Quite often, people who fall victim to crime in Cape Town allow themselves to be drawn into a dangerous situation simply by trying to be polite or to not give offence. We hope that the information here will help you to avoid this; which includes a realistic look at what you should do if it does happen to you.

South Africa has 11 official languages, and there’s no universal culture; no single set of rules on what is and what isn’t polite behaviour. Because of its history and cosmopolitan nature, Cape Town adds even more dimensions to this – a large Muslim population (nearly half of SA’s approximately 550 000 Muslims), an influential and embedded German community, and permanently sizeable groups of American and British ex patriot residents. As a result, Cape Town residents on the whole are very accepting of diversity. If a situation, proposal, or behaviour makes you feel uncomfortable for any reason, it is acceptable – and probably even expected of you – to say so.

The society is still in a pronounced state of transition, and individuals often diverge greatly from any stereotypical group identity. The observations that follow should be treated as a single opinion.

African culture is generally very tactile – touch is considered an integral part of communication, and  personal space ends quite close by European social standards. As a result, even a stranger may hold your hand or your wrist while addressing you. This should be a light pressure or grip, and shouldn’t restrict your movement. If you’re uncomfortable, you should be able to casually and lightly use your other hand to guide their hand off your person without causing any offence or even comment. If you’re feeling insecure, a polite, firm request to remove their hand (or give you space) is perfectly okay – provided it’s clear that no offence has been taken or is intended.

If a clear spoken request is ignored, your concern may be well justified and you can and should be more aggressive in protecting yourself. Generally, people in Cape Town WILL come to your aid if you seem to be in distress. Be aware that if local residents believe or know that the person has criminal intentions, they may be treated very roughly. Official security forces are also prone to be quite physical in their approach to law enforcement. This is a reaction to the high crime rate and a response to the constant danger they themselves face – more than 100 SAPS members are killed while on duty each year.

Outside of physical attempts to take your money and valuables, sophisticated modern financial scam systems are also perpetrated. Do not accept help from members of the public at ATM’s (Cash Points). If your card fails to eject, call the 24-hour toll-free number displayed on the machine immediately. Also, all debit and credit card transactions should be conducted in your presence. Almost all venues have hand-held terminals that can be brought to you to authorise the pruchase.

If you do need assistance, there is no dedicated tourist police force, but there are several types of police you may appeal to. Each law enforcement grouping has its own culture, and this brief synopsis may be helpful:

Private and Public-Private Security

There are thousands of security staff who work for private companies in Cape Town. Many of these are large companies that have hundreds of households as clients in certain suburbs, and provide all standard policing services. Most are armed, and the industry enjoys a wide definition of its powers – they can and will aid you in any way they can if you need help. If necessary, they will also ensure you access to the SA Police Service (SAPS).

Several suburbs (almost all of the ones that visitors commonly go to) are designated “City Improvement Districts” – most notably each have a privately-funded, but quasi-official very localised police force. These people are unarmed, but have direct contact with the SAPS  and carry defensive weapons like truncheons, pepper spray and handcuffs. Their job is to proactively enhance the image of the area they are in. They can be approached for even minor issues that concern you.

Metro Police

Cape Town’s metropolitan government (an extended municipality) employs its own police force. They wear caps, and cream or blue shirts with brown pants and shoes. They are empowered to search people and arrest them, but hand all suspects over to the SAPS for investigation and prosecution. They are especially sensitive to the needs of tourists and visitors, but are tasked with enforcing even minor laws like littering and noise control. As a result, they may generally seem petty in their authority, but in any need, they will actively and unquestionably assist you.

You may have have heard of the research by Lead SA which indicates that up to 25% of Johannesburg Metro Police have solicited bribes. The same survey that identified 200 bribes in that city, only turned up 3 in the Cape Town Metro Police force. They are fiercely protective of their clean reputation, and any attempt to bribe them will probably attract the harshest possible response. Equally, if you believe a bribe is being requested, you can safely report it to any senior Metro officer – they will protect your rights and safety in order to keep corruption at bay.

SA Police Service (SAPS)

Members of the SAPS wear a variety of uniforms, but all of these are variations of an all-blue outfit with a six-pointed star prominently displayed. Despite very publicised and startling examples of corruption and criminal behaviour by very high-ranking SAPS officials, the police officers you will meet are overwhelmingly just ordinary hardworking people doing a difficult job.

But not every police station has equal resources. More importantly for you as a visitor, not all SAPS  members equally appreciate the specific needs which being in a foreign country can create. We suggest using those police stations in the areas where tourists are most often found, as they have experience in dealing with these special requirements and particular pressures that you face, and in some cases have an existing working relationship with the local diplomatic staff of other countries.

These stations are:

Cape Town Central* Corner of Buitenkant and Albertus, Cape Town CBD 021 467 8000 /1 /2
Cape Town Airport Between International and Domestic Terminals, Cape Town Airport 021 927 2900
Sea Point Corner of Stanley and Bay Roads, Green Point/Sea Point 021 430 3700
Camps Bay Victoria Road,Camps Bay, opposite Camps Bay Swimming Pool 021 437 8140

*In 2008, consultancy firm PMR Africa identified the Cape Town Central police station as the most effective in the entire country.