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If you want to experience life in one of the most diverse and complex countries in the world, you may choose to study in South Africa. Since the 1990s, following legislation changes to overturn decades of enforced racial segregation, South Africa has made significant progress in developing a more democratic society, in which diversity is celebrated as a central part of the national identity. There are, for example, eleven official languages (only Bolivia and India have more), and the country is nicknamed the “rainbow nation” – a symbol of its unique multicultural character.
There are still many problems to be addressed in South Africa, including high rates of violent crime, poverty and HIV/AIDS infection. But the country excels in many areas, both natural and social – and higher education is certainly emerging as one of its key strengths.
South Africa has a strong presence in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®, with its highest ranking institution, the University of Cape Town, ranked at 145 in the world. The University of the Witwatersrand (nicknamed Wits) is ranked 313th globally, while Stellenbosch University beats its previous year’s performance by climbing into the top 400. There are a further four universities in South Africa that make it into the world’s top 650.
Public universities in South Africa are divided into three types: traditional universities, which are academic in nature; universities of technology (“technikons”), which are more vocational; and comprehensive universities, which offer a combination of both types of qualification. The Department of Higher Education and Training is responsible for tertiary education and vocational training, including Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) centers. The nine provinces in South Africa also have their own education departments, which implement policies of the national department as well as local ones.
South African bachelor’s degrees usually last three years full-time. Students are expected to choose one major area of study and, depending on the university, choose either a second major or a minor area of study in the first two years. The academic year is split into two semesters, the first from early February to early June, and the second from mid-July to late November.
As in Australia and New Zealand, students who study in South Africa do not receive an overall grade for their bachelor’s degree with a level of honors (such as 2:1 or 1st). Instead, after their third year of study, students have the option to either graduate with a bachelor’s degree certificate or take a further one year honors course in order to get their BA Honors certification. This is an extra “postgraduate” year in which a research thesis must be completed in the same area of study as the student’s BA. With this BA degree, students can then be accepted onto graduate professional programs such as law or an MBA program.
You’ll find that most South African university campuses are very multicultural, with good academic facilities, a range of social activities and clubs, and support systems for international students. If you’re keen to get to know South Africa beyond the campus boundaries, many universities in South Africa also have community volunteering schemes, which provide opportunities to get involved in the development of local communities.
Studying at master’s or PhD level? Read our graduate-level guide to South Africa >
Unsurprisingly for a country with a subtropical climate and fantastic natural scenery, South Africa has developed a culture largely based around enjoying the great outdoors. Depending on your mood, you can enjoy the picturesque coastline of the Garden Route, head to the Drakensberg Mountains, the country’s largest mountain range, or enjoy the wetlands and marine reserves of the eastern coast.
You can also visit the Kruger National Park, known for its diverse terrain and wildlife, or tour the Cape’s cultivated vineyards. If you’re feeling more adventurous you might even venture out into the Kalahari Desert, the inland semi-desert the Great Karoo, or the wild coastline of the west coast.
Popular among visitors with an inclination for exploration, South Africa offers a vast array of outdoor activities, including mountain trekking, shark cage diving, savannah safaris, whale watching, horse riding – and perhaps after all that, a nice relaxing braai (barbecue).
When you want to get back to civilization, you’ll find that most major cities have highly developed infrastructure, lively nightlife scenes and enough modern comforts to make you feel truly at home while you study in South Africa. South Africans are also known for their passion for sports (both playing and watching), especially football (soccer), cricket and rugby union. Read on to find out more about life in some of South Africa’s major student cities…
Around three times the size of New York City, and the seat of South Africa’s national government, Cape Town is a vibrant multicultural metropolis. In 2014, Cape Town will take on the title of World Design Capital, in recognition of its blend of “heritage, innovation, diversity and creative talent”. This marks the first time an African city has earned the title.
South Africa’s oldest city, Cape Town now offers first-class infrastructure, a cosmopolitan lifestyle and the highest standard of living of all South African cities. It’s noted for its architectural heritage and has the highest density of Cape Dutch style buildings in the world (most visible in Constantia and along Long Street). Newer buildings include the Cape Town International Convention Centre which was recently expanded, as well as numerous new buildings and renovations taking place under an extensive urban renewal program.
Of course, Cape Town’s most striking features are natural: Table Mountain, which provides a dramatic backdrop to the city, and Cape Point, the rugged ridge that forms the south-western tip of the African continent. The region also offers beaches, surfing, wildlife reserves and vineyards, as well as plenty of cultural opportunities, particularly for music lovers.
With so much to offer, Cape Town has become a popular study abroad destination, particularly with students from the US. Universities in Cape Town include several of South Africa’s top institutions. Located in the heart of the city is South Africa’s highest ranked university, the University of Cape Town (UCT) (145 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings). Just outside the city center (called the City Bowl due to its shape) is the University of the Western Cape (UWC), located in the Bellville suburb. Slightly further inland again is Stellenbosch University, about 50 km from the City Bowl. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology also has a campus in Cape Town, as well as sites in Bellville, Wellington, Granger Bay and Mowbray.
South Africa’s largest city by population and a key hub for commerce and industry, Johannesburg is one of Africa’s most developed and prosperous cities – and it’s got the skyline to prove it. While not one of South Africa’s three capital cities, Johannesburg is the seat of the Constitutional Court, which has the final word on interpretations of South Africa’s constitution. It is also the capital of the wealthiest province in South Africa – Gauteng.
The climate in Jo’burg (or ‘Jozi’) is generally moderate and pleasant year-round, and you’ll find all the facilities and activities you’d expect in a city this size – shopping, eating out, bars and clubs, theater, music, galleries and museums, including an extensive portfolio of public art. Coexisting with modern architecture and leafy suburbs are large areas of shanty towns and squatter settlements without electricity or running water – bringing huge contrasts in wealth and living conditions.
Of course, as is the case anywhere in South Africa, nature is never too far away. The city has plenty of nature reserves within its area, such as the Lion Park nature reserve near Lanseria, the Krugersdorp Nature Reserve and Johannesburg Zoo, one of the largest in South Africa.
The highest ranked of universities in Johannesburg is the University of the Witwatersrand (313 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, South Africa’s second-highest entry). The city is also home to the University of Johannesburg (ranked 601-650), and also nearby is Vaal University of Technology, about 70km from Johannesburg center. The University of Pretoria’s business school, the Gordon Institute of Business Science is located in Illovo, Johannesburg.
Situated on the east coast, Durban is one of Africa’s busiest ports and the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is also known as ‘surf city’ due to its dedicated beachfront, called the Golden Mile. The warm waters of the Indian Ocean, year-round sunshine and its reputation as a surfer’s haven means the Mile is a magnet by surfers and sunbathers alike. Its wide stretch of golden sands and promenade are security- and lifeguard-patrolled and protected year-round by shark nets.
Some of South Africa’s most beautiful wildlife and nature reserves are nearby, including St Lucia, Drakensberg, Hluhluwe-Umfolozi and Mkuze. Inside Durban you’ll find the Umgeni River Bird Park, a bird zoo, along with uShaka Marine World which houses the fifth largest aquarium in the world. Durban is also famous for its eye-catching Zulu Rickshaw pullers who wear huge, vibrant hats and costumes.
Durban is home to one of the largest Indian populations outside of India – and some of the best Indian cooking. However, you’ll find a wide range of cuisines available, from Italian-style cafes to local specialties such as biltong (a type of cured meat). You might like to explore the Markets of Warwick, possibly the largest informal street market in South Africa, venture into the Suncoast Casino and Entertainment World or explore the resort’s restaurants, cinemas, beach bar and semi-private beach.
Leading universities in Durban and the local area include Durban University of Technology, Mangosuthu University of Technology, and the University of Kwazulu-Natal (ranked 501-550 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings).
South Africa’s executive and de facto national capital, Pretoria is one of South Africa's leading academic cities. The city’s University of South Africa (also referred to as Unisa) is the largest university in Africa, and one of the world’s mega-universities, offering vocational and academic programs and dedicated open distance education (thereby reaching over 300,000 students worldwide each year).
Other notable universities in Pretoria include the largest residential higher education institution in South Africa (the Tshwane University of Technology or TUT for short), and a strong public research-intensive university (the University of Pretoria, ranked 471-480 in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings), and the University of Limpopo, which has a campus in Ga-Rankuwa, just north of Pretoria. The city is also home to the largest research and development organization in Africa: the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Pretoria has many museums, and is known for a penchant for cricket and rugby union (Pretoria hosted matches during the 1995 Rugby World Cup). Its diverse cultural influences over the years are reflected in its architecture, which ranges from British Colonial to Art Deco mixed with a unique South African style. In terms of natural offerings, Pretoria is known in South Africa as the Jacaranda City, due to the thousands of Jacaranda trees planted in its streets, parks and gardens.
Tuition fees in South Africa vary depending on the university. But, to give you an idea of approximate fees, the 2014 fees for international undergraduates at South Africa’s highest ranking institution, the University of Cape Town, are:
Many universities in South Africa offer their own scholarships and bursaries based on academic merit and/or financial need for international Honors, Masters and PhD students. You’ll need to apply directly to the university and before arrival to the university.
Students applying to universities in South Africa must have their school qualifications evaluated by the Matriculation Board on behalf of Higher Education South Africa (HESA). They will then receive a Matriculation Endorsement on their certificates showing they fulfil the published legal minimum requirement for admission to a bachelor’s degree at any South African university. International students must apply to get a Matriculation Exemption, which confirms that their foreign certificates meet the legal minimum requirements. International students need to apply using the M30e form, obtainable from admissions offices of universities and from the Matriculation Board website. You will need to include an exemption fee with your form.
If you are an international student intending to study in South Africa you must first apply for and be granted a student visa (also called a study permit). Universities in South Africa cannot register you as an international student until you have shown them a valid visa. You can apply for a study permit through your nearest South African embassy or consulate. Visit the Department of Home Affairs website for more detailed information on visa costs, processing times, where to apply, what to submit, requirements for people in transit and information relating to your duration/purpose of stay, and photograph requirements.
You do not have to submit your visa application in person – a travel agent, courier service or another family member may do it for you. Make sure you’ve made copies of your application forms and all the supporting documents, just in case.
Typically, student visas for South Africa take around six weeks to be processed. Once you have received conditional acceptance from the South African institution of your choice, you will then need to complete the study permit application form BI-1738 and submit it, along with the following documents, to a South African embassy or consulate in your home country:
You will also need to submit a repatriation guarantee: proof that you intend to go back to your country of origin once you have completed your degree. This can take the form of a cash deposit equivalent to the value of a return ticket, proof that your country’s government has signed a written pledge to pay costs for deportation should it become necessary (for African students only) or, if your course is less than a year or you are attending a religious institution, simply a valid return/onward ticket out of South Africa.
Student visas for South Africa are valid for the duration of the course for which they are issued. As a holder of a study permit you are allowed to work part-time for no more than 20 hours per week (although not during academic vacations). If you plan to work as part of your studies or to get work experience, you’ll need to apply for permission from the Department of Home Affairs. You’ll need to submit: an offer to do practical training, consent from your educational institution in South Africa and proof that you are still a registered student.
Remember that being accepted by a South African educational institution does not guarantee that you will be issued a study permit. And being issued a study permit does not guarantee you entry to the country – it merely allows you to travel to a South African port of entry where granting you entry to the country is under the discretion of an immigration officer who will check that you satisfy the basic requirements for entry into the country.
See how universities in South Africa compare with the other BRICS countries >
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