South Africa’s most dangerous cities

 ·8 Jul 2024

Pietermaritzburg is seen as having the highest crime levels in the world, according to Numbeo’s Mid-year 2024 Crime Index by City, which is based on perceptions of crime by survey respondents.

But a compilation of crime and safety rankings and studies shows that both perceptions and hard statistical data flag local cities as generally unsafe and ranking among some of the worst in the world.

The Numbeo index is compiled biannually using data from surveys completed by visitors to the Numbeo website.

The index has been flagged by fact-checkers for not providing a comprehensive analysis of crime and safety levels—being based on limited perceptions—but it aims to give a broader and comparative view of crime and safety in specific regions.

To help contextualise it further, we have added to the Numbeo data with a more comprehensive analysis from the South African Cities Network, Stats SA’s official Victim of Crimes Survey, and the Mexican Council for Security and Public Justice’s violent cities ranking.

All of these rankings, studies, and research papers show a consistent trend of high levels of crime in South Africa’s major cities, both in hard-reported data and in surveys looking at more subjective perceptions, like the Numbeo index.

These are summarised in the table below, where the most dangerous/violent/unsafe cities are ranked highest. The table shows some recurring trends in the cities (bolded).

(Perception of Crime)
Stats SA
(Murder rate)
(Murder rate)
1PietermaritzburgWestern CapeGqeberhaGqeberha
2PretoriaGautengMsunduzieThekwini (Durban)
3JoburgKwaZulu NataleThekwini (Durban)Cape Town
4eThekwini (Durban)MpumalangaCape TownJoburg
5GqeberhaEastern CapeBuffalo City
6Cape TownNorth WestJoburg
* Percentage not feeling safe walking during the day

Numbeo perceptions index

Numbeo’s index uses data from the last 36 months, and the most recent semiannual index incorporates the latest data into the historical view.

According to Africa Check, the survey historically contains responses from around 3,000 South Africans, skewed towards those with internet access.

Numbeo says its data carries minimum standards for each city ranked to remain statistically relevant, with filters to capture outlier data and spam.

The crime index is a perceptions index giving an estimation of the overall level of crime in a given city or country.

Each survey entry is assigned a number between -2 and +2, where -2 represents a strongly negative perception, and +2 represents a strongly positive perception. The survey results are then presented on a scale of 0 to 100.

Notably, crime levels lower than 20 are seen as very low, crime levels between 20 and 40 are low, crime levels between 40 and 60 are moderate, crime levels between 60 and 80 are high, and crime levels higher than 80 are very high.

Numbeo said that the crime index took into account survey responses about:

  • The general perception of crime levels

  • Perceived safety: Survey responses from residents and visitors regarding their feelings of safety while walking during daylight and at night.

  • Concerns about specific crimes: Survey questions about worries regarding mugging, robbery, car theft, physical attacks by strangers, harassment in public places, and discrimination based on factors like skin colour, ethnicity, gender, or religion.

  • Property crimes: Assessment of the extent of property-related crimes, such as burglary, theft, vandalism, etc.

  • Violent crimes: Evaluation of the perception of violent crimes, including assault, homicide, sexual offences, etc.

Overall, Pietermaritzburg is perceived as the most dangerous city in the world, with a crime index score of 82.5. Pretoria is in second place, with a score of 81.9.

Johannesburg (80.8), Durban (80.6), and Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha (77.7) came in fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. Only Caracas, Venezuela (81.7) and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (80.9) separated Pretoria and Johannesburg in the rankings.

Cape Town came in 17th place overall, scoring 73.8, sandwiched between Detroit, USA (74.3) and Alice Springs, Australia (72.1).

The top 20 in the Numbeo rankings can be found below:

RankCityCrime Index
1Pietermaritzburg, South Africa82.5
2Pretoria, South Africa81.9
3Caracas, Venezuela81.7
4Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea80.9
5Johannesburg, South Africa80.8
6Durban, South Africa80.6
7Port Elizabeth, South Africa77.7
8Rio de Janeiro, Brazil77.5
9Salvador, Brazil76.6
10Memphis, TN, United States76.5
11Recife, Brazil75.9
12Rosario, Argentina75.6
13Fortaleza, Brazil74.7
14Baltimore, MD, United States74.7
15Guayaquil, Ecuador74.4
16Detroit, MI, United States74.3
17Cape Town, South Africa73.8
18Alice Springs, Australia72.1
19Tijuana, Mexico72.1
20Albuquerque, NM, United States71.7


According to Africa Check, Numbeo is a perceptions index, so it may not accurately track the actual levels of safety in the country, which is limited by the survey sample and how respondents access the survey itself.

However, local perceptions surveys like the Victims of Crime Survey from Stats SA may be a suitable proxy for perceptions of safety within South Africa—specifically, the responses around how safe people feel walking around alone during the day and at night.

The latest survey (2022/23), published in August 2023, shows that 80.8% of South Africans feel safe walking around their neighbourhoods during the day and 37% feel safe at night.

This suggests that perceptions of how unsafe the country is maybe overblown in broader or more generalised rankings.

Split among provinces, however, it is apparent that provinces with cities flagged in the Numbeo survey show lower levels of the feeling of safety—specifically Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal, and the Western Cape.

The picture also shifts significantly when looking at metro (city) vs non-metro safety, with respondents flipping the script and feeling more unsafe during the day than safe.

This suggests that the perceptions of South Africa’s cities being unsafe or dangerous are not unfounded.

This is further corroborated by the South African Cities Network’s State of Crime and Safety Report, which includes subjective (perception) indicators in its data, including feelings of safety or fear of crime in major metros.

Here, only three metros (Buffalo City, Cape Town and Joburg) show a majority of respondents feeling safe.

Harder data

Looking at reported crimes and harder statistical data, it is apparent that crime levels – particularly violent crime – in South Africa’s cities are some of the highest in the world.

The South African Cities Network compiled its comprehensive assessment of crime and safety in South Africa’s major cities and published it in October 2023 (based on 2022 data).

The group assessed and analysed crime data as reported by the South African Police Service (SAPS) covering city-level precinct data from the Cities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, eThekwini, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, Manguang, Buffalo City and Msunduzi.

SACN noted that SAPS data does not show crime levels on a city-level, so the group compiled its data based on precinct-level data within the boundaries of each respective city for its analysis.

This was then assessed against the mid-year population estimates published by Stats SA for the years covered to determine the crime rates, expressed as a number per 100,000 people.

Looking at both the reported number of murders, as well as the rate per 100,000 people, eThekwini and Cape Town stands out for having both extremely high murder numbers (2,815 and 3,165, respectively) and high murder rates (70 and 68 per 100,000, respectively).

Pietermaritzburg was not ranked as it is not a major metropolitan municipality.

In a global context, these murder rates are staggeringly high.

Looking at more recent data (for 2023), The Mexican Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice published its annual ranking of the 50 most violent cities in the world for 2024, showing Nelson Mandela Bay (Gqeberha) at the top of the list for South Africa.

In these global rankings, not only do South Africa’s cities rank high for their murder rates, only five cities recorded over 2,000 murders – and South Africa accounts for three of them.

  1. Port-au-Prince (Port Principe) in Haiti: 3,502
  2. Joburg: 3,084
  3. Cape Town: 3,072
  4. Guayaquil in Ecuador: 2,807
  5. Durban: 2,653

Read: 13 cars that get hijacked the most in South Africa in 2024

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