Any conversation about my move to South Africa eventually touches upon the dangers that confront the people who live there. I worry about it, too, and I wanted to give my appraisal of what awaits me there.
Let’s look at murder, since there’s really no way to recover from that. Homicide is a huge problem throughout the world. I have been asked why I would move to a country with a higher murder rate than the United States, and I point out that I could easily move to a country with a lower murder rate than the United States instead. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime collects statistics from national criminal justice organizations. I downloaded a table reporting the homicides per country and sorted by the homicide rates for 2012, since more recent years were not as complete. By that criterion, Singapore, Iceland, and Japan look like real winners, with homicide rates below 0.4 per 100,000. The United States, by contrast, suffered a 4.7 per 100,000 homicide rate in 2012. South Africa rates far worse, with a homicide rate of 30.7 per 100,000. Looked at another way, each occupant of South Africa has a 0.03% chance of being a murder victim each year. Less encouragingly, the occupants of South Africa are six times as likely as occupants of the United States to die by homicide in a given year. Many nations in Latin America have had incredible problems with homicide in recent years, and they produced the highest homicide rates in this table, as well.
Of course, we know that some places in the United States are more dangerous than others. When we look at individual cities, we see very big differences in the risk of homicide. A look at FBI crime statistics show that living in Detroit, New Orleans, or Baltimore places you at greater risk than living in New York or Los Angeles. Detroit, for example, experienced a 43.4 per 100,000 homicide rate in 2014, an order of magnitude worse than the rate for New York City.
Similarly, South African cities are included in a yearly survey by the Mexican organization “El Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal A.C.” Three cities in South Africa have appeared in its 2014 “50 most violent cities in the world:” Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay (a.k.a. Port Elizabeth), and Durban. As noted in this BusinessTech article, Cape Town has consistently yielded a lower rank in each of the last three years, and it is currently placed at 14th on the list. In a nutshell, my move to Cape Town exposes me to danger. I cannot like that.
If I were really an expert on this subject, this article is the one I wish I could have written. The author dives into these crime statistics more carefully. She reveals that Cape Town, like all other major cities, has some safe neighborhoods and some unsafe neighborhoods. Certainly, if I were planning on living in a township or informal community, I would be much less safe. Instead, I am planning to live in a relatively new neighborhood with security in depth. My daily routine will not be one that exposes me to significant danger, and when I go to tourist sites, I plan to go with a group.
In brief, my personal security matters to me, and I intend to safeguard it. Yes, there are certainly safer places on the planet to call home, but risk is something that we can reduce even in places that have unhealthy tendencies.
P.S. Al Jazeera published on heightened gun violence in Baltimore a week after this was originally posted.