Whatever your thoughts on South Africa might have been so far – I can guarantee you that there is a lot you didn’t know.
The first thing I learned during my first few weeks at Stellenbosch University: South Africa is far more than you expected – and way less. The second thing I learned: South Africa is not the same as Africa and Stellenbosch is not the same as South Africa. But more on that later.
First, I want to reach out to all the new MHMK students that have to make the tough decision on where to spend their semester abroad. (A little side note: Please be aware that I am truly biased, as I have already lived in and loved this country for two months now.) Before I decided to study here in Stellenbosch, I had narrowed down my choice to a top three: South Africa, Mexico and England. Mexico would have helped me to expand my Spanish, England would have been close to home but South Africa? At first, that was a choice entirely made by my heart. It’s a beautiful country, on a continent I haven’t been to before and simply different. But mostly, living in South Africa will widen your horizon as to cultural differences and the exposure to poverty.
I won’t lie: Most of us MHMK students who are here now have struggled to leave the people we love so far behind. But none of us regrets this. And in my – truly subjective – opinion, you can always go to Madrid, London or Milan. But when will you ever go to South Africa again? And I don’t mean a two week vacation. You’ve got to live and experience this country if you aim to understand it.
Let’s assume, you have made the decision to study in South Africa (well done!):
Studying in Stellenbosch means, that you will have a lot of paperwork to do before all the other 2nd semesters even think about it. But most importantly: start your visa application early! Read the list of requirements now, not when you get the letter of admission from Stellenbosch (yes, you need a x-ray of your lung and your criminal record certificate, which might take a few weeks). This year, we had our last exam on Friday, July 11th, and had to leave for South Africa on Sunday, July 13th (you might recognize this day – I’m still grieving that I missed it). This meant that we didn’t have a summer break at all and hardly found time to pack, amongst all the studying. But hey, therefore our classes end on October 24th – and we’re off ‘till March! A lot of time to travel Southern Africa.
Arrival and First Week
The flight takes forever. But one big bonus of South Africa is it’s time zone: I don’t know whether any of you has ever lived in the US or Australia or in any other distant part of the world but the one killer of communication with home is time difference. It’s hard to squeeze in a time to skype with your parents when you’re 9 hours apart from each other. South Africa, however, lies within the same time zone as Germany.
Upon arrival at Cape Town International Airport you will be picked up by Stellenbosch University and already meet a few future classmates. During your drive to Stellenbosch you will already cross the borders of two entirely different worlds: from the world metropolis Cape Town to townships that accompany you all the way to Stellenbosch. Once you’re here, you will often hear that “Stellenbosch is a bubble”. Remember one of my first sentences? South Africa is far more and far less than you expected. This is where this comes in. South Africa is not Africa – you won’t find vast savannahs and elephants stomping around. But South Africa has its very own, beautiful nature that will take your breath away. Stellenbosch is famous for its wine farms that are scattered on the feet of all the mountains surrounding the university. Your will find Stellenbosch very European: the elegant buildings, the people, the language (mostly Afrikaans), the university itself. Although there are palm trees around the campus, you don’t feel like you’re in Africa. But this is Stellenbosch, a little bubble in South Africa.
During your first week here, you will mostly meet internationals – the locals won’t show up until Sunday, the day before classes start again. An exception are your Matie Buddies – local sutdents that volunteer to help you around in Stellenbosch. Most of them are really excited to meet you and you will find it easy to become friends with them. What will make or brake you in Stellenbosch is finding friends: don’t make it too easy by simply staying amongst MHMK students or fellow Germans. Without locals you won’t be able to experience South Africa.
The other thing that’s important is safety: from my experience so far, crime is very present in South Africa. In Stellenbosch, however, you will mostly encounter theft. Yes – my phone got stolen during the first week I was here. But it taught me to be more careful and not to underestimate South Africa. Stellenbosch seems safe and it is safer than most cities in South Africa. But never walk alone during the night, stay with friends and don’t take expensive phones or your credit cards with you when you’re going out to party.
During orientantion week, you will get introduced to SU (Stellenbosch University), its campus and student organizations. Altough many things you’ll be told are common sense, listen closely when it comes to activities and clubs, as you don’t want to be late to join a society. My advice for this week: get a Matie’s bike right away! Otherwise they will be gone. Bikes are your easiest way of transportation (no, you won’t need a car in Stellenbosch) and Matie’s bikes are the only ones that most probably won’t get stolen. But there are not a lot of bikes and they are gone fast.
The university really tries hard to make you feel welcome: they will take you to the V.A. Waterfront (a must see in Cape Town), the beach and will organize a Welcome Dinner for the Internationals. This Welcome Dinner will show you the South African mentality: live your life. And the before we even knew we were up and dancing on the dancefloor – not only before the dinner was served, but as early as 6 p.m. This is South Africa.
P.S. You might have wondered, what the caption “Buy a donkey” was supposed to mean. I won’t leave you in the dark any longer: it was the first South African phrase we learned when we got here. Correctly it is spelled “Baie dankie” and means “Thank you”. One might argue that “braai” is the most important word a foreigner should know while in South Africa, but that will have to wait until my next post – as I have already exceeded my word count by far.
I’m off, living South Africa!