Student Experience | Living Abroad | South Africa | Programs | Prospective Students | International Programs | CSU
International Programs
Exchange Rates
As of 08/09/2010
South Africa (Rand)
1 USD = 7.19 ZAR
1 ZAR = 0.14 USD

South Africa: Student Experience

Student Experience - Port Elizabeth


Wiseman, a hired driver from the university, picked me up from the airport. He was wearing a NMMU shirt and was able to spot us as the new international students, probably because we had more bags than anyone else that got off the plane and the airport is quite small. He gave us a packet of information from the university, which was helpful throughout the year.


During past years, some students stay at Annie’s Cove. You have your own room and share a bathroom and kitchen with another student. There is no oven, but there are hot plates and cooking utensils supplied. It’s a decent set up. Annie's Cove is a convenient 15 minute walk from the campus. It is very easy to meet people and there are a bunch of international people from all over the world.

This year, all but two US students from California ended up living at the Bantry. The other two were placed in a private house in a neighborhood. The Bantry is a fully furnished apartment complex about 2 blocks from the beach. It is closer to the city center and restaurants, which makes cab rides cheaper. However, it is too far from school to walk so you spend the difference on minibus rides back and forth from school. A few students invested in bikes.

Sheets and towels are not supplied for you, you’ll need to buy them when you get here. There is a large mall called Greenacres that you can get everything you need for reasonably inexpensive prices. It may be a good idea to bring a sheet and towel with you just in case you don’t make it to the mall before the first night. It will be quite warm when you arrive so a fitted sheet for the mattress and light blanket would be enough.

I'm one of the students who happened to be placed in a private house this year at 17 Cardiff Street.  It is absolutely amazing! I know that my housing is a rare and unique situation and that it happened only because not enough campus housing was available, but I love it.  We even have a pool and beautiful garden.  There are 4 bedrooms, 2 baths. We each have our own room. and the house is new and in great condition. Big kitchen and living room.  We have cable television. With regards to the internet there is a wireless router in the house, and they will just need to set up a new contract when they get here to have it restarted. It is within walking distance to the campus, and in even closer walking distance to the beach!  Most everything is included in the rooms, even bedding.  Bottom line is: we feel a little spoiled.  It is so great!  International students don’t usually get to stay in houses like this. There are many different accommodations.  This year there are two of us CSU IP students staying in this house, and all the rest are in an apartment complex called the Bantry.  South Africa is AMAZING, and I’m not ready to leave!  One year is not long enough!


When you first arrive in January it will be hot hot HOT.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but you will.  Don’t let this fool you though, winters do exist in Africa and they are very cold.  If you are coming to Port Elizabeth, let me just say they don’t call it the windy city for nothing!

Definitely bring sunscreen for the first couple of months and expect to use the whole bottle. Even for those who don’t burn easily, the sun can get intense even when it doesn’t feel hot because of the wind.


Registration is a pain. Just be willing to have patience and have things change often, in the end it all works out. Be prepared to not take the classes you planned with your advisor. If you can get a hold of the prospectus, look mostly at the 200 and 300 level courses. 400 level courses are equivalent to grad school courses and the university does not allow international students to take them.

Cell Phones

Cancel or put on hold your American cell phones and buy one when you get here. You can get a cheap one for around R250, approximately $30. It is cheaper to buy a cell phone in the shopping center instead of the airport. Vodacom is the best cell phone store to go with. There are cell phone stores everywhere and you can purchase airtime almost anywhere. It is impossible to buy a contract phone because they are all for 2 years.


After many emails and visits to the international office, we finally convinced them to install internet in the Bantry. It should still be connected for the next year. It was quite slow, but you get used to it after a while. Every person pays for an individual account. The cheapest is R100, or about $13, but don’t expect to stream youtube or download music. But you didn’t come to Africa to stay updated on American pop culture, right? 

There are also two full computer labs on campus that are open 24/7 all year round. You won't be able to get access to the school Internet labs until after you register.

Money and Banking

Check with your American bank to see what the overseas fees are to use your credit card and ATM cards. You might have to open up an account with a bank here because the fees can be costly. Then you just transfer the money to your new account.

Travelers’ checks - Bring some for easy exchange in the beginning and then keep a little around for emergencies, should they happen.

I brought about $200 with me into South Africa and exchanged it at the airport in Johannesburg. At that time, it came out to about R2000. That lasted me for a few weeks. It is advisable not to carry so much money on you at one time though. 200-500 rand is plenty for food and any small necessities you may need to buy in the first few days of being there.

Everything is relatively cheaper here than in the states, but watch your spending. (It’s still hard to understand how they price things. A jar of peanut butter is 25 rand, a load of bread is 6, a box of cereal is 30, a box of cous cous is 45, a carton of eggs is 18. Movies are about 30 rand, but on Wednesdays they are only 15.) Remember you will have second semester payments before financial aid is disbursed at your home campus, so budget accordingly. It is easy to get carried away with spending. I heard a good piece of advice: For most jobs that students have (waitress, retail, etc.) pay about R2000 a month. So that is a good budget frame to try to work from. Of course, as international students, we are prone to spend more on things like souvenirs, going out more to get to know the city, going to the animal parks, and so on.


There are grocery stores, restaurants, banks, hair salons, cafes, internet cafes all within walking distance.  There is food on campus and you are equipped to cook at home.

Don’t expect to find organic products.

Transportation/Getting Around

There is a bus system and a mini-bus system. The mini-buses are privately owned vans that follow a shorter route back and fourth and you just hop on one going the direction you want to go. The vans with the yellow stripes on the side are the best to ride because they are insured and registered. But when you are running late to class, it’s hard too be picky. It is six rand no matter where you get on and where you get off. Cabs are also fairly cheap for evening excursions. Pang is the best cab driver to use, the international office will give you his number in the packet when you arrive.


Traveling is a must.  There are long holidays and weekends that if you plan well you can see a lot.  Traveling has been safe in my experiences, but it’s always good to have travel companions.  I have been able to go to six other countries outside of South Africa since I have been here.  There are buses, tours, BazBus and cars to rent.  Backpackers are cheap spots to crash in at any city.

It is definitely worth saving your money during the week to make weekend trips. Pick up a Coast to Coast book at the Kings  Beach backpacker, the street behind the Bantry, to help plan your trips.


Cricket, rugby, futbol…it’s all big here.  Very fun.  Tri-Varsity is in August and if you’re interested in a sport, join a team.  It’s a great way to meet South Africans.

Cultural Differences

Make an effort to step outside the group of international students (there are a lot) and meet people from South Africa and other surrounding countries. It’s worth it. Especially since most other international students are only in South Africa for a semester, so when they leave, without South African friends, it is like having to make completely new friends all over again. Also endeavor to get involved in some volunteer work, there are many opportunities. The Community Service Learning class offered to international students is a must.

It is best to be patient. In South Africa, they speak about race, gender, sex and a lot of other issues in a different way than the US. They have a different history and it creates a different context for their perspective. As difficult as it is, sometimes it is best to keep in mind that you came to South Africa to learn about it, not judge it. Also, South Africans didn’t invite you there so not all of them will want to hear your opinions, too, even if they are so willing to share theirs. Take what everyone tells you with a grain of salt, and build your knowledge on your own personal experience.

What to bring and not to bring

Only bring the necessities.  Most things you can buy here such as hair supplies, bathroom and kitchen supplies.  Bring both warm and cool clothes, maybe some pictures of home, and you should be set. Maybe bring some school supplies. In the first month or two, it seems like you are always buying things that you know you have at home and it can be overwhelming running around getting everything. So if you know you won’t want to budget for it while you are here, it’s best to just bring it. However, I did bring two 50 lb suitcases and regret half of the stuff I did bring, mostly clothes. So in the end, it is really up to you.


Just take care of yourself.  When you travel find which areas you will need to take malaria pills in.  You can get them here easily. There is an on-campus doctor’s office and also one near by off campus. Don’t be scared to drink the tap water.

Student Experience - Durban (Top)

The following is from a 2007 student studying at the Pietermaritzburg campus of KwaZulu Natal:

I am at a UKZN campus in a town 45 minutes (driving) north of Durban called Pietermaritzburg (usually just called Maritzburg or PMB by locals). PMB is in the midlands between the Indian ocean and the Drakensberg Mountain range. I'm at this campus because they don't offer fine art classes in Durban. I know there's engineering in PMB, but they might have it in Durban also. You can download the handbook and check out all the classes for your major.

As far as wildlife is concerned it's beautiful here....rolling green hills, tons of birds, lizards, bugs, frogs, trees, flowers, etc etc etc. There's a park not far from campus...15 minute drive or so...where I got to see my first wild giraffes, zebras, springboks and monkeys. It was incredible, a life long dream turned to reality. I have met some amazing people so far and am starting to develop some long lasting friendships. I've met a few other international students from other countries in Africa and have really bonded. My neighbor at the dorms is from Zimbabwe and I can already tell I'll miss him terribly when I go back to California. Some parts of PMB and the surrounding areas remind me of butte county...the landscape, the weather, etc. It's neat, but makes me a little home sick at times. I'd lived in chico for 3+ years before I came here, and grew up in Lake Tahoe. I really appreciate natural beauty and am happy it's so lovely here. The university has been great too. My art classes are run totally differently than at home, but I prefer the system here. It's more in-depth and time consuming here...i'm learning a lot more a lot faster. I met another girl from the IP program who goes to CalPoly back home and she's had the opposite academic experience, so I think it depends on your classes, your teachers, and your major. She's an animal science major and said the labs are not as well equipped as at CalPoly. She had to dissect a sheep in a tiny room in 100 degree weather with no A/C and no ventilation! I think that'd be illegal in the US! Anyway.... the campus is beautiful and everyone on campus has been friendly and helpful.

However, it hasn't been all sunshine and roses.

On campus the registration process for classes is really nuts. You sign up for the classes you want without knowing the times, a few weeks later they give out the schedules and you have to check if any of your classes conflict with one another. They usually do, so you have to spend more time waiting in lines getting everything changed. Nothing is done online so it's a lot of paperwork and hassle that you're probably not used to...I wasn't! Also, if you have a laptop computer I suggest you bring it. I don't have one, so I'm at the mercy of the computer labs (called the LAN) or the internet cafe. Most of the time the labs are full of students with a line out the door. The internet is REALLY slow and the whole experience is generally frustrating. I've waited for a 1/2 hour while people check their myspace pages, etc...even though I have a paper to write. I've started writing my papers by hand and then just copying them onto the computer as quickly as possible. The weekends and nights are better for LAN use, but don't stay out alone. If you find yourself at the library or in a LAN after dark have the campus police walk you home. Also, if you bring a laptop, the LANs are wireless hotspots so you can use your own computer for the internet...there's no internet hookup in the dorm rooms.

Off campus, South Africa has a very high crime rate. It is important to travel in large groups and take taxis after dark...even at 6 or 7pm. Everyone here will tell you the same things, but it took a bad experience before I fully believed everyone. It's definately a good idea to carry small amounts of cash only and don't flash your cell phone or camera...even at clubs. I heard one story of a guy having a seizure on the street, his wallet fell out of his pocket, then 2 little old ladies walked by and stole his wallet! I don't want to scare anyone, but the crime is a reality.

Most of the people have been really nice to me, but racism is still a huge issue here. I've noticed that most groups stick together, black, white, and Indian. For the most part younger people are more willing to interact with one another. I've been to dinner at some young friends houses and can't repeat some of the stuff that's come out of their parents' and relatives' mouths! It's shocking and offensive to me, but I'm a guest here so I usually just change the topic or keep quiet. I've had political/racial/religious debates with people here, but they've been with friends and in an open/understanding situation. I've found a mix of people, of all races, good and bad...some that perpetuate negative stereotypes, some that fight against them, some that are all their own.

It's strange, but I'm more accepted by different groups because I'm a foreigner. I think everyone wants to get their side of the story heard so they'll accept me regardless of my race or gender. They want to teach the American all about the "real" South Africa...even though everyone's "real" SA has been different. As far as their views about Americans...the general consensus is that we're ignorant and arrogant. I fight against those stereotypes by reading the news, informing myself about my host country and the rest of the world, and being open to critisicms about the US. I don't have to agree with what people say about my country, but I will listen to their opinions and explain my side whenever possible.

Although I've had some tough experiences, I wouldn't change it for anything. I'm really happy I came here and know it'll make me a stronger person.