Welcome to South Africa
The South Africa Destination Guide will provide a historical overview, scholarship information, health and safety tips, plus identity-specific resources to ensure students feel prepared with insight and resources for their global experience in South Africa. The information shared below is a bird eye’s view and meant to provide some country-specific context. We encourage students to conduct further research and chat with relevant points of contact including advisors, program leaders, international student services at the host campus, internship coordinators or peers who have traveled to South Africa, to gain a greater understanding of their host country and/or city.
From the desert to the wetland, or from the scrub land to the subtropics, South Africa boasts an incredible diversity of climate, flora, and fauna. Although 13km of sea separates Africa and Europe at the strait of Gibraltar, merely the blink of an eye divides the regional heritage from these two continents in the country of South Africa. Today, South Africa is a parliamentary republic. It is known for being the strongest economy in Africa, but it is also outstanding in representing the abundance and variety of African plant and animal wildlife. In fact, the country is considered third in biodiversity, after the much bigger countries of Brazil and Indonesia.
With its controversial and painful Apartheid past, South Africa is often a must-visit location for any human rights advocate around the world. Although apartheid officially ended in 1994, students of all ages and demographics continue to go to South Africa to learn more about the discrimination laws that segregated non-white students from those of European descent. South Africa is a place that is rich in cultural diversity and a great place for anyone interested in social justice.
For those interested in an amazing country with a turbulent past that has influenced and been influenced by many other nations, South Africa is an amazing place to visit and study abroad. South Africa also has a large prehistoric relevance, enticing many archaeologists and anthropologists. South Africa today, with remnants of its Apartheid past, only came about in the early 1990s when open democratic elections were started, making it a popular place for students and scholars of colonialism, reparations, and its effect on modern day nations.
Cities & Education
South Africa has nine distinct provinces and encompasses the nation of Lesotho, making for a diverse country to explore. Different languages are spoken across the nation from Zulu and Xhosa to Dutch, English, and Afrikaans, depending on the region. Major cities include Pretoria, the capital, plus Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Soweto; these cities will typically be places students are located for global experiences.
South Africa is home to multiple universities within major metropolitan areas such as the University of Cape Town.
Cost of Living in South Africa
Events & Tourism
Due to South Africa’s multicultural history, there are a variety of cultural events that happen throughout the numerous provinces each year! Cultural events can range from local and national holidays to yearly festivals that signify different meanings to those in the area. We highly recommend participating in one or more, if possible!
The history of South Africa is very rich and combines many different people, cultures, and religions. No matter the province you reside in or visit for your global experience, you are sure to find historical sites of cultural significance!
Many of the historical landmarks have their importance embedded in Apartheid and the colonization of South Africa; however, others are based in the Zulu and Xhosa traditions of the area. In addition, South Africa is marked with areas of rich natural history, allowing those with interests from museums to monuments to natural beauty to be impressed!
Many favorites for those looking to understand the history of the nation include Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner, and his capture site in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. For those looking to learn more about the prehistoric significance of South Africa, the Cradle of Humankind will be enlightening.
Diversity & Inclusion Climate
South Africa’s nickname is the “Rainbow Nation,” due to its multiculturalism, especially post-Apartheid. There are many different groups within South Africa and while they all receive equal protection under the Constitution, there are still some factors of society that are influenced by its colonial past and the Apartheid regime.
The violent and oppressive system of Apartheid ended in 1994, after a long and difficult fight for many Black South Africans, but change is still in place to advance the Rainbow Nation to full equality for its citizens and others. While many acknowledge South Africa’s history of immigration, there have been a rise of xenophobic attacks on refugees and asylum seekers from other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, or other areas were they maybe targeted for their sexual orientation.
In South Africa, the largest areas of diversity come in the major cities of Johannesburg, Durban, Pretoria, and Cape Town, which attract different groups for different reasons. While South Africa is famed for its landscape and beauty, there is still work to do in terms of safety for their residents and ensuring xenophobic violence against immigrants does not happen, as it has been on the uptick recently.
While South Africa is a nation of change and forward progress, it still has some work to do in terms of its inclusivity for all members of its population. As an American student, you will experience mostly warm hospitality and there is a good chance many South Africans will be interested in talking to you about your experiences. You may have varying experiences based on your identities - you can learn more in the Diversity & Inclusion sections of this guide.
Note: This information is intended to serve as an overview and is not exhaustive. Be sure to research your destination thoroughly as your identity can have a significant impact on your experience abroad.
Population in South Africa:
55,380,210 (July 2018 est.)
Noun: South African(s)
Adjective: South African
Black African 80.9%, Colored 8.8%, White 7.8%, Indian/Asian 2.5% (2018 est.)
Note per the World Factbook: Colored is a term used in South Africa, including on the national census, for persons of mixed race ancestry
isiZulu (official) 24.7%, isiXhosa (official) 15.6%, Afrikaans (official) 12.1%, Sepedi (official) 9.8%, Setswana (official) 8.9%, English (official) 8.4%, Sesotho (official) 8%, Xitsonga (official) 4%, siSwati (official) 2.6%, Tshivenda (official) 2.5%, isiNdebele (official) 1.6%, other (includes Khoi, Nama, and San languages) 1.9% (2017 est.)
Christian 86%, ancestral, tribal, animist, or other traditional African religions 5.4%, Muslim 1.9%, other 1.5%, nothing in particular 5.2% (2015 est.)
Immigration & Emigration
South Africa has a history of immigration, due to its colonial past. While prominent African tribes, such as the Zulu and Xhosa, were already in control of different areas of South Africa and vast kingdoms, Dutch settlers arrived in the mid-1600s to establish trading points in Cape Town, due to it lying on the path to India and Eastern trading routes. After this, British settlers arrived in the early 1800s, and both European groups conflicted with the Bantu tribes.
Wars were fought between the British and Bantu-speaking tribes as the British moved to establish their influence, and eventually two wars, the Boer Wars, happened between the British and Dutch settlers, known as the Boers. These wars were partly fueled by the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa, but also for the expansion of the empires.
Eventually, South Africa became a union, although the only administrative and political positions were held by White South Africans, leading to the formation of the Apartheid; the Apartheid was set formally into place in 1948, but Black South Africans had effectively been living in the reality from when the British and Dutch empires took over their lands. Prior to the end of the Apartheid, the land of South Africa was formally divided into four white provinces and ten homelands, referencing historical ties to the previous tribes.
Due to South Africa’s progressive laws and Constitution, it receives many applications for asylum each year for those from other nations in Africa where they may be targeted for a variety of reasons, like sexual orientation, political views, or religion. In addition, the refugees in South Africa are integrated into the community versus being in displaced persons camps, which has effects on how the South African population views immigration.
Staying Healthy & Safe in South Africa
You cannot always predict everything that may occur during your time abroad, but taking the proper measures to ensure your health and safety in South Africa lessen the risk of health and safety issues.
Health risks of traveling to South Africa are relatively low. As with any country, make sure you are up to date on any vaccines and consult with your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns as you prepare to travel. It is noted that you should discuss potential vaccinations to ensure you are up-to-date with requirements.
One item of note can be the extreme heat. If you study abroad during the South Africa summer, keep a watch on soaring temperatures and take heat sickness precautions, especially when you are in remote parts of the country. The last thing you want disrupting your time overseas is a stint in the hospital due to dehydration! Certain parts of South Africa have experienced significant drought the past few years, which can lead to some health risks.
In addition, if you are traveling to the very remote areas of South Africa, such as on safari, make sure to keep track of the nearest healthcare facilities as they can be quite far and difficult to reach as some of the larger cities will be over two hours away.
No matter where you are in the world, whether it is your hometown or a new city, it is important to be alert and practice awareness of your surroundings. South Africa can be a safe place, although it does have more widespread crime and a more notorious reputation, however there are a few precautions any traveler should take while navigating the country.
Pickpocketing can happen in city centers and sites that are attractive to tourists. There are many giveaways that can signal someone is a tourist from accent to something as subtle as mannerisms and the way one walks. The goal is not to mask that you are a visitor, but to protect your belongings and ensure you do not fall victim to theft. We recommend following these general tips:
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Leave valuable items at home whenever possible and only travel with your necessities
- Avoid being flashy or careless with valuable items
- Ensure your bags and pockets are tight and completely zipped
- Have a travel partner when possible
Aside from petty crimes, such as pickpocketing or scamming, most travelers can expect a fairly safe and comfortable experience in South Africa. One recommendation from the State Department is registering in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows you to register your trip with the local embassy or consulate which can provide support should you need it.
The State Department lists South Africa as a level two caution for “exercise increased caution,” due to violent crime, civil unrest, and drought in the western parts of the country. Lonely Planet provides a list of tips regarding different threats to safety while in South Africa, ranging from ATM scams to drugs and situations while in transit.
At Diversity Abroad, we acknowledge that experiences can vary by identities and others’ perceptions of them. To access more in-depth, identity-based resources regarding health and safety, view the Diversity Guides below.
Emergency telephone numbers:
Cell Phone: 112
National Police: 10111
Funding & Scholarship Opportunities
There are many scholarships to fund your study abroad experience in South Africa. Here is a list of Diversity Abroad scholarships available for study in South Africa:
For more scholarships, visit our Scholarships page.