To American Exchange Students: Please Don't Come to South Africa Until You've Understood These 5 Things.

South Africa
by Sian Ferguson Jan 12, 2016

It’s hard to miss the overwhelming irritation many South African students have with some of the US exchange students they meet.

As someone who has attended two well-known South African universities, I’ve come into contact with dozens of US exchange students over the years, many of whom come with a lack of knowledge that hinders their experience in South Africa.

If you’re an American exchange student coming to study in South Africa, here are a few tips to remember before you come:

1. Think about your Western privilege and how it affects you in South Africa.

We already know a lot about your country. We probably know more about your country than you know about ours — even if we’ve never been to the US.

Why? Because America dominates our media, and the media of many other countries. You, however, are less exposed to media from our country.

This is just one example of Western privilege in action. Western privilege means your country isn’t seen as exotic or fetishized. It means you can easily find South Africans who can speak English, while you’re unlikely to ever have to speak any of our other 10 official languages. It means you can travel more easily with an American passport than we can with a South African one. It means nobody has the condescending view that your country needs to be ‘saved’ or ‘uplifted.’

Of course, none of this is your fault, but it’s important that you keep this power imbalance in mind while you travel through our country.

2. Research — and let go of stereotypes before you arrive.

I once met an exchange student who was shivering in shorts and a thin shirt in the middle of winter. We got to talking, and he told me that when he came to Cape Town, he didn’t pack anything warm. His reasoning?

“I thought it was Africa. It’s meant to be hot. Texas never gets this cold!”

Some thoughts rushed through my mind at that point. Yeah, Cape Town can get way colder than Texas. We’re further from the equator. And did this guy really think that an entire continent was hot all-year around? Didn’t he Google the weather before he got here?

After speaking to him for a while, I got the idea that he didn’t bother to research South Africa before arriving here because he thought he knew all there was to know. But he didn’t know much at all. He was just inundated with stereotypes of what “Africa” was supposed to be like.

This sort of ignorance is super offensive to your hosts. Researching South Africa is a sign of respect. It means you understand that you don’t know everything there is to know about our country, and it means you’re not just arriving here with assumptions of what it’s like here.

Researching will also help you plan your trip better, which means it will be a better and more rewarding experience in general.

3. Be careful of the way you do volunteer work, give charity or engage with communities.

A great number of US exchange students aren’t simply here to study and learn. Many are also here to volunteer.

While volunteering can be a beautiful way to give back to your host country, if it’s not done well, it can end up perpetuating inequality and doing more harm than good. For example, plenty of people volunteer for personal gain and not to help their host countries. Many exchange students from all over the world come to African countries to get photographs of themselves with small black children – those that fit into the one-dimensional, objectifying ‘AIDS orphan’ stereotype.

If you’re doing volunteering, make sure it’s community-led. Rather than deciding what a community needs, ask how they need to be helped. Many South African universities have volunteering programmes, so connect with them and find out how you can help out.

4. Be sensitive to our complicated past and present.

Apartheid might legally be over, but its legacy still lives on. According to the 2011 census, white households still earn about 6 times more than black households. Black people are more likely to live in poverty and less likely to have access to quality healthcare and education. Race is, understandably, a very touchy subject in our country. Be sensitive to this history.

While the US has its own issues with race, the cultural context differs slightly so be mindful of this when you have a conversation. For example, the term “coloured” might be considered a slur in the US, but in South Africa it refers to a specific cultural and racial group. The term “non-white,” however, was used by the Apartheid government and many South Africans think of it as a disrespectful term nowadays.

If you say something accidentally disrespectful, just apologize sincerely, correct yourself and avoid making the same mistake again.

5. Don’t speak over South African students on South African issues.

Exchange students often choose to take courses that focus specifically on African or South African issues. This is fantastic, because it means you get to combine an academic learning experience while coming into direct contact with our cultural, political and social situation.

However, it’s important that you don’t assume you know more about South Africa than the people who actually live here. Even if you study our country, it’s condescending to think you know more about it than those who have more first-hand experiences. Offer an opinion, but remember that your perspective is probably less informed than ours. When it comes to topical conversations, be willing to listen.

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