South Africa is one of the world’s most beautiful destinations and also one of the most dangerous. Yet, enough people take the bad with the good and visit. In travel message boards about the country, people frequently ask how to stay safe and where not to go, but one thing is certain: if you visit South Africa, safety will be a consistent concern. I found my recent visit —my first time anywhere on the African continent—both uncomfortable and fascinating. South Africa is beautifully diverse—in landscape, people, and places. At the same time, it presents the specter of an unequal society to a world that becomes increasingly divided by wealth, especially the United States, given that South Africa's crime is inextricably linked to its stark racial and economic inequality. Several related phenomena stood out:
1. Walls, gates, and electric fencing guard most homes of a certain size.
When we arrived at our first guesthouse in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, tired after a long day of traveling, we encountered something that would soon become familiar to us: a wall. We could not simply walk up to reception and check in. We had to call and then wait for the owners of the guesthouse to come over and let us in. There was nothing particularly remarkable about our situation—or accommodations. We certainly were not staying at the Ritz. Home security is simply a fact of life in South Africa for middle class and above homes. At a cottage we stayed at in the town of Storms River, near Tsitsikamma National Park, the caretaker took my friend Keith off for 10 minutes of instruction, which included how to lock the door behind us, activate a security system, and open the gate to the driveway. And at our backpacker hostel in Cape Town, a lovely place but nothing fancy, there was a guard in front at all times.
2. Race and security are intimately linked.
There is no getting around the fact that security in South Africa has a stark racial connection. Those who were being protected tended to be white and those who work as security guards and similar jobs were virtually always black. Racial inequality is of course a problem of South Africa's that most people know about—and one that Americans especially can understand—but seeing the racial aspect of security was still jarring.
3. Inequality of wealth and resources is also linked to security.
Going hand-in-hand with the security and crime in South Africa is the inequality. South Africa is one of the world’s most unequal societies. This was starkest to me when driving in the wealthiest parts of the country: the Garden Route, the Stellenbosch wine country, and the Cape Town area. We drove by large homes on hilltops, lush wine estates, and leafy suburbs within a few miles later of sprawling townships of shacks. This is disorienting for an American: we tend to think somewhere is either “First World” or “Third World,” but South Africa is both.
4. Heavy security makes one feel like a target.
While staying behind walls, gates, and fences gave me some security, it also made me feel like a target. The night we were staying in Storms River, my friend Younsook and I split up from my friend Keith so he could drop groceries at our cottage while we found a spot to eat dinner. As we left him off at the street leading to our rental, I saw down the road a group of kids standing in front of our cottage. I worried for a moment that that they were there to target tourists and might rob Keith and then felt immediately bad for thinking it, especially because the kids were black.
5. Heavy security engenders isolation.
I have always found the ethos of subdivisions and gated communities depressing, that it is best to live among a certain kind of person in a protected enclave. It feels isolating, both from one's neighbors and from the larger world. I felt the same way when I looked out at some of Cape Town's tony but heavily securitized suburbs.
6. South Africa may seem over-securitized, but it does have one of the world's highest rates of crime. All are impacted, but rich less than poor.
For all of the challenges of living in a country so obsessed with security security, South Africa does have a high crime rate, especially in wealthy parts of the country like Cape Town, at farms—where there is a problem of violent burglaries (as portrayed in the book Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee), and most disproportionately, for black and poor people. I felt mostly safe on the trip, but I was with two other people almost the whole time. In Cape Town, I witnessed a pickpocket being chased by security guards in green vests, and we were approached by several aggressive panhandlers.
Some may ask, why go to a country like the one I have described above? Well, aside from South Africa’s beauty, the kindness of its people, and the diversity of experiences—and animals (how many countries can boast elephants, lions, and penguins as natural residents?), it is worthwhile to see what it is like to live in a highly unequal society. As the United States becomes more unequal, I was reminded as why it is to almost no one’s benefit to live in an unequal society. Even if one has all of the safety measures in the world, the feeling of paranoia that comes with requiring that protection changes how you live and how you think of other people. I would much prefer to live in a world where homes are smaller and do not need security than one where homes are larger and do—even if I lived in the largest house.