a few safety tips
a short disclaimer: when talking about crime, nobody will talk about the stuff that DOESN'T happen. By definition, a discussion about crime is a discussion about the worst case scenarios, not the likely ones. Many friends of mine are more afraid in some dodgy areas of London, Paris or Washington than they are in Cape Town. Most residents have lived here for years without any trouble, I've never once been mugged despite the equipment I carry. These are just tools to stay extra safe, not a basic survival kit. Most tourists come through blind and stupid, and never see an ounce of crime. Backpackers in the CS mould, who are already safety concious, who have been into dark streets in other big cities, traveled in other poor countries, who research ahead, should have no trouble at all.
Talking about crime is South Africa's national preocupation :)
As a photojournalist I've walked in some really dodgy places, places like Kew Town the day after a gang shooting, with R50000 worth of gear hanging off my shoulders. I've had several people suggest that I was about to be robbed, "interviewed" as one security expert called it, without any actual trouble. I'd agree that the perception of crime is higher than the statistical chances of being involved in crime, but it's not a media portrayal. There's no point sugar-coating it: Cape Town is a violent city. There are regular gang wars, drug use (tik, which is an amphetamine derivative, and heroin) is high and violent crimes happen daily. Realistically though, that crime is largely hidden. Most of the city is safe, most of the time, for any tourist who takes a few basic precautions. Any part of the working city, by day, is fine. Beyond that, here are a few tips:
First and foremost, people are good. Walk with the crowd and you'll be fine 99% of the time. The danger is in deserted alleys.
Secondly, no crime happens instantly, much as it may feel that way. A criminal is a professional, not an idiot. He will assess you, perhaps walk up to you and test the waters, he will manoeuvre into a good position, etc. He has training and experience. So the real danger is to the proud tourist who's too busy with his/her cellphone to notice what's around him. Why proud? There are some who think themselves superior to any criminal. That's as dangerous as it is fallacious. When in doubt, move away. If dodgy-looking guys seem to be waiting for you to approach them, don't. Duck into a shop. Cross the road and see if they follow. If they do, duck into a shop or strike up a conversation with a bouncer or a CID guard.
Realistically the most risk to a tourist comes from cons, such as a guy trying his luck in Long Street. It's become an unpleasantly common trend to try to scare a target into giving money. A guy will come up, perhaps start talking about how he's recently come out of prison, perhaps allude to the weapon he may or may not have in his bag/pocket/whatever or it may simply be a guy asking for money in progressively more aggressive stages, ending with "c'mon, don't make me get the knife out". It's not fun, but the game is one of fear more than actual danger. It's a crowded street and nobody's going to get stabbed. Duck into a shop or firmly but politely refuse until they look for an easier target. Be assertive but not aggressive. Carrying pepper spray is good because it gives you the confidence of a backup plan, although I know very few people who have ever used it.
That being said, the only time a mugging tends to turn violent is when the victim gets a Rambo complex. Anyone pulling a knife in public knows what he's doing, give up the goods and walk away.
Public transport is safe, but ask around first if possible. Taxis are OK, some (not all) drive a bit aggressively, but they are rarely involved in accidents, relative to the number of taxis on the roads. Whether that's because everyone is scared of them and gives them extra space, who knows? :P
Use basic precautions, a crowded taxi is better than an empty taxi, use lines you already know if possible and have an idea of where you're going. The longer the travel distance (out of the city) the less safe taxis become as they are then overloaded with luggage as well as passengers and often drive at whatever top speed they can manage.
Trains are also fine, muggings are sometimes reported on empty carriages and violent crime (people being thrown out) is rarely random, usually tied to a topical issue. Use first class (few people selling you the ticket will even ask, if they hear an accent) be wary of empty carriages (if everyone is getting off, get off also and catch the next train) and ask about the line beforehand if possible. Some lines are safer than others, but all are fine if taken carefully. I used trains and taxis for years with no trouble, and they are getting safer and safer. Most of my high-school mates used the train, as far back as 10 years ago (when it was much less safe)
Always ask about an area at night, there are no standard rules for where is safe at what times. The danger is simply that the streets are deserted. That being said, most places are safe enough, but take a taxi when in doubt.
The mountains are great places to walk, unless they are deserted. Stick to the popular routes and there should be no trouble. I climb Lion's Head several times a month, often alone. I pass dozens if not hundreds of people, and several guards. Evenings when there is a full moon are both popular and fun. Walking on any old trail heading in any old direction, starting from someone's backyard, is not recommended. Muggings do happen.
Townships and gang areas: most of the crime happens in the poor areas of the city and so that's what people (including residents) are most afraid of. This is a shame, SA is a nation of crippling poverty and inequality, it's impossible to understand SA by staying in the inner-city. All that is needed are the usual precautions, plus a bit of local advice. It may not be the best idea to wander in without a clue as some parts really are dangerous, although most are fine and some are actually safer than the city. A friend of mine lives in Khayelitsha and delights in being paranoid when visiting "white neighbourhoods". At home, he can leave his gear in his car, and his gate unlocked, without a care. He knows everyone in his street and they look out for each other. In most other parts of the city (including mine) it's not advisable to leave anything visible in your car.
Pepper spray: I like having it, it carries very few legal worries and it's an effective way to cripple someone's offensive means (when hit in the face the victim's eyes slam shut, making it hard to chase you if you're running away) but the box descriptions of a guy crawling into the foetal position for 15min is nonsense. A decent one is called "Viper" and can be bought from most pharmacies for R70-R100. When walking in a dodgy area at night, I carry it in my hand, it helps to act as a deterrent and the motion of drawing it from your pocket can pursuade someone that you're just that much more trouble than your cellphone is worth. That being said, I've never had to use it, and don't plan to. Most of its benefit is psychological, positive to you and negative to anyone checking you out.
First and last, people are basically good. I once parked my car in a dodgy area, went for a walk, and came back to find a local guarding it. Unlike the many car guards in CT, he was a working man who'd been detached from a detail of builders just to watch over my car because he assumed I didn't know the area. He didn't want anything and left, continuing with his day, when I returned.
I think Mathieu's decription and opinion is quite realistic, at least based on the experience I have had. Statistically there is no doubt that the metro in Paris can be a lot more dangerous than Cape Town, so no need to freak out. You only remember and hear of the worst stories - just like the likelihood of being attacked by a shark in australia - about ten times more people die from coconuts dropping on their head!
Yet, the danger exists and it would be a shame if I didnt share my experience. Just 20m in a side street of Longstreet, at night, I was sitting on the sidewalk having one of these late drunken conversations with a girl friend when two dudes surrounded us and showed a gun (which I believe was plastic yet didn't wanna test it) - the guys were young, and not aggressive, almost scared, I even negotiated with them and gave them R100 - we only realized later that they'd also taken my friend's phone when checking in her bag. A begger also showed a knife camouflaged in a plastic take away cup to another friend, but he just walked away. This is after one month staying in the city center going out night and day, often alone. There is so much security on Long Street, crime is low.
I was stupid to sit around an empty street at night, even though it was right next to Longstreet - it was my mistake. Keep away from empty streets and empty carriages, and it'll be fine.
I wanted to share this experience simply because it did happen and there is no need to pretend it didn't happen. One must be aware that the risk exists (pepper spray is a good idea indeed), yet do not take this experience as a rule - driving on any european highway is probably statistically a lot more risky!
Fantastic post Mathieu
Yes talking about crime it is a national pasttime and I'd like share a few tales to back up your post.
Do not be an easy target & Pepper spray works.
In a quiet street on the way home a friend target of a mugging and accidentally grabbed hers pepper spray instead of her phone she was about to hand over, she'd forgotten she had it in her hand bag, instead of her phone and with a sudden sense of empowerment nailed the guy with it.
While walking the woods alone and a mugger attempted to threaten me ..by picking up largest swingable log I could find I demonstrated I was not going to be easy target and was left space to leave the scene. Likewise while my father was recently the target of a hijack attempt he threw his keys over a wall...he was left alone he still has his vehicle.
Like Mattieu says don't be rambo but remember a criminal will asses risk and effort v.s. reward. If the risk and effort are too great you'll be left alone.