Interview about University of Witwatersrand
An interview with Liya Mekonnen
How did you find where to spend your semester abroad?
Honestly, I did not plan to end up in Johannesburg, South Africa for my semester abroad. Initially I had wanted to do a semester in a Spanish-speaking country since I had been taking Spanish as a foreign language and desperately wanted to improve my speaking skills. I took into account all of the partner universities of the RUG and did thorough research. However, when I started considering what would actually be useful for my studies and future career instead of just my language-learning journey, I chose to look at countries in Africa as well. Although I love the IRIO program and the way it is set up at the RUG, I think it is fair to say that it does not cover non-Western perspectives on global issues adequately. Therefore, my goal for this semester was to challenge the things I had already learned and interrogate the assumptions I had about the world. Wits had actually been my second choice when I applied for the minor abroad, but looking back at it now, I wouldn’t have been able to gain the experiences I did if I hadn’t studied at an institution with such a deep history. For instance, it used to be an all-white institution during apartheid and Nelson Mandela was amongst one of the very important historical figures which attended it.
What were the requirements for you to go to this place?
There were no specific requirements for applying here (as far as I remember) since everything is taught in English. However, one thing that was quite a hassle was getting a visa to come here. Applying for it was a pain in the bum because the South African embassy was all over the place, never answering phone calls or emails. I had to go to the embassy in the Hague to get an appointment and ended up going there on three occasions before finally getting the visa. Luckily everything worked out in the end but fair warning, if you are going anywhere in SA, start the process early! The amount of documents that you are required to obtain are ridiculous and the time-issue can be quite the headache. Not to mention, it's also quite expensive.
What was/is your favourite sightseeing there?
I have to admit I have yet to do the typical tourist sightseeing things like going to the apartheid museum, the Mall of Africa and even Soweto. I do plan to get to them once I’m done with my exams, though, which is fairly soon. However, from the things I have seen until now I absolutely loved Maboneng, a district which is known for its lively art scene and cute cafes and bars. The vibe there is perfect for young people and it is a beautiful mix of modern art and African cultural traditions.
What was/is your favourite local food there?
The food here is quite meat-heavy which is a big contrast to Groningen and the food I usually chose to consume there. However, I have fallen in love with braai meat, which is the South African version of barbeque. So much better though in my opinion.
Was/is there many green spaces to relax?
In the area where I stay, Braamfontein, which is where Wits is located, there is not a lot of green space. However, the Wits campus is so big, perhaps even bigger than the city centre of Groningen and one can find several beautiful spaces there where you can grab a book and read on a lawn or sit by a pond and relax under a tree.
Did/do you practice any sports there?
In my second month here, I joined a soccer team for one of the residences on campus. It was such an amazing experience. One thing about people here is that they have spirit. Even though we lost every game this season but one, we always left in high spirits, singing and chanting on our way home. The energy was palpable, and the team cohesion was great. It was the perfect way to learn more about the local culture and grow my social network.
Did/do you go out a lot? If so, where?
Oh yes. I can only count one or two weekends where I haven’t. I mainly go out here in Braamfontein because there are clubs and bars in close proximity to where I live. It’s always a good time and people are always dancing and enjoying themselves so much it’s contagious. I have also gone out in Melville, which is a 10 minute drive away, and also has a great night scene.
What did/do you think of the university? The location? The buildings? The teachers? The study programme?
In my opinion, Wits is a great university and the location is great, too. Close to the centre of Johannesburg and the lively city life but far enough away to feel safe and also get a break from the bustling streets. I had the luck to attend the university during its 100th year so I got to take part in many of the celebrations. However, I will admit the facilities are nowhere near as up-to-date as those in Groningen, despite being a much younger institution. The teachers here are great, all interesting personalities and very understanding when it comes to personal circumstances that may get in the way of your studies. I am taking four courses over the course of one semester and since I am doing the minor outside of the EU, I was able to choose any that I was interested in, even if they didn’t fit into the IRIO curriculum. I ended up taking an anthropology course, an African literature course and two politics courses: one called “Conflict, Stability, and State-building in Sub-Saharan Africa” and the other “Black Consciousness Thought and the Politics of Anti-racism.” All of these I enjoy thoroughly and am very glad to have picked.
How did/does it go financially? The accommodation? Food? Public transports?
I would say South Africa is quite similar to the Netherlands when it comes to living costs, depending on where you go to get groceries and how you get around. Accommodation here is a lot cheaper, at least it was for me, although I did not choose it myself and I actually have a roommate with whom I share a bedroom, and seven other girls with whom I share the bathroom and kitchen. I usually get around using Uber which can get quite expensive in comparison to Groningen where you can just hop on your bike to get anywhere. However, I have been spending significantly less in total because I have figured out which grocery stores are cheaper and eat a lot on campus where you can get very filling meals for quite cheap.
What was the most surprising thing about this new culture?
The most surprising thing was how diverse South Africa really is. There is no one South African culture. There’s the Xhosa, the Zulu, the Sepedi, the Venda, the Sotho, the Tswana, the Ndebele, the Afrikaaner, and the Tswana culture and the list goes on. More surprisingly, everyone here seems to be fluent in at least 3 languages, some of my friends speaking up to 7 or 8 - absolutely mind-blowing. Moreover, I find it pretty interesting to find that greeting one another is extremely important here and you’ll have full-blown conversations with people literally anywhere because everyone is super outgoing and people-oriented.
What is the funniest word you learned in the language?
Poes. You can use it in any context where someone is being dumb or rude. It’s an Afrikaans word so I’m sure you can figure out what it means.
What did/do you think of the workload?
The workload was more manageable than in Groningen, but I think it was mainly because we don’t have exams each block but just once at the end of the semester. And on top of that there is a designated study break in which we get a week off just to prepare for these exams. Not to mention, I feel a lot less stressed here because my main goal is to pass and learn as much as I can, not to attain high grades since these will not be counted into my degree anyways.
Did/do you meet any international students?
Yes, I met all the other exchange students although that number is just 23. Besides Marina (also from RUG) and I, there was one other Dutch student, a bunch of French students and a few Germans and Belgians and two Brits. I appreciated that we were such a small number of exchange students because it gave us the chance to meet so many local South Africans instead of staying in our international student bubble.
Gradings are given on a scale from 1-10.
Location of the University
(hard to reach <-> close by)
Just across the street, 1 min walk
Infrastructure/technology in the University
(no equipment <-> advanced application)
Not a lot of plugs, lecture halls seem outdated, but the university has generators which kick in whenever the electricity is shut off during loadshedding
Language requirements (English suffices <-> Official Language)
English suffices, there are 11 official languages in SA so no one can expect you to learn all of them anyways
The study programme
(easy <-> difficult)
a lot of deadlines, but less demanding
(informal <-> formal)
depends on the professors, one of my lectures only has 10 people in it so our lecturers address us personally
Students from Dutch universities
(few <-> a lot)
Just 3 including me
(few international students <-> many international students)
somewhat international but primarily students from other African countries not other continents, clear South African majority though
Points of Interest
(not so many <-> lots of museums etc.)
lots of historic places to visit and museums like the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill
(only local food <-> great variety of restaurants)
Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, etc. you can find it all
(none <-> several natural parks/recreational parks)
nature is mainly located outside of Johannesburg, Kruger National Park is only 8 hours away by bus and is an incredible nature reserve
(limited <-> many options/extra courses)
lots of sports clubs, a gym on campus and down the road
(limited <-> many theatres/cinemas/pubs)
such a lively city, there is always something going on and something to do
(expensive <-> cheap)
Groceries can be pretty cheap, vegetables and meat are incredibly cheap if you go to the small, no-name stores instead of well-known franchises
(difficult to find & expensive <-> easy & affordable)
I did not have to look for accommodation because it was provided by the university, it is quite cheap but hard to find if you are looking for something on your own
(difficult to acquire <-> very easy to acquire)
I did not have an issue with funds while I was here
(expensive <-> cheap)
Eating out can be very cheap or very expensive depending on the neighbourhood you go to, food on campus is cheap and in Braamfontein also very affordable
(expensive <-> cheap)
Ubers can be expensive if you use them a lot and public transport is considered unsafe although tremendously cheaper
(expensive <-> cheap)
If you’re a girl, going out is basically free, oftentimes you don’t buy drinks on your own and aren’t expected to pay entrance fees for clubs. For guys it’s a different story though…