Cape Town South Africa study abroad with SIT

Cape Town South Africa study abroad with SIT

Cape of Good Hope | South Africa


Study abroad in South Africa

The waves and wildlife of South Africa captured my imagination and sense of adventure. I was a surfer, and so it was easy to choose South Africa for my next study abroad experience.

Big surf at Jeffreys Bay | Eastern Cape, South Africa | 1997

When I contacted universities in Cape Town and Durban to talk about studying in South Africa for a semester, I discovered that completing the enrollment process was nearly impossible for people who did not have South African citizenship. The universities at that time just were not set up to welcome independent overseas students looking to study abroad. It looked like I would have to blaze a new trail through this bureaucratic jungle.

School for International Training | 1997

Fortunately, at this point I heard about the School for International Training (SIT) at Cape Town, South Africa.  They offered a pathway to a six-month student visa through enrollment in their program in Arts and Social Change.

SIT is a globally-respected institution, based in Vermont, USA, with a philosophy based around intercultural exchange and experiential learning. They're the result of a 1932 project called “The Experiment in International Living”, from which one participant, Sargent Shriver, would ultimately develop the Peace Corps.

"Just to travel is rather boring, but to travel with a purpose is educational and exciting." – Sargent Shriver

South Africa | Click to detailed map

The SIT Cape Town program included homestay accommodation, and classes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The day my SIT acceptance letter arrived, I packed my clothes and surfboards for the trip of a lifetime to South Africa.

It was longest commute to school I ever had, the better part of two days and nights.

Kona – Honolulu – Chicago – Washington, D.C. (Dulles) – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Cape Town.

Once I got to the university, I was pleased to find that the campus offered spectacular views from the top of the gently sloping city, at the foot of the city’s iconic landmark, Table Mountain.

The University of Cape Town | UCT Campus and Table Mountain

University of Cape Town | UCT Campus

University of Cape Town | UCT Campus

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights

In 1997, the study abroad program I attended was called South Africa: Arts and Social Change. The program is still running, currently under the name South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights. The program continues to offer students opportunities to explore issues of multiculturalism from historical and contemporary perspectives, and to visit important cultural and environmental sites around the country, such as Soweto (South West Townships) located southwest of Johannesburg.

The history of Soweto illustrates the segregationist thinking which lead to the 1948 establishment of Apartheid.

South Africa: Multiculturalism and Human Rights | SIT

Soweto | Southwest Township | located southwest of Johannesburg

During Nelson Mandela's 18-year imprisonment on Robben Island, he drafted Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

Visiting the prison, now a living museum, I met an ex-inmate who knew Mandela personally and told me about Mandela's commitment to education and learning, especially reading books, as exemplified by his famous remark, "We'll turn this prison into a library."

One of the prison cells on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years

Cultural Homestay

My host family lived in a Cape township named Surrey Estate.

The father of the family was originally from Durban, of Indian ancestry, while his wife was from Cape Town and of Malaysian ancestry, and they had two daughters in their early twenties.

The family were Muslim, and so this was a great opportunity for me to learn about Islam. I studied the history and events of Islam specific to Cape Town, focused on Cape Malay traditions and culture.

Studying Islam in Surrey Estate, Cape Town | Cape Malay culture

Mr. and Mrs. Ramjan | Host family parents | 1997

Zara (left) and Shahana (right) Ramjan | Host family sisters | 1997

Twenty years on, I am still in contact with the family, and I still have fond memories of Mrs. Ramjan's home cooking.

Shahana in 2018 with a family of her own | Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town

My first impression of Cape Town was of an Atlantic coast, multicultural city, with sandstone mountains towing over picturesque white sand beaches, reminding me of Rio de Janeiro.

Over the course of time, I discovered much more about the city, taking public transportation to school, visiting townships, and eventually living within walking distance of Glen Beach. Surfing the waves at Glen Beach connected me with Cape Town's surfing culture and from then on I felt like a local, with a tight-knit group of friends and opportunities to travel to other surfing spots.

I surfed some of the best waves in the world with the Cape Town crew, including Elands Bay, on the Atlantic Ocean coast, north of the city, and Jeffreys Bay, on the Indian Ocean coast, east of the city.

View of Cape Town from Table Mountain

Atop Table Mountain

Table Mountain from Robben Island

View over Lion's Head from Atop Table Mountain

The Waterfront at Cape Town

Cape Town train station

Picture-perfect Camps Bay

Surfer catching a wave at Glen Beach

Palm-fringed Camps Bay Beach

Around the Western Cape

Bartholomew Dias captained the first European vessel around the Cape of Good Hope in the name of Portugal in 1488, returning home after a skirmish with local tribes. Ten years later, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape, and was the first to reach India by that route.

Nearly a century later, Sir Francis Drake, the legendary English explorer, described the Cape of Good Hope in his ship’s log as, “the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.”

Among members of the international surfing community, the powerful waves around the Western Cape province are legendary, and I was keen to see them for myself.

Cape of Good Hope | Cape Peninsula | South Africa

Boulders Beach | Simon’s Town

Oudtshoorn | Western Cape

Protea | Hiking in the Western Cape Province

Eastern Cape | Addo Elephant Park

At UCT, I had heard that Addo Elephant National Park, located in the Eastern Cape Province, was one the best places to see and photograph wild elephants in South Africa. But this wasn’t always the case. The Addo elephant was hunted to near extinction by Cape farmers, and in 1931, only eleven were still alive.

Today, the number of elephants in the park and surrounding areas is estimated to be 500.

Addo Elephant National Park | South Africa's third largest national park

The Addo elephant is a unique sub-species of elephant, which is slightly smaller than most African varieties.

Visiting the park for myself, I learned that they had been protected through the work of British naturalist Sydney Skaife, who founded the Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society (currently the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa).

Addo Elephants | Protected through the work of British naturalist Sydney Skaife

The Trans-Karoo and Voortrekkers of yesteryear

Before the semester abroad was over, I felt that I needed to see and learn more of the country and its rich history, so I bought a ticket on the Trans-Karoo, South Africa’s cross-continent rail system linking Cape Town with Johannesburg.

I was intent on experiencing Xhosa and Zulu cultures, seeing Durban and the Indian Ocean Coast, and visiting the country’s legendary game reserves to see the wildlife I heard so much about for myself.

The Trans-Karoo was the modern-day route of a much older story in the European quest to push east and across the continent, namely the 1837 Great Trek undertaken by the Voortrekkers, South Africa's Dutch pioneers.

After arriving in Johannesburg, my first stop was the Voortrekkers monument, a focal point in South Africa's historical geography which I had studied at UCT (see photo below).

The Voortrekkers (Afrikaans for the ‘first pioneers’) are comparable to the American pioneers, zealous Christians who ventured across a continent in search of a new land, encountering native peoples, and facing challenges and dangers. Whereas the American pioneers headed west in their covered wagons and encountered Native Americans, the Voortrekkers headed east and encountered the Xhosa, Zulu, and other large tribes already occupying the land – and poised to defend it.

Descended from the Dutch East India Company's original settlers, the Voortrekkers were hearty adventurers left behind from an early supply station at the Cape of Good Hope. They were Boers, Dutch pastoralists, dissatisfied with British rule, choosing instead to make the “Great Trek” and face untold dangers and bloodshed in the African heartland.

They camped at night with their covered wagons drawn in a “Laager” – That is, they formed their wagons into a tight circle to provide security. Laagers were more than a campsite; they represented an isolationist mentality, first from the church in Europe, then the English church in the Cape, and on the frontier from the Khoi-San, Xhosa, and Zulu.


To the Voortrekkers, the African interior was terra incognita – a foreboding land of savages and wild beasts – but the Voortrekkers pushed east with great South African pride, “Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika,” which meant “We for you South Africa.” Outnumbered by large and powerful Zulu tribes numbering in the thousands, they nevertheless pressed on into Kwa-Zulu Natal, where they were narrowly victorious at the Battle of Blood River in 1838.

Armed with a doctrine of supposed racial superiority supported by religious belief, their guns were loaded with "Bullets with butterfly wings," a modern graffiti I saw spray-painted on nearby street-corner by local youth targeting ideological connections between the Voortrekkers, the institutional segregation employed during Apartheid a century later, and the residual challenges they face today.

Soweto | The South West Township

Soweto represents a group of South African townships, appropriately named for its location southwest of Johannesburg, where residents took to the streets in 1976 to protest of the government’s implementation of Afrikaans language into the school system. The residents were, and still are, mainly speakers of Nguni languages, such as isiZulu and isiXhosa, and they fought to retain their own languages as media of instruction in local schools.

Xhosa mother and child | Soweto (Southwestern Township)

I was fortunate to tour Soweto with Max Maximum Tour Company, run by a Soweto local named Max, a Xhosa man about my age with first-hand experience with the sufferings of Apartheid.

In 1976, as a young boy, Max witnessed the force of the apartheid system against unarmed children of Soweto: “They opened fire on us with live rounds and ran us down with mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles called Casspirs, ominous war toys named after the South African Police (SAP) and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).”

The Casspir I saw looked like a truck straight out of a Mad Max movie, with tall military tires, armored plates, bulletproof windows, and the only entrance through a hatch on top.

Xhosa house | Soweto

Casspir | Mine Protected Vehicle

Max took me to see the monument and small museum honoring Hector Pieterson, the first student killed in the riots which began on June 16, 1976. He showed me a group of white storage containers, with black and white photos on the walls illustrating the chaos and violence that had claimed somewhere between 200 and 700 lives.

I walked around, practicing what little isiXhosa I had learned at UCT, meeting people, and exploring squatter shacks as well as some newer parts of the city with electricity and improved roads. People were friendly with me, especially when I said, "Molo!" (Hello!) and "Unjani wena?" (How are you?) in isiXhosa.

My camera was a great tool to break the ice when I asked residents if I could take pictures of houses and families.

Life in Soweto

Xhosa parent at Soweto

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park | The first nature reserve in South Africa

One of the highlights of living, traveling, and studying in South Africa was going on safari at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Seeing Africa's legendary wildlife with my own eyes was a life-changing experience, deepening my understanding of natural history and the role that human beings play in conservation.

I have posted a few photos below, and links to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the official website for park management conservation and biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal Province. Click on a photo to enlarge or visit Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife pages for the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park camp areas.

Hluhluwe-Umfolozi River and Park

KwaZulu-Natal | The 'Dark Continent' and Durban's sunny coast

Other than the draw of surfing some of the best waves on the planet, I chose South Africa for my African study abroad experience as there was relatively less chances of catching malaria than in other countries in the region.

But this wasn't always the case.

It was diseases like sleeping sickness and malaria that would echo the name “Dark Continent” behind the very mention of Africa. I learned that malaria came from Italian words meaning “bad air,” because it was believed to be an airborne disease, which was partially true considering that mosquitos are definitely airborne.

The TseTse fly was actually the greatest single factor for the name “Dark Continent,” causing sleeping sickness in man and ‘Nagana’ in livestock. The fly made much of central Africa, and Zululand in South Africa, virtually uninhabitable for the Europeans.

In 1945, DDT spraying wiped out the fly, but a recent outbreak was reported during my stay, just north of the South African border.

Zulu cultural park | KwaZulu-Natal

Lungani | KwaZulu-Natal guide

Nguni cattle | KwaZulu-Natal

For me, the fun was in Durban, a 'surf city', like Waikiki, Hawaii, but with date palms and waves breaking on sand bars, compared Waikiki’s coconut trees and coral reefs. Durban had a flavor unlike anywhere in the world, a sandy beach town and cultural mosaic of African, Islamic, Indian, and European food, faces and architecture.

Hotels in Durban | KwaZulu-Natal

Zulu Rickshaw | Durban

Thank you for visiting my South Africa Learning Adventure page.

I hope you enjoy my photos and the information in the links provided. If you feel motivated to learn more about this amazing education abroad experience, or would like to arrange for me to give a public talk, please let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

–Steven Martin

Online resources