Social Life at the University of Cape Town

Cape Town Campus

By Ben Paviour

In retrospect, I still think my pre-departure expectations were reasonable. I was going to Cape Town for a semester, to make lots of African friends, to have the time of my life, and to reconsider my life place in this world. Maybe I should have learned something from my freshman year at Washington University in Saint Louis about thwarted expectations, but there it was: a view of me on some gorgeous beach I'd seen on some Google image search, speaking Xhosa, Afrikkans, and English interchangeably with a posse of beautiful, multiracial friends.

As always, reality intrudes. I've been here almost two months now, and although I pass said beautiful people on a daily basis on the way to class, at clubs and bars, and everywhere in between, I still feel like I'm not quite part of their world. There are 100 Americans in the program, run by CIEE (an organization that facilitates study abroad programs for Americans), whose presence is hard to avoid. They're a geographically eclectic group, from Georgetown, Pomona, U Penn, Colorado College and everywhere in between, and a good 2/3 of them are female. They're generally friendly and like to have fun….just like my friends in the States.  This familiarity is both reassuring and counter-productive.

Even if it sometimes impedes immersion, the network provided by CIEE has proven an invaluable resource during my stay here.  Without CIEE, I would not have spent a weekend in Ocean View, a township/suburb whose residents were transplanted from their homes during apartheid. I wouldn't have seen Manchester United play Kaiser Chiefs in soccer and I wouldn't have spent my Thursdays handing out sandwiches to Zimbabwean accountants-turned-refugees who are insistently proud of the country they have left.

CIEE is just an umbrella organization; I live in a dorm and go to classes with South Africans, theoretically living the life of a normal University of Cape Town student. The problem is that many of these classes, particularly the social sciences, also have many Americans in them — if not from CIEE, then from InterStudy, Ida Cooper, or dozen or so schools that directly enroll students in the university. Thus, when you walk into a 150 person lecture hall and look for someone to sit with, it's almost treasonous not to seek out those giveaway North Faces and Nalgenes. Besides, you have to be very, some might say unhealthily, persistent in making a friend out of that stranger sitting next to you in economics class.

Still, the situation is far from hopeless. For one thing, everyone speaks English, although not necessarily the variety that I am able to comprehend. What's more, almost everyone I've talked to is friendly — shy, sometimes pretentious, but friendly. Locals know a lot about America, from Chris Brown to Barack Obama, providing common ground for conversation for the left-leaning, pop-obsessed set. Some people I've talked to claim that white South Africans are more withdrawn and self-obsessed than everyone else, but vanity is standard fare in Cape Town for everyone who can afford it. At the end of the day, most UCT students enjoy a lot of the same things as Americans because a healthy love for good food, booze, and Lil' Wayne transcends borders.


Other articles in this series:

  • Living Abroad in South Africa 
  • The University of Cape Town's Academic Program 
  • The University of Cape Town's Accommodations 
  • South Africa: Mullets, Brus, and Minibus Taxis 
  • A Rugby Game in Stellenbosch 

To join the discussion about studying abroad, visit Unigo's Study Abroad forum!