South Africa vs. Ireland: Comparing student life

An insight into the lives of students in an often overlooked country.

South Africa. You’ve heard about it on the news. You watched that movie with Morgan Freeman in it. Your aunt possibly even told you about her trip around some vineyards over there. But what is it like to study in this country at the opposite end of the world? Having lived there for several years, I constantly find myself comparing and contrasting the South African student experience to mine in Ireland, each time finding something new and surprising. Somewhat limited by my outsider’s perspective, I asked four of my friends to give first-hand accounts of their college experiences. Despite the country’s population being eleven times that of Ireland’s, something that became apparent was that the key values of student life remain the same: drink, friends and sunshine.

South African universities are still recovering from the “Fees Must Fall” protests which erupted last year, when riots and tear gas swept through campuses as students protested rising fees against a background of inflation, racial tension and economic uncertainty. A prequel to this tension is the schooling system in South Africa, which is divided into government and private education. Private schools are fee-paying and students who attend are generally thought to receive an excellent quality of education. Due to apartheid there remains a wide gap in facilities, quality of teachers and educational standards between government-run and private schools. To compensate, historically disadvantaged students from poorer backgrounds are let into courses through schemes similar to Affirmative Action. However, placed in the same classes as privately-educated students, many are unprepared and overwhelmed, leading to a huge drop-out rate: only one in twenty black students graduate. South Africa has twelve official languages, and many struggle to speak English, but as it is the lingua franca classes need to be taught in English.

Tuition fees continue to be raised year on year, and currently range from €1100 to €4600 in a country where many families live on less than €30 a month. Protests turned violent, and several universities saw classes interrupted, test papers ripped up and facilities burned and destroyed. Total damages across the country amounted to €37 million. A key point of contention was the teaching of classes through Afrikaans in several universities. Afrikaans is the language spoken by the Dutch settlers who settled in South Africa. As the Apartheid-era government was largely made up of Afrikaaners, there is still a perceived political connotation to universities teaching classes through Afrikaans, especially given the legacy of the Soweto Uprising and of Hector Pieterson.

Frances, Stellenbosch University, Western Cape

I am currently a second-year Speech, Language and Hearing Therapy student. We have a ten-month year, starting in February and ending in November, with about two months of holiday in between. Depending on how modern the accommodation is and what it includes, it can cost between €250 and €770 a month. The majority of my friends do not stay at home unless they live in Stellenbosch or neighbouring towns. For fun, we usually go wine-tasting, out for lunch, to the beach, hiking or to Cape Town for the day, as well as quite a lot of clubbing. I go out a fair amount, usually twice a week. It costs about €1.30 for a girl’s entrance fee yet it can sometimes be free (girls get special rates while boys must pay in full). I usually take no more than €6 out as drinks are very cheap in Stellenbosch. There’s also sokkie floors for sokking (a traditional Afrikaans ballroom dance not unlike the awkward waltzes seen in the film Brooklyn; the name comes from the Afrikaans word for sock, as many dance barefoot.)

We were only marginally affected by the “Fees Must Fall” protests. Good security and protection was provided for the students so we were able to carry on going to class. Seeing as we are quite a small varsity the protests were fairly minor. However, there was one occasion when during a test protesters kicked down the door and ran up and down the hall ripping up our exam papers while wearing masks. It was all quite bizarre.

At Stellenbosch University race is slowly no longer becoming a major issue. It is much more accepting of all races and many of the classes are now in English, instead of them all being in Afrikaans.

Chelsey, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

I study Education. Exams are pretty chilled for me because we are mainly tested on our teaching experience.

There is student accommodation at Wits but I do not stay there. I know that it is quite expensive but you can get bursaries through the university or from the government, especially if you are doing teaching. I think it’s about a 50/50 split between people staying at res (accommodation) and people staying at home. I don’t go out too much, but when I do, it lands up being quite expensive. To be honest, I’m not too sure what people do for fun. I assume “fun” would involve parties and clubbing and all that good stuff.

“Fees Must Fall” was a massive thing at Wits and the Education campus this year. I had about two weeks where my lectures were cancelled because of protests and students interrupting lectures and tutorials. The tension between police, protesters and staff on campus was intense. At the beginning of the protests, people were trapped on campus and were not allowed to leave. There were security guards everywhere, which only added to the tension because they made everyone on campus really uneasy. I was once in a lecture interrupted by protesters who were threatening to beat students and were being all-round annoying. My lectures were cancelled but I still had an afternoon session, so me and my friends had no idea what was going on. I decided to ask the course co-ordinator, but I ran into the wrong building and had to run to find my lecturer’s office. I was out of breath and red in the face, and she told me that students shouldn’t come to lectures if they feel unsafe, saying “I can see that you looked very distressed and anxious from your previous lecture, you don’t have to come”. While this was nice of her, she thought I was having a panic attack when I was just really unfit!

Race does not seem to be quite a big thing at Education, but maybe I’m just ignorant of it all. All classes are taught through English and I know that there is dissonance between languages and cultures, but it never seems to cause any major problems.

Danielle, University of Johannesburg

I am studying Industrial Design, which is a three-year degree with optional honours if you maintain an average of 70% and above. Student accommodation is available, with most of it not carrying academic requirements, i.e. having to maintain a certain grade to be allowed to stay. Accommodation is only available during the semester and many people stay at home. I do not go out much because of the nature of my degree. For fun we go adventuring, hiking, and braai (barbeque).

“Fees Must Fall” did not significantly affect my university. We only participated in peaceful protests for maybe a day or two.

Racewise… some Afrikaners seem to be stuck in their old ways. The ‘K’ slur (the African equivalent of the n-word) is used on the odd occasion and one girl believes that black and white people can’t have children together because they are different species. Apart from this.. everyone else gets along really well.

Emma, University of Pretoria (TUKS)

I’m currently studying a BSc in Human Physiology, Genetics and Psychology. I am staying in one of the first non-traditional residences (“reses”). It follows none of the old traditions and focuses on diversity and transformation. The other reses are run by a Huis Kommitee which operates as a hierarchy, with first years on the bottom. Traditions include socials with other reses where they line up and find dates, “floor wars” where each floor in the res dresses up their corridor with a theme, and serrie, which is a big dance production where girls dance and serenade the boys and the boys do the same. Some are horrible, like “if you don’t pull enough girls in the first week you have to run naked around the res block”, or something.

As South Africa is reforming from the Apartheid era, racial equality is of high importance, leading to many debates. TUKS has the biggest residence capacity available in South Africa, about 14,000 people. Residence is assigned based on matric marks (the equivalent of the Leaving Cert) and awarded to top achievers. The university used to be in quite a jolling (party) area, but our clubs are slowly being shut down. It’s cheap place and everything is within walking distance.

We have been affected by the “Fees Must Fall” protest quite a bit. Last year the university shut down lectures halfway through the semester, meaning we had to self-study with some online guidance. Luckily we got to write exams and continue the year. The damage at TUKS has been very minor compared to other universities. Studying has been an enjoyable experience, despite it being an academic university, as the people make it fun.

Enya O'Connell-Hussey

Enya O'Connell-Hussey is a Staff Videographer for Trinity News.