Situational awareness is your best friend.
Do you know the three zone system? Green, Amber, Red?
Green: Here you’re relaxed, and basically oblivious to your surroundings.
Amber: Here you’re alert, looking for danger signals, ready to take evasive action.
Red: Here you’ve seen a danger signal, and you are in self-preservation mode.
In Johannesburg, it’s best to stay in the Amber zone whenever you’re out and about.
What this means in practical terms is this…
- When you’re driving, always be alert for vehicles that might box you in, and for pedestrians who might hijack your vehicle, or smash and grab from your window. It’s better to approach a red traffic light very slowly, from quite far away, without actually stopping (edit: it takes anywhere between 20 and 45 seconds for a red to change to green). Scan your surroundings. ANY pedestrian moving towards your vehicle is reason to go into Red mode instantly. Assume the worst. Most times, you’ll be wrong. But one in twenty times, you’ll be right, and you’ll avoid being hurt.
- In shopping malls and parks, don’t look and behave like a tourist. If you have a camera hanging around your neck, you might as well volunteer as a live target on a shooting range. If you ARE going to take photos, try and look like a local. And do so without being too meek and mild. Own your space. Alpha individuals only.
- In shopping malls and parks, look lively. Keep your eyes on people. Make eye contact. Be friendly. If someone looks suspicious, look them in the eye, then look at their shoes, then look in their eyes again. This informs them that you know what’s what, and that you’ve “made” them. Crooks avoid people who are alert to their surroundings.
- At restaurants, DO NOT leave your wallet, cellphone, car keys on your table. If you’re a user of a handbag, manbag, or laptop bag, hanging the bag over the back of your chair is the same as saying goodbye to whatever used to be inside it.
- In department stores, you might be amused at how some of the locals don’t seem to be all that worried about invading your personal space. That’s because those individuals work in teams of two and three. One gets into your space. The other steals from you. Without your knowing anything about it. The one who steals your stuff hands it over to the third person. Who then gets the hell out of there. These individuals are normally really well dressed, and seem as nice as can be. If someone DOES lift something from you, it’s often worth looking under items on shelves nearby, cos they sometimes don’t hand the item off to a third person. Sometimes they simply stash it under an item to retrieve as you move away.
- Don’t buy watches, currency, or anything illicit from anyone. You’ll be badly ripped off, and possibly killed.
- If you get mugged, unless you’re incredibly confident in your ability to immobilise at least three armed people, give them whatever they want. But DO NOT EVER GET INTO A VEHICLE WITH YOUR ASSAILANT. It is better to be shot on the spot, with a chance at getting out alive, than it is to get into a vehicle with a thug. If you get into a vehicle with someone at gunpoint, you’re not going to live. (Edit: getting shot is most often not a fatal condition. If you get to hospital fast enough, you’ll probably be fine. Have your medical insurance information in your wallet, and a duplicate of the information in a different pocket. You DO NOT want to go to a government hospital here. You MUST go to a private hospital.)
Johannesburg is about as dangerous as any other big city. But with some really extreme violence at the edges. Because of a very hectic wealth disparity here, and because of the effects of some really crap politics from the past and the present, many people pull themselves through life in abject poverty. Sometimes, that poverty creates insane violence.
You will be fine as long as you treat people with respect. Tip your waiters (edit: 10% is the absolute minimum; 15% is okay; 20% is generous; 30% makes someone’s day; waiters earn very badly in South Africa). Greet security guards, car guards, cleaners, the “unimportant” people. Be a decent human being. But keep your eyes open. And keep looking around you.
Situational awareness. It’s your friend.
In conclusion, it’s not as bad as one may suggest, the only one thing one must not do is, being in a wrong place at a wrong time.