Brittany - University of Cape Town

B. Arts / Laws
Semester 2, 2014

Academic experience

At UCT I took a combination of first, second and third-year politics courses towards the International Relations component of my Bachelor of Arts/Laws. Three courses here was equivalent to a full-time load at UQ and I studied International Politics, The Politics of International Economic Relations, and South African Political Thought. Study at UCT is set up a lot more similar to high school than UQ, with most courses having one-hour lectures at the same time four or five days of the week, which made for many contact hours. There were also more frequent, smaller assignments than at UQ so quite a few weekends were unfortunately occupied with studying.

Personal experience

It’s a good idea to stay longer than just the semester to have the chance to travel further around South Africa and other nearby countries. I travelled the Garden Route, and on to Kenton in the Eastern Cape, to a Game Reserve near Kruger National Park, throughout some of Mozambique (which had great diving), as well as through Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. After exams, I also spent another month in Cape Town volunteering with a few NGOs—the Shine Centre, Beautiful Gate in Phillipi, and the Etafeni Centre in Nyanga. This was an eye-opening experience and it seemed important to me, given the presence of such economic inequality, to ensure I properly saw both sides of this. UCT also runs a volunteering program SHAWCO.

Accommodation

There were a few hundred other exchange students at UCT, with the majority from the US and most others from Europe. While it’s easy and great to make friends with other internationals, once you get outside this ‘bubble’ and interact with more locals, other opportunities really open up and you can get a much better insight into SA. I used the university arranged accommodation which worked out perfectly for me-- I was in a great house about a twenty-minute walk from campus with four other students (from the US, Denmark and Germany). We also shared a backyard with another student house with people from South Africa, the UK, Norway and Austria. Using the arranged accommodation was really simple and much easier than trying to sort it out yourself, though slightly more expensive.

Budget

Living costs generally are substantially cheaper than in Australia, with $4 cocktails seeming expensive and delicious meals at even the nicest restaurants rarely costing more than $15. It was very easy to fall into a trap of overspending and living more extravagantly than at home, especially given the amount of great restaurants, delicious markets (Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock on Saturdays), fun festivals (Rocking the Daisies, Oxbraai), varied nightlife, tourist attractions, and other events (for example First Thursdays sees the art galleries in town open late on the First Thursday of every month). However, the money is definitely worth it and seems like so little once you’re home and have so many incredible experiences behind you. If you are keen to save money, there’s still plenty to do around Cape Town with many beautiful beaches and a lot of hiking options, including Lions Head (which is especially incredible on a full moon), Table Mountain, Devil’s Peak, and the Kirstenbosch Gardens (which have great concerts in summer). I found South Africa to be somewhat cheaper than the other countries I travelled to, although in saying that we spent two weeks in Zimbabwe spending an average of US$30/day so it's very affordable. 

Getting around is not too difficult, though hiring a car for weekend trips is a good idea. The trains are okay to take during the day (never at night), and the local minibuses are also a cheap (about R6 each way) and entertaining way to get into town (as long as you’re smart/safe about choosing when to use these- daytime, and with others in the bus!). Cabs are fairly cheap (R10/km) and safe, but often hard to get late at night (so use Uber!). There are also free UCT run ‘Jammie Shuttles’ which operate between the campuses and the colleges. UCT is set on the mountain so it's quite a hike up otherwise.

Professional development and employability

Exchange is the perfect excuse to get to live in a foreign place while doing something constructive, while it also stretches you academically by forcing different methods of teaching and learning, and allows you to access different content. I was able to take South African specific courses which provided me with a detailed insight into the history of South African politics. This was useful in helping me to understand the precarious present-day situation in SA. The whole experience also helped me to develop skills, such as adaptability and resilience, as well as international connections, which can't be anything but useful going forward in my studies and employment. Studying in such a diverse place as South Africa also opened my eyes to the range of possibilities available both during and after my studies.

Highlight

Table Mountain
Table Mountain

The highlight of the whole study abroad experience is undoubtedly my time living in Cape Town itself and getting to know this fantastic city, as well as the amazing friendships I was lucky to form here. Just about everyone I knew there had also fallen in love with the place and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Top tips

Safety wise, I had no problems in my 8 months in Cape Town (or anywhere in southern Africa). Although you hear stories of friends being robbed, generally if you’re sensible and don’t obviously carry expensive belongings or large amounts of cash you can avoid most troubles. Many of us bought a cheap local phone which we didn’t mind losing, and would take this out at night instead of our smartphones. 

The summers aren't as hot, they're much windier and dry than Brisbane, and the winters are slightly cooler as well. A raincoat is a definite essential. When it rains in Cape Town (pretty much daily in the winter months), it's generally horizontal. The campus also seems to have a different climate to the rest of the city and even this can change on a half hourly basis. 

THE top tip would have to be to get involved with an exchange and to then absolutely fill your time up there with as many experiences as possible. It's also far better to be too busy travelling and saying yes to any opportunity than sitting at home thinking about how great it could be.

Brittany - University of Cape Town