If school’s been feeling like a chore lately, studying abroad in South Africa is just what you need to give your classes a jolt. Instead of dozing through your biology lecture, how about observing leopards in a game preserve or visiting some of the oldest archeological sites on the planet? Throw in some penguin spotting, shark cage diving, and a laid-back braai (barbeque) on the weekend, and you may never want to return home. No matter what your major is, deciding to study abroad in South Africa is sure to bring you new insights and some serious adventures.
South Africa is an imposing country situated at the southern tip of the African continent. Often called the “Rainbow Nation” because of its multicultural population, this diversity is woven into the country’s history, through moments of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s election, and current struggles for equality. No matter where you study abroad in South Africa, you’ll surely gain new perspectives, re-evaluate long-held beliefs, and return home with a deeper understanding of South Africa and its citizens.
Many students choose to study in Cape Town, a city known for its laid-back atmosphere and breathtaking scenery. If you follow this path, you’ll likely study at the University of Cape Town, a historically white school that has more recently become quite diverse, or the University of the Western Cape, which was an early opponent of apartheid and is known for creative responses to oppression. When you’re not studying, you’ll be able to explore Cape Town’s many neighborhoods, from colorful Bo Kaap to trendy Green Point, or spend the afternoon relaxing at nearby Clifton Beach. Be sure to pick a weekend to tackle Table Mountain at some point too!
A short drive from Cape Town is Stellenbosch, a town nestled in the rolling hills of the Cape Winelands region. Students attending Stellenbosch University will want to keep a dictionary handy; though classes may be in English, but the town operates primarily in Afrikaans. School is central to life in Stellenbosch, and you can easily meet local students by joining the rugby club, attending a lively campus jol (party), or organizing a weekend wine-tasting excursion.
Other popular locations for study abroad in South Africa include Port Elizabeth, a diverse city with a busy seaport and miles of beaches, and Johannesburg, a lively metropolis and home base for trips into Kruger National Park and other rural areas of the country.
Studying Abroad in South Africa
No matter what you’re studying at your home university, studying abroad in South Africa is sure to enrich your understanding of familiar topics. Whether you volunteer at an animal sanctuary or study first-hand the wide-ranging effects of institutionalized racism, you’ll return home from study abroad in South Africa with a different outlook on your chosen field.
Many students are attracted to study in South Africa for the nation’s unique plant and animal life; therefore, study abroad programs that focus on conservation, zoology, and biology are quite popular. Students can study wildlife management, visit national parks, and learn how the country handles environmental challenges like poaching and climate change while studying in South Africa.
South Africa’s history is also uniquely situated to teach students about issues related to political science, social policy, and public health. You can examine how the apartheid era affected the country, and then evaluate the effectiveness of current social and political policies. By visiting sites like the Hector Pieterson museum in Soweto and the Robben Island prison that held Nelson Mandela and other activists, you’ll gain a real understanding of past struggles that still reverberate today. Some study abroad programs in South Africa combine these topics with a service-learning project, with the option to volunteer at a health center or a primary school, to expand student learning even further.
South Africa has 11 official languages, but most university courses are taught in English. If you’re interested in learning a new language, like Afrikaans, isiXhosa, or isiZulu, some universities or study abroad program providers offer courses in these local languages.
Due to its location in the southern hemisphere, South Africa’s school year begins in January and runs on a quarter system. University classes are similar to those in American universities, where grades are based on a variety of essays, assignments, tests, and a final exam. While it doesn’t tend to get too cold along the coast, not all classroom buildings are heated, so make sure you bring warm layers if you’re studying abroad in South Africa during the winter months, which lasts from June to September.
Scholarships & Costs
Studying abroad in South Africa doesn’t have to break the bank, and many students find that it is actually quite affordable to do so. Though you may shed some tears over the cost of your flight, prices will be much more reasonable once you’ve landed.
Costs for necessities are usually cheaper than you’d find in the United States. A beer will cost around $1.80, a bottle of water goes for about 65 cents, and a local bus ticket will set you back around 79 cents. However, imported items, such as electronics, may cost more than you’re used to. With smart planning, living expenses in South Africa are relatively low for international students.
Most study abroad program fees include tuition and housing, with some even providing stipends for meals too. Airfare is almost always separate and must be purchased individually. To study in South Africa for a semester, fees tend to be around $15,000, while a four-week summer program averages $6,000.
Don’t panic if program fee looks a bit pricey! Many study abroad programs in South Africa will allow you to use financial aid to cover program costs, especially if you’ll be receiving credit from your home institution. There are also many scholarship and fundraising opportunities that can help you afford to study in South Africa.
Accommodation & Visas
When you’re done surfing for the day and you’ve polished off a plate of bunny chow (bread filled with curry), you’ll need somewhere to lay your head. Luckily, you won’t have to put too much thought into your lodging, which means you’ll have more time for adventure planning.
Most students who study in South Africa stay in housing arranged by their program provider, which is usually in a private apartment shared with other students or a student residence on campus. These types of housing arrangements allow you get to know other students in a relaxed environment and can be a great way to meet friends and travel buddies. Housing is often close to campus, allowing you to partake in campus life and benefit from a short commute to class.
The majority of students will need to apply for a study permit at a South African embassy or consulate before studying abroad in South Africa. For summer programs, a visitor or tourist visa is usually sufficient. If you are planning to study in South Africa, be sure to verify with your program what kind of visa you’ll need for the duration of your stay before departure. If a visa required, make sure you have enough time to apply, as visa processing times can be lengthy.
Benefits & Challenges
Studying abroad in South Africa will be both thrilling and challenging, offering endless enthusiasm and sobering realities. Due to its incredible mix of ethnicities, cultures, and languages, the country is a fascinating example of the challenges that multicultural societies face and how people work to solve them. Additionally, its unique social history, including apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s legacy, serves as a learning experience for students of all disciplines.
Studying in South Africa will allow you to not only explore the country’s cultural aspect, but to also dive deep into a landscape abundant in diverse ecosystems. Take a hike up Table Mountain, discover ancient forests on the Garden Route, or spot the Big Five (elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos) on a safari through Kruger Park. These opportunities will give you time to reflect on humans’ impact on the planet as well as inspire you with nature’s endless beauty.
If you decide to study abroad in South Africa, it’s important to remember that the country has a high rate of economic disparity, which can lead to some initial culture shock for those who haven’t encountered serious poverty before. Instead of visiting townships simply to observe how others live, get involved in a volunteer project or research study that will benefit the community and allow you to meet locals; this will let you to ease into the new culture and better understand your surroundings.
Serious poverty can also lead to some students to have safety concerns, and it’s important to always be aware of your surroundings while studying in South Africa. Petty theft is the most common crime, but this risk can be mitigated by traveling with locals, not being out alone after dark, and keeping your valuables out of sight. Your study abroad program provider or host university will be able to provide you with safety tips when you arrive, and if you follow their advice, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about.
A semester or summer spent studying in South Africa is sure to open your eyes to new ideas about social justice, human rights, and the environment. It’s impossible to feel indifferent after experiencing life in South Africa, so you’ll likely return home with a serious longing to return to this complicated yet alluring country.