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10 Things to Know Before Studying in South Africa

By Guest Writer

Updated October 20, 2021 Updated October 20, 2021

Guest post: Wesley Mathew

So, you’ve travelled. You consider yourself a seasoned veteran when it comes to appropriating local customs and languages, but the question is, have you been to South Africa? Considered by the international scientific community as the cradle of humankind, South Africa offers students the opportunity to explore a country steeped in rich cultural, political and archaeological history, while mastering dialects that feature phrases such as, “Igqirha lendlela nguqongqothwane Seleqabele gqithapha nguqongqothwane“. For any intrepid intellectuals who feel up to the challenge, here are a few things you need to know before embarking on your most exciting educational adventure yet.

1. South Africa is incredibly diverse 
South Africa is incredibly diverse

Depending on your usual news source, arriving to study in South Africa may leave you surprised by just how modern and developed the country actually is. With 11 official languages, natural geography that spans a vast spectrum, and a Gini coefficient of 63.4 – SA is about as diverse as they come.  So if possible, try hold back on forming an opinion about the country until you’ve left the airport terminal building.

2. Local is “lekker”

Used as a colloquial term to describe anything that is nice or favorable, “lekker” will quickly be added to your arsenal of South African-isms. More to the point, in order to truly appreciate South Africa’s authentic and “lekker” flavor, you’ve got to go local. SA’s townships (informal settlements) are living memorials of the country’s checkered political past, but they also play host to a number of local attractions which are not to be missed. Some of which include the vibey Vilikazi Street in Soweto, or the inimitable outdoor Gugulethu-based restaurant, Mzoli’s Place; the latter introducing thousands of foreigners to the world of excessively loud house music and “braaing” (the local equivalent to barbequing). 

3. Let South Africans be your GPS 

Like all countries, there are places in South Africa that you should avoid for safety reasons (crime, not lions). While doing prior research on TripAdvisor and travel forums will undoubtedly help, they’re no substitute for talking to your university program coordinator, or other trusted locals for that matter. So bounce your plans off someone else before embarking on any courageous capers.  

4. Acclimatize to African time

Part and parcel of studying in South Africa is learning how to manage your temper when things don’t happen as quickly as you’d like. Don’t hold public institutions up to your own nation’s standards. Accept that things will tend to move slower than back home, and rather than getting frustrated with admin personnel, kill them with kindness – it’ll help your cause tremendously.

5. You’re probably going to get fat(ter) 

Fortunately for students from most developed nations, the South African currency (the Rand) is extraordinarily weak. The favorable exchange rate means you’ll be able to buy grotesque quantities of gourmet (and not-so-gourmet) food on even the most basic student allowance – so prepare to go up a few waist sizes.

6. Shoes aren’t really all that important on campus

Perhaps it’s some romantic attempt to be closer to ‘Mother Africa’ as it were, but for whatever reason many South African students feel comfortable navigating campus bare foot, so feel free to leave your footgear at home.

7. Catching a “taxi” isn’t the same as back home 

Taxis, as they are defined in South Africa, are minibus vehicles operated by individuals with typically questionable roadside manners. While it’s certainly an experience to take a ride in a South African taxi, this is not for the faint of heart . Also, don’t sit in the front, unless you want to be charged with the duty of collecting everyone’s fare (in coins) and then dispensing change. 

8. Rugby is really, really important 

Learn the rules, fast. Also, never mention New Zealand.

9. Measurements must be metric

When telling anecdotal stories to your new South African friends, always use the metric system for exaggeration. For example, if you say, “That rhino must have weighed 5,000 pounds”, then you’re unlikely to get much of a reaction, as few Saffas (South Africans) will have any relevant frames of reference to draw upon – other than the price of a meal in London…

10. “Traffic lights” are “robots” 

No, the next Transformers film is not being filmed in South Africa; we just like to refer to traffic lights as “robots”.

Now that you’re prepared to study in South Africa, it’s time to choose a university, grab a South African study visa, and learn what “Igqirha lendlela nguqongqothwane Seleqabele gqithapha nguqongqothwane” really means.

Wesley completed his master’s degree in Culture, Communication and Media Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. While initially working in the field of public health communication, Wesley’s passion for all things online inspired a transition into the field of digital marketing. He currently heads up the marketing department for SAvisas.com, an immigration law firm specializing in South African study visas. He also likes Portlandia – a lot.   

This article was originally published in November 2015 . It was last updated in October 2021

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