Safe traveling tips for South Africa

Posted on Fri December 13, 2019.

Here in are some very handu traveling tips for self drivers and other general tips on navigating SA.

Keen to self-drive South Africa? You should! South Africa is an excellent country for road tripping, and many tourists opt to hire a car and embark on a self-drive.

This is a fun option for getting around – allowing you greater flexibility in your itinerary and opening up several experiences that would otherwise be missed. Explore the buzzy Garden Route, the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, or the lush and aptly named Panorama Route in Mpumalanga. You can even do a self-drive safari in many of the game reserves including Kruger.

If you are planning a long road trip in South Africa, careful planning and ample time are required as the distances are vast and there are long stretches of isolated road. Inform someone (a friend, your travel agent or accommodation) of your plans and estimated times of arrival – someone who will raise the alarm if you do not show up where and when you are expected. And likewise, carry the contact numbers of your destination accommodation establishments so you can phone ahead should you be delayed for any reason. Keep your tank full, follow road signs, and never offer a lift to strangers. These are the basics.

What many visitors to South Africa may not have much knowledge of from back home, are incidents of carjacking, robbery, or other crimes on the road. While incidences of carjacking, robbery and service delivery protests along the roads in South Africa does occur, you can take the right precautions to avoid being affected and enjoy a wonderful self-drive holiday like most visitors travelling around the country do.

You are more of a target if you are in an unmoving vehicle in an isolated area, perhaps with your focus intentionally directed elsewhere. And criminals have devised several ways to orchestrate just this scenario, targeting cars at stop streets, constructing roadblocks, and even impersonating police officers.

Be aware of your surroundings
It is extremely important always to be alert and aware of your directions. Enquire at your accommodation or with a local travel professional before driving into an unknown area or suburb. And avoid driving after dark if possible.

Keep the car doors locked and windows up when waiting at traffic lights or stop streets. Contrary to some misinformation out there, it is not legal to drive through a red light, even if you cite safety concerns.

However, you may come across flashing red lights, often at night in areas deemed more ‘high-risk’. You may proceed with caution through these intersections.

Follow your intuition
If a vehicle, police or unmarked, indicates for you to pull over or you find yourself at a roadblock and something doesn’t seem right, rely on your intuition. If you feel uncomfortable stopping for a valid reason – either you are alone, it is late at night, or you question whether these are genuine police officers – there is a certain protocol you must follow.

Immediately slow and turn on your hazard lights. Keep driving, but over 40k/h.
Indicate your intention by extending your arm out of the window and gesturing for the car to follow you.
Phone 10111 and explain the situation, providing as much information as you can (e.g. your location as well as the location of the roadblock or the vehicle in question’s registration number) to the operator. They will direct you to the nearest police station.
Drive directly to the police station and stay in your vehicle with the engine running, hoot continuously to attract attention until someone from the station comes out.
You can alternatively drive to the nearest public place, such as a service station.
Remain calm as you explain to the police personnel or officers that you felt unsafe and cooperate with them fully.
Follow these steps, and you will not only ensure your safety but also avoid your actions being misconstrued as police evasion (which can quickly escalate a situation for the worse). 

Similar steps can be taken if someone pulls up alongside you or flashes their lights signalling that something is wrong with your car (e.g. pointing at your tyres). Do not stop in this situation. Rather drive to the nearest police station or service station. If your intuition was right and this person meant you harm, they are sure to be deterred in the presence of onlookers and CCTV.

Service Delivery Protests
From time to time, you may come across service delivery protests by the community. These are generally not violent, but they can be disruptive.

The best rule of action is to avoid these whenever you can by asking your accommodation provider where they usually take place, keeping an eye out for road signs indicating areas where frequent community protests occur and listening to the traffic reports on radio stations such as SAFM (104 to 107 FM).

Plan your route beforehand and ask your accommodation provider, tour operator or local authorities (such as the police or local tourism authorities) if they know of any issues along the way and can advise alternative routings.

If you do happen to come across a service delivery protest, remain calm and polite. If you are able to remove yourself from the situation before getting into the thick of it, do so slowly and with caution. There is every likelihood you will see the protest action quite far ahead and be able to reverse or perform a U-turn safely (switch on your hazard lights).

Contact your tour operator, tourism office or accommodation establishment you are staying at and advise them of the location of the service delivery protest so that they can notify the authorities. You could also drive to the nearest police station to report it.

Personal belongings
It goes without saying. Keeping your personal belongings on the seat alongside you, or your mobile phone in your lap while driving with your windows wide open, is an open invitation for would-be thieves to target you.

Keep your personal belongings locked in your boot or out of sight while driving. You should not be using your mobile phone anyway and if it is not visible it cannot be snatched from your vehicle at the traffic light or when you are parked somewhere.

Use your common sense and don’t place personal belongings in the boot of your locked car when you have an audience. If at all possible, carry your personal belongings with you. Take with you only what you really need for the day to ensure you don’t need to lock items in your boot.

Don’t leave any GPSs, cables or money in your car, whether you’re stopping for a few minutes or overnight. It’s a sign that you may have something of value in the vehicle and that makes you an easy target. Ensure your vehicle is locked, including your boot if the vehicle does not have central locking.

Driving in a National Park
THE MAXIMUM SPEED LIMIT – is 50 km/h on tar and 40km/h on gravel roads.  Speed checks are done throughout the park.  All speeding culprits will be heavily fined.

DO NOT DRINK & DRIVE – general rules of the road apply within the KNP.  It is an offence to drive on South African roads under the influence of alcohol.

DRIVING AREAS RESTRICTED – Vehicles must remain on the designated roads at all times, Driving on closed or no-entry roads or off the paved surface is a serious offence.

GAME SIGHTING – CONGESTION – In case there is sighting with many cars causing congestion, the lane opposite (further away) the side of the game or object/s being viewed may not be blocked by stationary vehicles.  This lane must be kept open for those that wish to pass the sighting.  Please do not [ark diagonally, especially in the lane.

GAME SIGHTING – GENERAL – For game viewing, please park on the side of the road from which object is located on as this will prevent cars from passing between the viewing vehicles and the object you are watching.  Be careful when passing animals or birds close to the road – they could be alarmed by your approach and run onto the road.

STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE – unless in a designated area, visitors must remain inside their vehicles.  No part of your body may protrude from a window or sunroof and doors should remain closed at all times.

What if a police officer asks for a bribe?
It is important to be aware of your rights if you do get pulled over. First, know that it is strictly illegal for a traffic official or police officer to ask you for cash on the spot. This is entering ‘bribe territory’ – remain respectful while refusing to pay. Also, know that it is not necessary to be taken to a police station by a traffic officer to pay the fine.

In the event of a legitimate traffic transgression, an officer must issue an official “ticket”, which will contain all details of the offence, the fine payable (in South African Rand only), where it occurred and the officer’s name.  Fines can be paid within a certain period of days after the ticket was issued either at a police station, via online banking or can be paid by the vehicle rental company.  If paying at a police station, an official receipt of payment must be issued.

You also have the right to ask a police officer to identify him or herself by showing their appointment card, which must be carried at all times. If you feel you are being or have been harassed, you are entitled to report misconduct to the nearest police station. If you still feel you have not been properly assisted, you can contact the Independent Police Investigative Directorate to look into the matter further.

Take note of the badge number and name of the police officer in question, as well as the vehicle registration number and, if applicable, the location of the roadblock. Provide as much identifying information as you can in your report.

Safe parking
Enquire at your accommodation about safe, secure parking, avoiding poorly lit areas or street parking if possible. Do not leave anything, especially of value, in your car. However, if you must leave an item, ensure that it is well-hidden in either the glove box, under a seat, or in the boot of the car. Stow the item(s) discreetly or before you are parked to avoid piquing the interest of opportunistic onlookers. Otherwise, you may be coming back to a smashed window despite your efforts. Lastly, double-check that all of the doors are locked before you walk away. 

If you are driving in South Africa, you will undoubtedly come across more than one car guard – whistling you into a spot, offering some form of parking assistance, and requesting money as you prepare to leave.

They claim to keep an eye on your car while you’re away but remember that this is not a guarantee and you should still take the same precautions, leaving nothing in your car. Use your discretion when interacting with car guards. If you wish to give them a tip as you leave, some spare coins will suffice.

Always carry a working cell phone
Whether checking directions or phoning help in the case of an emergency, make sure that you have a working cell phone on you at all times during your self-drive. Using a local SIM card is also highly recommended.

Keep these important numbers on hand:
Nationwide emergency response: 10111

Cell phone emergency: 112

[Note the difference between these two numbers: dialling 10111 from your mobile will incur standard phone charges and will connect you with an operator who will direct your call; 112 is free to dial from any mobile, even if you do not have airtime, but you will need to patiently go through an automated menu. Both are nationwide.]

Ambulance response: 10177

National traffic call centre: 0861 400 800 to report traffic offences or misconduct by a traffic official

South African Police Service (SAPS) national service complaints centre: 0800 333 177 to lodge a complaint of poor service, misconduct or corruption by a member of law-enforcement

Independent Police Investigative Directorate: 012 399 0000 to escalate a complaint if necessary