South Africa’s diverse landscapes, cultures and flavors entice visitors from around the world every year

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Diversity Abroad’s Diversity Climate Notes – South Africa (
Country Overview

South Africa’s diverse landscapes, cultures and flavors entice visitors from around the world every year. The country’s natural environments, historic townships and exotic wildlife all make for an exhilarating summer or semester abroad. While South Africa has a lot to offer the everyday study abroad student in the way of scenic pleasures, it also has a long history in dealing with important social issues that students will have the opportunity to learn about firsthand from locals.

Home of freedom fighter and Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, South Africa is often remembered for overcoming Apartheid. This four-decade period in South Africa’s history was characterized by racial segregation and repression. Laws denied rights to non-white persons living in South Africa. When discussed in the U.S., Apartheid is often compared to America’s history with segregation. Students studying in the country can still see the remnants of its Apartheid era, particularly in education. Schools in South Africa were segregated until Apartheid officially ended in 1991. During that period, access to quality education varied between racial groups leaving sizable disparities in the country. As South Africa continues to move forward and increase equality and equity across the nation, one of the government’s stated goals is to create “a single, nondiscriminatory, nonracial [education] system” for all South Africans.

As temporary entrants into South Africa’s education system, U.S. study abroad students will have an opportunity to witness the country’s human development effort as they experience all the natural wonders South Africa offers.
Considerations for Students of Color
During Apartheid, racial segregation was justified by scientific theories that supported the notion of racial dominance, and though those theories have been long disproved, the remnants of race-based discrimination are still apparent. The country has made significant strides in opening up employment and educational opportunities to Black South Africans, but racial tensions remain high. Some online users argue that South Africa’s racist past continues in modern society (here) while others suggest that white South Africans face racism (here). These diverse opinions and interpretations of events in the country reveal how discussions over race are ongoing in South Africa.

Study abroad students may find themselves involved in discussions over race while in South Africa, which may prove challenging at times. For African American students in particular this may be the first time that they discuss race as a member of the majority group . On the other hand, white students may find themselves coming away from these discussions with a better understanding of what it feels like to be a minority. These role reversals should not cause fear, but instead be seen as a new opportunity to engage with their peers.


  • Students of color, particularly African American students, may experience racially motivated comments that may be uncomfortable or even frustrating in areas that remain racially homogenous.

  • Some reports found that xenophobic attacks on foreign African migrants was a problem in South Africa and charged high unemployment and immigration as partial reasons for fear and violence.

Additional Links: 
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
State Department Background Note: South Africa
Considerations for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender Students
South Africa has made dramatic institutional changes in the treatment of its gay and lesbian population. At a point in its history, gays and lesbians in South Africa were persecuted for their sexual orientation. During Apartheid, homosexuality was punishable by seven years in prison. The South African military practiced electro-shock therapy in order to “cure” gay soldiers of their attraction to men while lesbians were targets of sexual violence. 

South Africa has taken many measures to correct the errors of the past and improve conditions for gay and lesbian South Africans. In the Post-Apartheid era, gay and lesbians are protected under South Africa’s constitutional law which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. Later, the Constitutional Court ruled that laws prohibiting homosexual conduct between consenting adults were unconstitutional. This served as a platform for the 2005 bill that made same-sex civil marriage legal. 

Gay and Lesbian students traveling to South African will find welcoming communities in the country’s most progressive cities. However, violence towards gay and lesbian community, although not rampant, does occur.


  • A Joint Working Group of representatives of the country’s LGBT community initiated the Triple-7 Campaign to highlight violence perpetrated against lesbian women following the murders of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Massoa.

  • South Africa has one of the world’s largest populations affected by HIV/AIDS.

Additional Links: 
The Gay and Lesbian Organization of Pretoria
Gay South Africa
Considerations for Religious Students
South Africa has a large religious population and is recognized for its religious tolerance. The country’s constitution and laws specifically protect religious freedom. According to the U.S. State Department there are few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice in South Africa. With over 30 million followers, some surveys rank South Africa as having the fourth largest Christian population in the world. South Africa does not have any significant policies restricting the practice of non-Christian religions, which make up about 15 percent of South Africa’s population.

Additional Links: 
South African Religious Organizations: Islam Education in South Africa (provides a directory of all Muslim websites in South Africa)
Net Ministries (provides a directory to Christianity resources and organizations throughout South Africa)
Considerations for Female Students
Although men continue to hold the majority of social and political positions, the South African government has taken strides to improve the status of women since the end of Apartheid. After coming to power, Nelson Mandela’s administration implemented measures to include women in various roles of government. He personally elected two women to his cabinet. In recent years, women held roughly half of the positions in South Africa’s ministerial and deputy ministerial offices. However, women in South Africa are still the main victims of physical and emotional abuse. According to the United Nations, South Africa was ranked number one in the most sexual assaults per capita than any other nation. A 2010/11 report estimated over 56,000 reported cases of rape and indecent assault during the year and over 66,000 cases of sexual offense. Allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment of black and foreign female workers were common according to a State Department report.

Before arriving to South Africa, female students should do their due diligence on the safety level of their host institution and city. When in the country, women should pay attention close attention to their surroundings, and travel in groups, especially at night.

Additional Links: 
Women’s Net (works to advance gender equality and justice in South Africa through the use of information and communication technologies)
Feminist Africa (designed to help all women living overseas and inspire their success abroad)
Fast Facts
Capital: Pretoria
Population: 48,687,000
Language(s): Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga (all official languages)
Religions: Predominantly Christian; traditional African, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish
Ethnic groups: Prior to 1991, South African law divided the population into four major racial categories: Africans (black), whites, coloreds, and Asians. Although this law has been abolished, many South Africans still view themselves and each other according to these categories. (source: State)

Diversity notes when traveling in South Africa:
Coloureds: Term for South Africa’s multiracial population.
Afrikaan: Western Germanic language closely related to Dutch spoken mainly in Nambia and South Africa.
Aweh (pronounced\AWWWHERE\): An Afrikaan word that Stands for “Hello”, “Good Bye”, and “Yes”.
Connection: Term used to describe "Friend" or "Mate".
Kaffa: Considered to be a derisive term used by non-blacks, historically it was used to describe a slave.

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