The one statistic that defines Cape Town as one of the world’s most dangerous cities is its frightening number of murders. But, as a visitor, your chances of being one of these victims is actually quite small. We believe that the really dangerous aspect of Cape Town is the number of sexual crimes – particularly rape, which is much more widespread.
To explain why we say this, consider the way these kinds of reports are calculated: both Detroit and New Orleans rank as more dangerous than Cape Town – and all 3 are worse than Mosul in Iraq! Murder is a very particular type of Cape Town crime. Firstly, local police and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) agree that murder is concentrated in the poorest neighbourhoods of Cape Town, such as Nyanga [217 per year], Khayelitsha  and Gugulethu . Secondly, research by Statistics South Africa shows that 80% of murder victims were killed by people they knew – making it very much an internal problem; of less concern to foreign visitors.
This is even more clearly shown when you realise that the major visitor destinations: the City Bowl, Camps Bay, Clifton, Sea Point, Table Bay Harbour and Simonstown – ALL added together account for less than 20 murders in a year.
Rape and other sexual crimes in Cape Town are far more widespread, and also have some other features which are concerning for your safety. Maybe the most important of these is the HIV/AIDS infection rate. Cape Town has one of the country’s lowest AIDS figures; around 6% amongst adults (South Africa’s average is17%). The rape statistics are also just below the national average, but the country is regarded as having one of the world’s worst records, so we believe the following insights may be extremely important to female visitors in particular (even with its very broad definitions of what rape is, SA’s rapes are overwhelmingly man against woman).
Not surprisingly, the same parts of the city that we’ve singled out as crime hotspots for robbery and murder, are – to a large degree – also the worst places for sexual offences. We’d warn, however, that making assumptions based on class or race is a mistake: even an upper-middle class suburb like Rondebosch, which only had 1 murder in 3 years leading up to March 2011, reported 24 sexual offences in that same time period.
Be more aware when most local people have free time – 61% of all crime in Cape Town happens over the weekends. Summer is also a time of greater risk: a University of Cape Town study has shown that rape is more common in hot weather. Try and have at least one trusted person with you in entertainment venues and be one another’s support – the Institute for Security Studies says that most sexual assault happens during times of relaxation and entertainment – and specifically (83%) at night. While local venues have become far better at detecting their use, so-called “date rape” drugs are available in the city, and do get used.
As incredibly important as it is to be aware of the very high rate of violent person-on-person crime in Cape Town, and to be more cautious than you might be elsewhere – don’t lose sight of the fact that it is a particular social phenomenon. Most of this type of crime is local: committed in people’s homes, by people known to the victim, and largely in poorer areas well away from the best tourist accommodation. Follow common-sense personal safety practices, especially at night, and you should be one of the 1.8 million annual visitors to the city who leave with happy memories and a desire to return soon.