1. You shouldn’t be afraid to travel here.
As a Capetonian with almost a year and a half of European adventures under my belt, I can’t even count the number of times newly-made foreign friends have looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “But isn’t Cape Town really dangerous?”
South Africa’s gotten a pretty bad rap for the recent rise in violence with four of our cities making it into the top 50 most violent in the world, according to the Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. The list ranks violence by murders per 100,000 people and does not include war zones. Based on this, Cape Town scored a whopping 65.5. In fact, Cape Town has crept up over the years from the 34thposition in 2011 to the ninth most violent city in the world in 2015, making it more violent than cities like Rio de Janeiro and is supposedly the most violent in Africa.
Safety is a valid concern when traveling anywhere, but it’s not something that should keep you from visiting Cape Town. What’s misleading about the statistics is that it’s largely concentrated in Cape Town’s gang-ridden township areas. According to the Centre for Criminology, the top twenty precincts with the most murders (out of 59 precincts in Cape Town) accounted for 75 percent of all murders in the Mother City. Many other zones like Camps Bay and Newlands, places where you as a tourist would be most likely to frequent, score below the global average. Although it’s a very real and sad illustration of the unequal society that lingers in South Africa (and one that should not go unnoticed), it also means that traveling here safely is totally possible (and probable).
This is not to say that violence does not exist outside the townships, nor is murder the only crime that occurs around here. You should still be vigilant and take all the necessary precautions you would when in a big city. And if you are still worried, you can use this lovely tool from the Institute for Security Studies. It allows you to view crimes by precinct in Cape Town and decide where you’d feel safest. But please, don’t let sensationalized articles discourage you from visiting the beautiful Mother City — we have so much to offer you that does not include violence.
2. Most locals will tell you not to take the train, but if you listen to them you’ll miss out on one of South Africa’s best-kept secrets.
I’ll bet many locals don’t know about the Shosholoza Meyl, a long-distance passenger train that runs between Cape Town and Johannesburg. The Meyl also connects Joburg with other cities and towns. In a country that has more than a million square kilometers and no twenty-euro Ryanair or Easyjet flights to rely on, the Shosholoza Meyl is an excellent option. It comes highly recommended by The Man in Seat 61 who says “you’d be crazy not to consider it” and plenty reviews deem the Meyl safe. It gives you a chance to watch the open plains of the Karoo and the golds and greens of the Highveld roll past from the comfort of your bunk, scenes that you would otherwise miss on a two-hour flight.
For those looking for some style on a budget, there’s also the Premier Classe. And then there’s the megabucks Blue Train, a world-famous luxury train that runs to Pretoria. I hadn’t even heard about Blue Train until recently, a Canadian woman just told me about it while on a flight to Lisbon.
And the perception that trains in South Africa are unsafe is largely based on the more dangerous local metros in Joburg and Durban. For the record, the local Cape Town metro can also be used even though some middle-to-upper class Capetonians might tell you not to. It’s a great (and budget) way to take a day trip to the see the multi-coloured beach huts in Muizenberg and Kalk Bay or the home of the tuxedoed African penguin at Boulders beach in Simon’s Town. If you follow simple safety tips like traveling during the day in occupied carriages you shouldn’t have any problems.
3. There is way more to Cape Town than the tourist areas immediately around Table Mountain.
This will be made obvious on the drive from Cape Town International Airport into the city along the N2; for a couple of kilometers, both sides of the highway are lined with shacks made of corrugated iron and other scraps built on sand. And then you’ll arrive at the beautiful center at the foot of Table Mountain, a bustling CBD enclosed in mountains on the shores of the Atlantic. Even though you’ll only see the first few rows of the townships, you’ll have had your first brief insight into Cape Town’s socially engineered layout during apartheid. And its scars.
But if you think you can crush the Cape with just a drive-by of the squatter camps on your way into the city, a quick cable car trip up Table Mountain to see what all the fuss is about, an afternoon kip on the warm sand on Clifton beach and a mojito or two for sundowners on the Camps Bay strip — you’re wrong. For one thing, we have one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. I’d feel heartbroken for you if you came here and vetoed the drive or cycle along the Chapman’s Peak cliffs that tumble down to the ocean and end where white meets blue at Noordhoek’s eight-kilometer-plus Long Beach, the Kommetjie lighthouse, and the iconic Chacma baboons in Scarborough (don’t even think about feeding them, folks, it’s unethical and illegal).
There are also a ton of hikes to be conquered all over the peninsula, which offer views of the stretch of mountains with blue expanse on either side and the endemic Fynbos ecoregion. Then there’s also the previously mentioned African penguin waddling around Boulders Beach, epic surf spots all around the peninsula, the famed Kirstenbosch gardens against the eastern arm of Table Mountain and the heart of the Cape Winelands in the green landscape of Stellenbosch. I could go on forever, but my point is this: see beyond the city center.
4. We are always late.
It’s not for nothing that Cape Town is also affectionately known as Slaapstad, which literally translated from Afrikaans means ‘Sleep City’. Cars meander below sixty kilometers per hour, people walk around barefoot and the time difference between ‘just now’ and ‘now now’ can be hours.
5. We are terrible drivers.
‘Fast lane’ and ‘slow lane’ are open to interpretation, especially when it comes to the minibus taxi drivers who straddle lanes and pass so close that your car sways and your chest vibrates from the bass inside. Don’t pick fights with these guys, however right you may be. Then there are those who slug it in the fast lane at 60 kilometers per hour and shout, “I’m already at the speed limit!” when a car comes up behind them. I’ve also personally witnessed two bakkies (pickups) swerve towards each other on the national highway outbound to pass a bottle of Sprite between passenger and driver. My advice: have some patience, be aware and try to appreciate the scene with a sense of humour. It’s more fun that way.
6. Don’t pick the Cape Town vs. Jozi argument.
Just don’t (especially not with Joburgers).
7. You undermine the hard work of NGOs when you give money to street kids.
South Africa has a serious street kid problem with a 2009 estimate at 10 to 12,000 children living on the streets — a big figure for a country with inadequate social care. You will inevitably have the experience of pulling up at a robot (Saffa lingo for ‘traffic light’) and being confronted by a big-eyed, skinny child in rags or sheets with a plastic cup or an outstretched hand. Your throat might tighten at the injustice but be aware that the money you drop into a frail hand will keep them on the street instead of going to NGOs that can feed and educate them. Put simply, begging is more lucrative. Kids are even encouraged by their parents to do it. But on the streets, they are in danger of exploitation by adults who traffic kids to beg for them, peddle drugs, or much worse.
This does not mean we should care less — these children still need help. They often leave home as a result of abuse, HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty and overcrowding, amongst other reasons. Cape Town-based NGO The Homestead suggests on their blog to build positive relationships with street children: gently encourage them to go home or to a local NGO. You can also call in at the nearest police station or support local NGOs by donating finances or your time.
8. The Cape coloureds are a celebrated ethnic group.
‘Coloured’ is the South African term for ‘mixed-race’ and it is not derogatory (unless you intend it to be — then you’re still a racist). Let’s be clear, though — no one chose to be coloured; they were determined as coloured through degrading and ignorant ‘tests’ under the apartheid government. But although the origin was derogatory, many actively identify as coloureds today. Cape coloureds have a significant place in Cape Town’s history as descendants of the native Khoisan people with Bantu-speaking African, European and a smaller degree of Asian ancestral components. They’re a race that has suffered an ongoing post-Apartheid identity crisis and have been further economically and financially marginalized even though they played an integral role in the fight against apartheid.
It may seem strange and counter-productive that we continue to place such importance on defined ethnicities more than 20 years after the fall of apartheid, a system that was by definition structured and obsessed with racial division, but as shown in the award-winning 2009 documentary I’m Not Black, I’m Coloured, the distinction could be important in the cohesion and upliftment of a community struggling with its identity. If you’re in Cape Town around New Year’s, don’t miss the Kaapse Klopse, a parade with its roots in the 19th century where Cape coloureds take to the streets in an array of colours, spinning umbrellas and musical instruments.
9. Cape Point is not the southern-most tip of Africa.
Although it’s often mistaken as the very south of Africa, it’s more like the southwestern-most tip. The very tip is actually Cape Agulhas, where the Indian and Atlantic Ocean meet. It’s about two and a half hours from Cape Town and less spectacular than the giant cliffs on the jagged outcrop of Cape Point, in my opinion.
10. You don’t need to be afraid of the Great Whites.
The media has an impressive track record for sensationalizing shark incidents, which have perpetuated the Jaws fear and misinformation about sharks.
Firstly, it’s generally accepted that white sharks don’t hunt humans. Jaws was a fictional movie; they’re not going to come out of the deep to eat you. Most shark enthusiasts will tell you that an accident is most likely a result of mistaken identity or curiosity (although it’s understandable if you’re like my mom and “not willing to test the theory”.) Secondly, according to shark attack data, the 2016 ten-year moving average for the number of shark attacks in the whole Western Cape region is 2.5 per year. Bear in mind that this figure is incidents per year, not fatalities. Although some refuse to surf around the Cape because of the presence of sharks, the chances of an incident are actually very slim. To put your mind at ease, there are also beaches where dedicated shark spotters are present and that’s been proven effective. It’s worth learning what the different shark flags mean to put your mind at ease.
So to all the passionate surfers and swimmers: our Great Whites should not keep you from living your dream in our 10-degree Celsius South Atlantic. It won’t be the longest swim you’ll have if you plan to brave it in a bikini, though, I assure you. While you’re around you can also take the opportunity to change your perception of these beautiful beasts by going shark cage diving in False Bay or Gansbaai. Be aware that chumming is a heavily contested issue in the Cape, though. Do your research as a socially conscious traveler and decide for yourself before you give your support.