Loadshedding, “Lekker” and Locals: 5 Surprises About Studying Abroad in Cape Town

Elizabeth Cornelssen is a student at Tufts University and an ISA Featured blogger. Elizabeth is currently studying abroad with ISA in Cape Town, South Africa.

When I was preparing (mentally and logistically) to leave for Cape Town in December, I came to an agreement with myself that I was not going to set any expectations. I was not going to “picture” my semester abroad and how it would go because I simply couldn’t. Imagining myself living in South Africa for five months was a task too complex for my creative ability. So, to be honest, when I boarded my 16-hour plane ride, I wasn’t really thinking about where I was headed or what to expect. Here I am – over a month into my stay. Even though I had a blank slate heading into this whole endeavor, there have still been a few things that have caused me to raise an eyebrow or to reassess my assumptions.

The Good: The Locals

Waaihoek Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa, Cornelssen - Photo 1
A few of the members of the UCT Ski and Mountain Club hiking together last weekend. There are Americans, South Africans and an Italian in this photo!

Judging from stories I had heard from friends who studied abroad before me, a semester abroad is often defined by making new (American) friends. This made sense to me; I assumed I would be meeting a lot of students on my program and other semester study abroad students during orientation and other activities. This has definitely been partly true – especially during the first few weeks, you could not walk around Rondebosch (the main suburb at the bottom of the UCT campus) without hearing American accents at every restaurant and sidewalk corner. However, I never expected how friendly and welcoming the local students would be to us. I attended a braai (South African barbecue) in the first week at a friend from home’s house nearby and met a wide variety of South Africans, many of whom are also students at UCT. They were excited that we were here for the semester and we have kept in contact with many of them. Now, it is not uncommon for them to send us tips on local happenings at UCT and in Cape Town. And this pattern has continued as more and more people have been meeting friendly locals in classes, around town and through their various activities.

Just this past weekend, I went camping with the UCT Ski and Mountain club and again experienced that social interactions were a huge mesh of South African, Italian, German and American (and more!) cultures all interested in meeting one another. There is much less separation between the “American” students and the local South African students in classes, clubs, and around town than I had anticipated.

The “Bad”: Learning Patience

Signal Hill, Cape Town, South Africa, Cornelssen - Photo 2
Stresses like load-shedding are easy to forget about when you have the most beautiful landscape (and sunset views, like this one at a favorite spot called Signal Hill) around you every single day.

A major shock upon arriving in South Africa: load-shedding. A foreign concept in many other countries, load shedding is the solution for South Africa’s electricity crisis. Basically, South Africa is running out of electricity so the solution is to periodically shut off electricity for two-hour blocks in different areas of the country throughout the day. There are different stages (we are only in Stage Two now) and as time goes on, the lack of electricity will become more constant during the day. This means that sometimes you will have a class on campus in darkness or you may arrive at a restaurant to find that they can only make you pasta even though you wanted an omelet for breakfast. Beyond load shedding, any new place brings a new culture that requires adjustment. I love how laid back Cape Town is but was also surprised at first when a cab told me they would arrive in ten minutes only to arrive an hour later. And the lack of WiFi is a simple reality – having a pre-determined amount of WiFi capability each month is part of average South African life so let’s just say Netflix is a no-go. So, regardless of who you are when you come to Cape Town, I can guarantee that you will learn some patience here and really learn the meaning of the phrase “going with the flow.”

The Unexpected: Varsity

University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa, Cornelssen - Photo 3
Our first UCT Rugby game! They were playing against Stellenbosch, their biggest rival. The field was filled to capacity and the game was televised! You can see the Ikey Tiger mascot cheering with the crowd.

Varsity is what South Africans refer to in terms of university or college. To make myself clear, this one is not to say that I did not expect schoolwork while I was in Cape Town. But, I did expect a difference in difficulty, maybe a lighter course load, and to be honest, I love my school at home – I didn’t really expect that I would have school pride while in Cape Town. But the University of Cape Town is truly the most beautiful university I have ever seen. The lectures are compelling, the weekly “tutorials” (also known as tuts, these are smaller breakout sessions with a graduate student) are interesting, the readings are long, hard and rewarding, and the culture at our school is truly fun. Every day at 1PM is a time referred to as “meridian,” where no one has class and everyone sits on the steps and eats and chats. On Thursdays, there is a special type of meridian where there might be a dance show (or last week, there was a BMX biking competition… with a half pipe and everything!). Rugby games are widely popular and you cannot help but to feel school spirit when the mascot runs by and the crowd cheers “Ikey Tigers!” Our first week here, we were invited to a Fresher’s Braai where we were served free delicious food and drinks. The clubs and societies are popular, well organized and so much fun. I’ll stop myself there. The point is, this school kind of rocks, and although school should be what studying abroad is all about, I think it can be easy to get lost in your new city and let academics slide. However, UCT is the type of school that you can’t help but have as a central part of your experience when living in Cape Town.

The Important: The Diversity

District Six Museum, Cape Town, South Africa, Cornelssen - Photo 4
On our first ISA excursion, we went to the District Six Museum to learn about Apartheid and some of the more somber aspects of South African history. This photo shows an example of the race distinctions that still exist today.

I knew the general background of South Africa’s history before I came to Cape Town from reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and learning about apartheid in school. If you don’t know the history of apartheid, you should research it a bit – it is one of the most interesting political issues in world history and a large reason for my decision to come here as a political science student. But you can really feel the history of the Mother City on a daily basis more than you would be able to imagine. People are still openly labeled by their race and you might hear Afrikaans in one town but then drive ten minutes away to a Xhosa speaking town. This is because of the way that apartheid (which means “separateness” by the way) really divided South Africa in illogical ways.

But the benefits of South Africa’s diversity are endless. There is no single “South African cuisine” that I have noticed but rather such an eclectic mix of specialties. You may find delicious meat cooked on a braai along with flavorful samosas and a fresh Greek salad. The mix of Dutch, Cape Malay, English and so many other cultures truly influence and shape this city and its food, music, architecture, language and more.

The Unfamiliar: The Languages

Gugulethu Township, Cape Town, South Africa, Cornelssen - Photo 5
This was my Mama during my homestay, Mama Noks. She is holding her young granddaughter, who only speaks Xhosa but will begin learning English soon.

To be honest, a major benefit when deciding to study abroad in Cape Town was the lack of a language barrier. One of South Africa’s official languages is English and many children are taught English in school. So I really did not look into the other languages of this country before I arrived. However, what nobody tells you is that the fact that English is one of the official languages is an important factor. South Africa has eleven official languages. Each of these languages is very present within the country. In Cape Town, it is mainly only three of the languages (English, Afrikaans, Xhosa) but there is still a language barrier at times. Last weekend during my homestay, it was frustrating to not be able to communicate with the young kids, let alone even be able to say the name of their language, Xhosa, correctly. Afrikaaner words are blended into every day speech and you may be talking to a peer at UCT when they tell you that something is “lekker” and they invite you to a “jol” – both words that you definitely cannot find in your English vocabulary. All in all, English is easy enough to use. But I didn’t expect that, at times, I would feel a bit lost in translation. Luckily, a lot of us are trying to learn – I signed up for a free Xhosa class that meets during lunch time and I start tomorrow!

Want to learn more about South Africa’s “Mother City?” Check out “The Four Best Beaches in Cape Town”