed security guards (not necessarily the police) are a common sight in the city. Ask local people (hotel staff, police) what to do.
Johannesburg earned its lawless reputation during the 1980s when the apartheid regime was collapsing. Things really went downhill in the early 1990s - and many (white) South Africans have traumatic memories of this period – memories which flavour their security advice for the city even today. However things have improved enormously since those days, although the advice you may receive from some Johannesburg residents may not match today’s reality. Nevertheless you should keep security in mind and tourists must remain alert at all times when in unfamiliar surroundings.
When on the street (this doesn’t apply to shopping malls and other secure environments) best general advice is to try your best to look like a local and to avoid displaying any form of wealth. Keep your cellphone hidden, leave your jewellery at the hotel and avoid carrying backpacks, daypacks, cameras or purses. Use a cheap plastic bag, keep your values at the hotel and take only the amount of money that you really need. Never use a purse, but put loose coins or notes in your pockets.
If you fall victim to robbery, it is best to cooperate with your assailants, hand over your valuables, do not attempt to negotiate, do not look them in the eye, and do not fight back. Then report the robbery to the police.
Above all, use your common sense! If someone insists that you follow them to get somewhere / do something, approach with extreme caution. Don't pay someone for something unless you have the goods in hand. When approached by beggars, it is generally a good idea to politely but firmly deny them.
Finally, keep things in perspective, Johannesburg has a partly-deserved bad reputation for crime, but most victims are local residents living in the townships. The overwhelming majority of visitors have a trouble-free stay.
Shopping malls in Johannesburg are as safe as shopping malls anywhere else in the world, with pick pocketing being the only risk, though a small one.
The central business district is busy during the day, and parts of it are pretty scruffy, but there are lots of police and private security around. The area is largely deserted at night, during weekends, and on holidays. There are many interesting things to do in the CBD, just plan where you are going to park and what you are going to visit beforehand, and never wander around aimlessly.
Pedestrians are rare, but you should be fine walking from your guesthouse to a local restaurant or shopping mall; however, distances can be large, which makes driving or taking a taxi better options. If you want to go jogging (not recommended for lone women) or for a long walk then carry a map and as few valuables as possible, and make sure you are home before it gets dark.
Alexandra is a very poor and dangerous township that deserves particular attention for the foreign visitor because it is next to the road that you would drive on from the airport to Sandton and is therefore easy to land up in if you get lost or take the wrong off-ramp.
Never take the London Road off-ramp from the N3 highway to get to Sandton, (which you will see on the horizon and London Road may look like a shortcut even when reading a map or using GPS) unless you are travelling with a local who knows where they are going, as this road goes right through the heart of Alexandra and you could easily get lost.
To get to Sandton when coming from the airport, take Marlboro Drive from the N3 and drive straight until you reach the M1 highway (this is also called the Marlboro offramp). Do not turn south/left (if you are coming from the N3) or right/south (if you are coming from the M1/Sandton side) anywhere between the N3 and the M1, including Louis Botha Avenue (which may be dangerous unless you know the area).
Alternatively, if you want to avoid the risk of getting this wrong, you can drive a bit further (the N3 becomes the N1) and take Rivonia Road to the south, which will take you straight into central Sandton passing through only affluent areas for the entire length of this road, so if you go the wrong way, you are still in safe areas.
Also, when taking the Gautrain (very safe and nauseatingly well-guarded) between central Sandton and the airport, one of the stations it will stop at is Marlboro Station. This station is the interchange to Pretoria and is right on the edge of Alexandra. Do not exit at this station.
Other townships surround the city – and don’t offer much for the tourist, except for Soweto, the middle class parts of which (Orlando West) can be visited independently, although most choose to go with a tour.
It is prudent to plan night-time journeys and to use a reputable taxi. If you must walk at night, make sure to remain in populated, well-lit areas, and walk confidently and with a purpose so that you at least pretend that you know where you are going. Avoid giving the impression that you are lost, and ask directions only from shops and not random people on the streets.
It is best to use a GPS when driving so that you do not get lost. Also be aware that more South Africans die from road accidents than from violence. There is a great deal of aggression on the roads, and many accidents are fuelled by alcohol.
Do not leave any valuables on the seats as it is possible that your window could be smashed and your belongings grabbed. At night, do not stop at red traffic lights if you see people lingering there, as they may be up to no good. Slow down and go through the red traffic lights, even if you have to pay a fine (very small chance). At all times, be vigilant and watch for vehicles following you or road blocks (stones, wood) on the roads. If you have parked in a quiet area, be particularly careful when you go to and from your car as thieves can wait for victims to exit/enter their vehicle. If you are faced with a suspicious or dangerous encounter, drive to the nearest police station or well-lit populated area.
The Gautrain is totally safe. The new Rea Vaya buses and the city's Metrobus service can be safe to ride although it is often late and far too unreliable and confusing for a short-term foreign visitor to figure out.
Rape and sexual assault levels are exceptionally high. However, most sexual assault and rape cases involve alcohol and take place between people who know each other. Care should be taken in sexual encounters due to the high HIV levels in Johannesburg, insist on using condoms. Females should always avoid walking alone and should try, if possible, to remain in groups.
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