The Important Things Studying in South Africa Will Teach You

by Niki Kraska

South Africa offers a little bit of everything. Geographically, there are mountains to hike, beaches with good surf, and close encounters with nature in its purest form (safaris!). Culturally, there are 11 official languages to learn (or at least try), traditions you can only get from rural villages, and a vibrant community of people to meet throughout cities and towns. 

No matter what subject you choose to study in South Africa, no matter if your main goal is service learning, language study, or research and statistics, you will walk away with a lot more knowledge than you came with, and not necessarily in your field of study alone (well, we hope you learn a lot about that too).

Sunset over a mountain
Stunning sunsets aren’t all you’ll experience while studying in South Africa.

Living and studying in a country some confuse with simply the southern region of Africa, or at times all of Africa, learning moments will occur all around you. Here are some of the most unexpected, and much needed, lessons you learn while studying abroad in South Africa.

What You Will Learn About Africa

Africa is a continent – not a country. Of course, you probably already figured that out by the time you applied to study abroad in South Africa. As the second largest continent on the planet, there are 54 countries in Africa, meaning there is diversity galore. Unfortunately, African countries are rarely displayed in the news, unless something terrible seems to be going on, like genocide or Ebola, so we aren’t generally very educated on current events, let alone the geography. 

Not ALL of Africa is the same. Africa is not one giant savannah or one large underdeveloped landmass. The countries span a spectrum of governments, economies, races, and ethnicities. You can find English in Zimbabwe, Arabic in Morocco, Portuguese in Angola, and French in Benin. Beliefs are different, people are different, and traditions are different.

Just like you wouldn’t classify Poland and Spain as one in the same, you wouldn’t lump African countries together either.
People trekking through the desert in Morocco
Africa is a continent, not a country, stretching from the sands of Morocco to the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya, with so much diversity in between.

What You Will Learn About South Africa

South Africa is not a “white” country. When I tell people I studied abroad in South Africa, I’m often faced with the misconception that I was surrounded by white people. Despite the fact that the Dutch/British minority of whites claimed power for much of its history, South Africa has always been and still is majority black.

South Africa is developing. The status of the country as a developed or developing country also confuses people. Living there you’ll see both sides: the developed cities, beautiful mansions along the seaside, and excelling industries of mining, tourism, and automotives on one end, and the crumbling shacks, crime ridden streets, and destitute conditions on the other. 

It has a long way to go. While studying abroad in South Africa, you will meet people daily who lived/fought/suffered through Apartheid. You’ll learn that even though it ended in 1994, the effects of segregation are still spread through the country. Though it’s one of the most developed countries in Africa, inequality, poor health conditions, crime, and government corruption are rampant.

What You Will Learn About Small African Towns

Life is simple. And it also may be more fulfilling. Family and friends are interwoven and work together to take care of the younger generations. Sisterhood and brotherhood are ingrained in their culture. Food is fresh and pure (I’m vegetarian, but my friends said the chicken they ate in a village was the best they’ve ever tasted). And when you see an 80-year-old woman bent over, using her all her strength to carve a pumpkin with a small spoon, you realize helping your mom in the kitchen really doesn’t justify your complaining. 

Stricken with disease. Small towns also have a higher percentage of disease. South Africa still holds the highest number of HIV/AIDS cases in the world, and it’s not because people are frivolous and promiscuous. Political history (a former president was an AIDS denialist), educational awareness, and stigma all play a role. Not to mention, only in recent years has proper treatment been readily available throughout the country. 

Whether it is a small rural village in the middle of grasslands, or a shantytown on the outskirts of a city, the biggest takeaway you’ll get from studying in South Africa is that our way of life isn’t better than theirs. 

African teen smiling at a clothing market
South Africa is not a “white” country, despite what colonialism may have taught you.

What You Will Learn About Being a Study Abroad Student 

Come prepared. When you walk into a country as vast and diverse as South Africa, listening to what your friends and family say about the country, or what is highlighted in the media, is not enough to prepare you for what actually lies ahead. Understanding recent political history, social constructs, and basic demographics and social norms will help you not only gain you some respect amongst locals (cultural competence, my friends), it will set you up for a smoother and more successful transition, and that goes for whatever country you travel to.

Have an open mind. Giving in to stereotypes and misguided fears sets you up to miss out on the opportunity to see things for how they really are. Yes, South African cities can be very dangerous and you have to be smart and cautious while traveling (another reason to do your research before coming!), but walking around each day expecting to be mugged or in fear of catching malaria is going to taint your entire experience. Wear your bug spray, hold your purse close, and live in the moment to determine your own thoughts about the society around you. 

Know your intention. I will never forget being questioned by a young local man living in my dorm. “How exactly are you going to help these people? Are you going to build them houses? Are you going to give them money?” Study abroad students are there to learn, not to save the day. The first person who needs to be clear about that fact is you. It’s ok for study abroad to be a selfish act; it’s for YOU to STUDY. Coming under the pretense that you are there for the sake of others doesn’t just sound egotistical, it will hinder your ability to grow. 

Children smiling and running along a dirt path
Life is simple in smaller African towns.

What You Will Learn About Yourself 

Play is more important than work. There is something about the South African lifestyle; you will see people truly enjoying their lives. Even while studying in South Africa, professors and mentors will encourage you to spend time on activities, adventures, and simply relaxing with friends. Maybe it means that car rides, dinners, and even assignments take longer, but that’s OK. What matters more is that you are enjoying the time as you go along.

This may be offsetting for the Westerner used to a fast-paced society or rigid schedule. But, after enough time spent gathering with neighbors and friends for nearly any occasion at all-night Braais (like a BBQ, but better), or grabbing some drinks to sit back and watch the sunset even though you have an exam the next day, you start to realize there really are benefits in giving yourself time to enjoy life. When you return home, it’s a lesson you won’t want to forget.

Your circumstances don’t determine your happiness. When you meet community members living with HIV or TB, work with children who have lost their family to AIDS, help out a health clinic with no doctor, and still seeing happiness prevail, it changes your perspective on what it means to be happy. You learn that you have happiness inside of you all along. It’s up to you to bring it out despite adversity or pain, and it doesn’t take as much effort as you think.

Studying in South Africa will teach you to breathe, smile, give thanks, repeat.

What You Will Learn About The World

It’s huge. There is SO much more out there than you can ever imagine. From witnessing the prettiest bird you ever saw (and you thought you didn’t like birds) to climbing Table Mountain and overlooking the ocean, from talking to ex-political prisoners from Robben Island to learning how to cook maize meal and mopane worms for dinner at your homestay, you realize that you know very little of what this great big world has to offer. We must listen, observe, participate, and learn. 

Close up of a vintage globe
It’s a great big ol’ world out there!

Humanity connects us. South Africa has a beautiful concept of Ubuntu. Desmond Tutu explains this in his famous quote, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

The slower pace of life in South Africa provides the time to appreciate the nature, people, and life all around you. It enables you to stop and see the kindness that just took place between two strangers on the street and the magnificent healing power touch and love have on someone in pain. While there is still much progress to be made for equality and unity throughout South Africa, the idea behind Ubuntu is spot on. For as large as the world is, we are becoming more and more connected, our sisters and brothers are from all corners of the earth. Understanding this is a key step in having global and humanitarian awareness in our actions to better our world.

From a geography lesson on the continent to a philosophical lesson on human connection, studying in South Africa will teach you much more than textbooks and essays ever could. It will show you that history and culture are better learned from the source itself. It will provide you with the space to observe life around you and the time to look within. 

Not every student may have the same experience studying in South Africa, so it’s important to do your research before you go. Juicy learning happens best when you have support, mentorship, and guidance. In order to learn as much as possible when abroad, choose a study abroad program in South Africa that will set you up for success; read reviews, talk to alumni, flip through pictures, and chat with program advisors.

When you find the right program, get ready for all that South Africa has to offer!