Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

African international students in South African universities

Thobeka Vuyelwa Mda

Human Sciences Research Council South Africa


Recent studies and surveys report that there has been a huge growth in foreign1 students studying in South African (SA) universities (ASSAf 2010; MacGregor 2007). According to MacGregor (2007, 1), ‘international students at SA’s 23 public universities quadrupled since 1994 from 12,557 to 53,733 in 2006’. Two out of three of the international students in SA universities are from the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), with Zimbabwe as the major ‘source’ country, followed by Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. The numbers of students from non-SADC African countries also nearly doubled during the period 2001 to 2006 (MacGregor 2007, 1).

A number of factors have significantly influenced the move towards SA universities by students from the rest of the continent: the close proximity of the geographical region, historical connections, language, the perceived high quality of education, accessibility, affordability, and high employability rate of SA graduates in their home countries. A major factor for most African students is the lower cost of living and lower tuition fees in SA when compared to those of developed countries. Because of bilateral agreements with SADC countries, SADC students are subsidised at the same level as local students in SA public universities (MacGregor 2007; McLellan 2009).

African students in South African universities

African students are students who come from African countries and who are natives of any of the countries of Africa, or descendants of any of the peoples of Africa. In the SA context, the classification ‘African’ refers to the group of people who are of African ancestry and who are classified ‘black’ in colour, but not coloured, or Indian. To distinguish between the local Africans and those from outside SA, the term ‘African international students’ is used in this chapter for the latter group.

I have chosen to focus on African international students because they form the majority of international students in SA universities. As stated above, the number of students from the African continent studying in SA universities has increased significantly over the last decade, mainly because of the close proximity of the country geographically to other parts of Africa, historical connections and language. It might seem that these factors would make it easy for the international students to find studying in SA like a ‘home away from home’. Further, as these students belong predominantly to the same race as the majority of South Africans, it would make it easy for them to blend in and be like locals. However, there is evidence that because of home languages and histories, which are often different from those of the locals, they may be viewed as, and also feel, different (McLellan 2009). At the same time, there have also been notorious violent incidents in which Africans from outside SA have been the targets of xenophobic attacks. The incidents, which have been covered widely by the media, have mainly affected lower socio-economic classes and those Africans who stayed in historically black residential areas such as townships. This prompted my interest in finding out whether the international students who form the focus of this study have felt threatened by xenophobia and if they had been directly affected.

The large number of African international students in the SA universities, who are also black in colour, has boosted the number of black students graduating with PhDs in the country. As reported in the 2010 PhD study (ASSAf 2010, 16): ‘Significant improvements observed in terms of racial representation among doctoral graduates may be offset by similar increases in the number of non-South African graduates’. The study also noted:

The representation of non-South Africans is highest among black graduates, especially in engineering sciences, material, and technologies where only 36% of doctoral graduates in 2007 were South African nationals. This suggests that the dramatic increase in the share of black graduates in this field is largely the result of an intake of students from elsewhere on the African continent. (ASSAf 2010, 49)

At the research council where I work, when a new Act was promulgated in 2008, the inclusion in the staff complement of African scholars, as well as interns, became compulsory, and this formed part of performance indicators for the various research units. The objective – to ‘help build research capacity and infrastructure for the human sciences in the Republic and elsewhere in Africa’ – resulted in a quota for the appointment of research interns from the continent. The council then decided on a ratio of 75 per cent and 25 per cent for interns from SA and those from other African countries respectively. The requirement for interns to be registered students at a local university, however, excludes many African students from participating. Students who cannot be accommodated are those who are applying while still at home, and who come to SA to work as interns, and those already registered as full-time students, attending regular classes, and not able to be based at the research council. In some instances these prospective interns, just like the local students, registered for higher degrees if they were offered paid internship positions.

The 2010 ASSAf PhD study also reported that one-third of non-SA doctoral students, who were studying in SA during the time of the study, intended to stay in SA after graduation, compared to a very small number of SA national graduates who intended to migrate to other countries (ASSAf 2010). As a result, there was the potential to change the profile of SA graduates and academics.

While the increase of international students in the SA universities may be seen as benefiting SA society, the increase in the number of black graduates, and the expressed intention of non-SA PhD graduates to stay in SA after graduation, has not been without problems, controversy or contestation. There are perceptions in SA that the universities, especially the historically white universities, are admitting the international black students so as to meet the admission quotas that have been set for black students. A preference for non-SA black students over local black students derives from the observation that the non-SA students tend to be more academically prepared and stronger than the local black students. This means that the universities do not have to spend scarce resources on remedial and academic development of under-prepared students. Yet giving first preference to non-SA black students defeats the purpose of redressing programs aimed at the historically disadvantaged and excluded SA students whom the government quotas serve.

If the African international graduates stay in SA after graduation, as indicated, this would be a loss to the African countries they came from. It would seem, then, that while all African countries, including SA, have always had the challenge of brain drain – losing their educated nationals, mainly to the western countries – SA is now moving into the category of predator country.

South Africans and Africa

The relationship between South Africa and Africa, or South Africans and Africans, is a complex one. South Africans of all racial groups and socio-economic classes, but especially from the uneducated and lower socio-economic classes, tend to be ignorant of the continent and generally display a sense of superiority over other Africans. The position of South Africans in relation to the African continent can be described as one of misalignment, dislocation, detachment, disinformation and ignorance. South Africans of all races and classes generally refer to those from the continent but outside of SA as ‘Africans’, and when referring to travel from SA into the greater continent or from any African country into SA as ‘coming from’ and ‘going to’ Africa, implying that SA is not part of the African continent. In reference to fellow South Africans, South Africans struggle with the term ‘African’. For purposes of redress – targeting the historically disadvantaged groups – the post-1994 SA Equality Laws classify South Africans as Africans, Coloureds and Indians (all three groups also constitute the historically disadvantaged black race) and white people. The term ‘African’ is somehow contentious when referring to South Africans, so that in use it is frequently qualified to ‘Black’ Africans (Mda 2010).

The study

In preparation of this chapter I conducted a ‘mini study’ to investigate the experiences of African international students in SA universities. The study focused on graduate students who are currently studying in any SA university. The starting place for my selection of the students was the research council where I work, following the promulgation of the council’s 2008 Act, which requires that 25 per cent of interns must be non-SA Africans.

Focus-group interviews of non-SA postgraduate students from the continent

I began by interviewing the African students who are interns in my workplace. I sent the interns emails, explaining the project and inviting them to participate in a focus-group interview. Five students agreed to participate in the focus group, four of them in Pretoria in the same room as the interviewer, while the fifth one was on the telephone in Durban. Later, another student, based in our Durban office, was sent the questions by email and responded electronically. I also sent the questions by email to three non-SA students in SA universities, who were not interns at our organisation, but whom I had met a few weeks before at a conference. One responded electronically to my questions a few weeks later. The total sample consisted of three Zimbabweans, two BaSotho, one Mauritian and one Nigerian: five females and two males.

Expansion of the participant group

A few weeks before the Monash University conference in November 2010, I travelled to a conference for ‘women in research’. On the way to the conference I chatted with a female lecturer from another university whom I had not seen for quite some time and, coincidentally, she started talking about discriminatory practices by academics and management at her university, especially against black academics and students. I then raised the question of non-SA African students. I have included her responses in the results.

As I continued chatting to others, formally and informally, about the phenomenon of African international students and SA Africans, it became clear to me that there were views and opinions on each of these groups, as well as on the different experiences each group seemed to have in the universities. At another recent academic conference I found myself in conversation with a lecturer from one of the neighbouring African countries. I initiated a discussion about the experiences of non-South Africans in SA, especially in academic settings. I include his observations in my report a little later.

After the focus-group interview with the African international students, the electronic survey to the non-SA students, and talking to the SA female academic and the non-SA academic, I decided to ask a few SA students their views on the non-SA students. These were also students who were interns at my workplace. Four participated.

The questions

Interview and electronic questions for the African international students:

  • Why South Africa?
  • How much did you know about South Africa before coming?
  • Did you find it different from what you expected?
  • Are there differences in academic culture?
  • Are there differences in student culture?
  • Are you treated differently from local students by academic staff?
  • Do you feel different from South African students or is this a non-issue?
  • What have you learnt about South African education now that you are here?
  • What do you think would be South African students’ experience if they went to study in your country?

Questions for South African students on African international students:

  • Have you been in classes at the university with students from the African continent?
  • Are they easy to spot/identify? If yes, why?
  • Are you friends with any students from the African continent, but not from South Africa? If not, why not?
  • Do they exhibit a different academic culture from South African students?
  • Do they exhibit a different social culture from South African students?
  • Are they treated differently to African students from South Africa by academic staff? Why do you think these students come to South Africa, and do you support them coming to study here?
  • Would you consider studying in another African country? Why? Are there any thoughts you would like to share on this subject apart from answering the above questions?

Responses from African international students about studying in South Africa

Why South Africa?

The following were the most common answers. These answers are similar to those reported by MacGregor (2007), Kishun (2008) and McLellan (2009):

  • South Africa is close to home. There were no similar courses at home. No bursary for overseas studies was available.
  • SADC students do not pay the foreigners’ levy, but instead are subsidised like local students.
  • The South African universities have a reputation for a high standard of higher education.
  • There was the allure of post-apartheid South Africa.
  • There was a desire to leave home and be independent, far from the parents’ eyes.

One student from Lesotho reported that as there were no postgraduate studies in Lesotho at that time, he knew he would have to pursue postgraduate studies outside his country. He secured an overseas scholarship but because he had met someone he loved in his country and planned to marry and start a family soon, he did not want to go far away from home. He decided on SA, which is close to Lesotho, so that he could visit home at least every month. He did an Internet search on the SA universities and checked how they were rated worldwide. He also had an opportunity to visit two SA universities before coming to study, one an historically black university and the other an historically Afrikaans university, and he did not like either. He chose an historically English university.

Another student, also from Lesotho, did not have a bursary for overseas studies. She easily chose SA as an alternative because she had noticed that, unlike in the past, those who had studied overseas did not have an advantage over those who studied in universities on the continent, such as in SA. She said overseas was ‘no longer the gold’. Those with SA degrees got employment positions as easily as those who had studied overseas. The students also reported that the governments of the neighbouring countries were offering more scholarships to study in SA than overseas. This was the case in Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

A student from Zimbabwe had completed her Honours degree in Zimbabwe and was keen to pursue her masters degree inside or outside her country. She applied to universities in Botswana, SA and Zimbabwe. Ultimately, she decided on SA for economic reasons. Her husband was already working in SA because the Zimbabwean economy had ‘gone sour’, so she decided they would save money if they shared accommodation in SA. It was only when she came to SA that she learnt about the University of Pretoria, where she studied.

How much did you know about South Africa before coming?

All five students who participated in the focus group knew a few universities in SA before coming. The two students who answered questions electronically did not know about SA universities. One of the two was not coming specifically to study, but for opportunities she was told existed here. She had been assured that as a foreigner she would at least find a teaching position. The other student knew nothing about SA universities and all she knew about SA was what she had read in the media or tourist magazines. Since her home was in Mauritius, Durban in KwaZulu-Natal Province was the nearest place for her to study.

Those who knew of the SA universities each sent applications to more than one university. The choice was then made on the basis of affordable fees, where they got admitted or, as in one case, because the university was recommended by a homegirl already studying in SA.

Did you find it different from what you expected?

The Nigerian student, who came to SA because of opportunities she had heard about, found the situation very different on arrival. She had not known about the various permits she would need as a foreigner and that she needed to legalise her stay in the country before she could be employed, and that getting the legal-stay permission was not easy.

One student observed that there is a difference between visiting the country and living in the country. She had learned about the transport system, the government bodies and the apartheid history. Other students had not found anything strikingly different from what they had expected.

Are there differences in academic culture?

The students all found the academic environment supportive of their studies. They reported many more student resources in the SA universities than in universities back home. The resources mentioned were easy access to computers or computer labs, tutoring, bursaries and opportunities to attend conferences. One student from Zimbabwe reported that at home lectures and tutorials were compulsory for undergraduate students, whereas in the SA university where she was studying, tutorials were optional. Apparently this was not common, as others reported that tutorials were compulsory for undergraduates in SA universities. They all perceived the standard of higher education in SA to be very high. It must be pointed out that all the students in this study were studying at historically white universities, which have always been advantaged. The experience was probably very different in historically black universities, especially those in the rural areas.

When asked to share specific personal academic experiences, one of those studying in an historically Afrikaans university jumped at the opportunity and immediately said, ‘The language was a big issue!’ This student from Zimbabwe was studying for a doctoral degree and had completed a masters degree at the same university. Her masters classes were supposed to be in English, unlike the undergraduate studies, which were offered in English or Afrikaans. In class a student would ask a question in Afrikaans and a lecturer would respond lengthily in Afrikaans and then give a very brief translation in English. The non-Afrikaans-speaking students felt left out in such instances. There was only one lecturer who did not want Afrikaans to be used in class, insisting that everyone must be included.

Regarding work ethic, all the interviewees felt that the South Africans did not push themselves as hard as the non-South Africans. One student felt it was because in SA people with honours degrees could get very good jobs, but for them back home they needed to have at least masters degrees to secure good jobs.

Are there differences in student culture?

They all felt there were differences. What follows are some of the observations made by the foreign students:

  • South African students are more involved in extra-curricular activities; there’s night life and students are involved in many student organisations.
  • South African students are more liberated in dress and highly fashionable compared to Zimbabwean students. Students from Zimbabwe adapt while in South Africa, but they leave their short pants and mini dresses in South Africa when they go home.
  • South Africans are more accepting of foreigners: ‘At home foreigners are not treated kindly’. (This was the answer I least expected.)
  • South African undergraduate students do not work as hard as non-South Africans.
  • ‘I was shocked by the lack of respect for elders here.’ This was a reference to students addressing lecturers and professors by their first name.
  • A Zimbabwean was shocked by the familiarity of South Africans. She was uncomfortable with all the hugging.
  • The students noticed that South African students mixed almost exclusively with people of their own race.

Are you treated differently from local students by academic staff?

None of the students felt they were treated differently by academic staff. One student said the lecturers just preferred diligent students, no matter where they came from. (This was in contrast to what the SA lecturer reported.)

A Zimbabwean student said that some South Africans felt that Zimbabwean students were favoured and given higher marks than locals. He refuted the claim. He conceded that some lecturers had favourites, but they could be from any race or country of origin, including SA.

Do you feel different from South African students or is this a non-issue?

For the students from Lesotho this definitely was not an issue. One even said that she had been surprised that I had invited her as a foreign student because she did not think of herself as a foreign student. This was because her home language, Sesotho, is one of SA’s official languages. Located in Pretoria, where Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho) is spoken, it was easier to blend in, as the language is close to Sesotho sa Leboa and Setswana. For one of the Sotho students, however, this had not always been easy because he started his studies in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and could not understand isiZulu.

For the Zimbabweans, the Mauritian and the Nigerian, not speaking the local languages made them feel different. This was especially difficult off-campus. One Zimbabwean student told how he had struggled to obtain information about local taxis because he could only ask in English. An observation by the same Zimbabwean was that because at postgraduate level he was among many foreign students, English was the commonly used language, and that limited the chances of learning a local language. He felt this was a pity.

The Mauritian student stated that she was different from the SA students in many ways. She took a lot of risks at night in SA, which many locals would not take. For instance, she and a Zimbabwean housemate would often walk at three in the morning. She added:

Also, I don’t hang around with a specific race or religious group. I’m aware of the different cultures around the world while many of the locals are not. I am also more willing to learn of new cultures and broaden my general knowledge; I believe this increases my acceptance levels of other culture groups. Whereas for many locals, it is still very hard for them to accept that I dress differently, or I cook differently etc.

This student’s response matched my beliefs about differences between locals and foreigners. Indeed, I was surprised that this response had not also come from the bigger group, or at least not as clearly. I come back to this point in my summary.

What have you learnt about South African education now that you are here?

All of the interviewees said that the standard of education was very high, which confirmed what they believed about the system before coming. One of the students said that in addition to studying in SA she had also been involved in teaching at a local secondary school. Her assessment was that at tertiary level education was very good, especially when there was ‘a big group of international students attending – at the University of Cape Town for instance’ – but that the same could not be said of the rural universities in terms of facilities and services, and of the public schools. In her view, the best schools were the private ones, with more extracurricular activities and trained teachers. The Mauritian also observed that in SA education ‘is a privilege for the under-privileged’, which was in contrast to the situation in Mauritius, where the best schools were the free government schools.

Another student said that SA education focuses mostly on what a student needs to study and not on irrelevant stuff. She thought that lecturers, especially in her field, science, had heavy workloads, as they always seemed very busy – possibly because there is a limited number of lecturers in that field. It was not clear whether this was in reference to undergraduate or postgraduate studies.

What do you think would be South African students’ experience if they went to study in your country?

A number of the students thought South Africans would not enjoy the experience, but for different reasons. One student responded by comparing it to leaving a luxurious life to try out a pauper’s life. Clearly, this student’s description of studying in a SA university was based on her experience of studying in a highly resourced, historically advantaged university.

The Mauritian referred to both the academic life and the socio-cultural life. She felt that South Africans would find it difficult to live in her country, where race is not an issue. South Africans would be shocked by the safety level of Mauritius, the free and safe transport for all students and elderly citizens. Education is also free and efficient in her country.

The Nigerian thought South Africans would find life outside their country strenuous, as they did not go out [of the country] a lot. Being away from their families and cultures might be stressful at first, but they would eventually cope.

Responses from the other participants

On whether the African internationals were easy to identify, as opposed to local Africans, the local students said it was only when they spoke that one heard the distinct accents when speaking English, otherwise they were not different. When the two students who said that the African international students exhibited a different social culture were asked to expand, one said that the ‘older generation (45+) tend to interact more with people from their home countries and less with locals when they are studying here, [whereas the] younger generation tend to be more accepting and embracing of the so-called “South African culture”‘. The other student said what was distinct about the international Africans is the respect they have for every individual, most importantly women, which was different from the behaviour of his South African friends. This South African said his continental friends ‘did not have multiple partners, girlfriends or boyfriends … and they always critiqued this notion of multiple partners’. Interestingly, this view had been articulated by a Nigerian female student during the chat I had with students at the conference a few weeks before. The Nigerian student explained why she and her countrymates did not date South Africans.

Local students did not think the international Africans were treated differently by academics, or at least did not admit that even if they thought so. The SA lecturer, on the other hand, was convinced the African international students were favoured. She became animated as she described the preferential treatment they received, and how unfairly the local African students were treated and viewed. She also added that the admission of the international African students was mainly to meet the race quota requirements.

The international African lecturer reported that he had SA and non-SA students, and that the former were not as successful as the latter group. He said that usually when they organised academic outings or fieldwork, especially during weekends, most local students did not go on the trips. His explanation was that the local students had too many commitments and obligations, which foreign students did not have. These could be participation in family and relatives’ funerals and other such events. I wasn’t sure if he was being genuine or was being a gracious guest (to the host country). This could, of course, have been one explanation for the underperformance of local students when compared to Africans from outside SA.

There are other instances and contexts where the local students are seen to be either underperforming or slack in their studies. For instance, the organisation I work for has an agreement with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) to collaborate in promoting research in the continent. One of CODESRIA’s programs is the annual regional research methodology workshops offered to doctoral students free of charge. Invitations are sent out for research project summaries and the best students are chosen. What has happened in the past is that in southern Africa, the SA contingent has been made up of African international students studying in SA universities. Apparently, few applications come from SA nationals and, since selection is purely on merit, the few SA nationals may not be selected. For the last two years CODESRIA has reported that the response from southern Africa was so poor that the regional workshop for that area was cancelled and the two or three successful SA applicants were transferred to the East Africa regional workshop.

Explanations for the high visibility of African international students as opposed to South Africans in these endeavours is perhaps explained by the reality that the non-South Africans have developed survival skills where there are limited resources, and that even being in these SA universities is a result of being resourceful. Another explanation is that the African international students who are in SA are high achievers, and that is also why they have made it through the competitive admission processes of the local universities. As high achievers, it is to be expected that their applications to funding programs such as CODESRIA are strong. South Africans, on the other hand, are at home, in a comfort zone, and do not seem to have developed survival skills because they have not had to scrounge for few resources. In some instances others claim that local black students especially are used to being given preferential treatment, as a result of redress policies such as affirmative action and race quotas.

The last explanation was shared by the African international students I chatted with at the conference. They were scathing in their attacks on local students, saying that the locals were spoilt and missed a lot of opportunities. In fact, one of these foreign Africans had recently completed her doctoral studies and was currently working as an academic. She made sure she introduced herself to people she deemed very important at the conference, such as the keynote speakers or government representatives, admitting that this was for advancing her career.

A summary of the results

An analysis of the student interviews suggested that the following factors made the experience of studying away from home feel like being at home:

Language, history and culture

If the international student understood the locally spoken language(s) then it was possible to feel like being at home. The students from Lesotho, for instance, did not feel as if they were outside their home country, especially in the SA provinces where their home language is commonly spoken. This sentiment was shared by the students from Botswana, studying at Monash University, with whom I chatted at the November conference. The majority of Shona-speaking Zimbabweans felt alienated because of language. They conceded that Zimbabweans from Matebeleland who spoke isiNdebele, a language originating in SA, and also one of the SA official languages, would be linguistically comfortable in SA. Not only is isiNdebele one of the official languages in SA, it also belongs to the big Nguni language group that includes isiZulu, isiXhosa and SiSwati. This made it easy for a Ndebele person to fit in in many provinces in SA.

As observed by one student, being in a postgraduate program at the university with many other international students lessened the pressure to learn a local language: as most interactions were with people who spoke English, an opportunity to get closer to and be more comfortable with the locals was lost.

Apart from speaking a common language, nationals who share a history or close history and similar or very close cultures, also feel at home. In the case of SA, for instance, Namibians and South Africans share a common history of apartheid rule for more than 40 years and having Afrikaans as the enforced language. Of course Namibia also has a history of German rule and its present culture reflects German influences. With English a new language for Namibians – introduced and made official after Namibia’s 1990 independence – many Namibians are most at home in SA in Afrikaans-speaking environments.

SA, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe were British colonies or British protectorates and therefore all have British influences in their current education and cultural systems. SA also shares borders with all these countries, which makes it very common for residents and citizens to move in and out of SA. Many children from Lesotho attend school on a daily basis across the border, in the SA town of Ficksburg, and Basotho also do their shopping in SA towns. As a result, the Basotho students were very familiar with SA, even before they registered in the SA universities, and all reported having visited or done shopping on a regular basis across the border.

As a student in the US in the 1990s, I had also experienced the closeness of students who shared a colonial history and a colonial language, even over those whose countries shared borders. In our situation, for instance, students from Senegal (West Africa), a former French colony, were closest in interactions and friendships to students from the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire then), another French colony in Central Africa, rather than the students from neighbour countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia or Ghana. Among the West Africans, the Senegalese associated more with students from Togo and Cote d’Ivoire, other former French colonies.

A community of foreign students

The presence and, in fact, increasing number, of international students in the universities is making it easier for them to feel comfortable away from home. These students may not necessarily be close to local students, but sharing the experience of being foreign with many others and sharing the language of communication and of learning, English, makes it easier to adapt away from home. As one of the students in my focus group reported, out of 10 African students in their postgraduate studies, eight were non-South African, so being in the majority lessened the feeling of being foreign.

The students interviewed formed ‘national students associations’ in their universities and towns, for example a Mauritian Club at the University of Cape Town and a Zimbabwean Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The Mauritian student in KwaZulu-Natal was a regular at the Zimbabwean Society functions. As a former international student I understood the importance of these associations. During my days as a student in the US I was a member of the All Africa Students’ Association, but also belonged to a community of exclusively SA students in my university and other local universities. The latter group shared imported SA foodstuff and food prepared in the SA way.

Other facilities and support systems for international students are university offices and centres such as the International Students’ Office, counselling services where international students can go when experiencing severe homesickness and depression, and general student clubs based on extracurricular interests.

The ability and willingness to blend in

Some of the students I spoke to said for the international Africans to feel at home in SA, they ‘needed to loosen up’ as these students tended to be uptight. A Zimbabwean student and a Nigerian student found SA students to be carefree.

The Mauritian student, who looked like a South African of Indian origin, was seen as a local in Durban, where the population is predominantly of Indian origin. This could have been a benefit in that she looked local, but then she did not share the history of the Indian South Africans, and had a problem with being classified ‘Indian’ when she had no heritage links with India or Indians. It was a problem when people found out she was not one of them and could not relate to the obsession with colour. She felt closer to the foreign Zimbabweans than the local Indians she looked like.

Limitations in this study

This study was of a very small sample of African international students. Further, these students were not residing in the universities at the time of interview, although some of them had before, and therefore they may not really represent the views of the larger population. The study by McLellan (2009) of 100 African international students from three SA universities, for instance, reports many problems experienced by the students. These include fear of crime, not being recognised as fully fledged international students in comparison to overseas students, lack of language courses for students whose mother tongue or second language is not English, financial difficulties and xenophobia. This group also reported experiencing hostility from South Africans (McLellan 2009, 7).

Issues in social and cultural interactions

The results from my ‘mini-study’, combined with my experience as an international student in a foreign country, raise a number of issues.

Sense of belonging

The experience of foreign study is influenced positively or negatively by whether the student feels a sense of belonging. The sense of belonging may come from having similarities with the locals or feeling at home in the local environment, but also from having a community of foreigners who share differences and frustrations in the foreign land, and also speak the same language – English in this instance. In the latter situation international students feel a strong sense of belonging to the international community.

Confusing identity/identity crisis

In both the SA and the US situations (but also apparently in the Australian situation, as indicated in other chapters in this volume), race always becomes a big factor. The local racial classifications, for example ‘Black’, ‘Indian’, ‘people of colour’ and ‘racial minority’ may be foreign and offensive to the foreigner who is classified in this way. In my study the Mauritian observed: ‘In the 18 years that I have spent in Mauritius, nowhere have they ever asked me, ‘What is your race group?’ It was actually confusing for me when I first came to SA and they categorised me as an ‘Indian’ as, for me, an Indian is a person who is from India … but I was [not]’.

As a South African, who grew up at a time when race was the hallmark of the apartheid policy and the kind of life a person led was determined by the racial classification, I have always been familiar with racial politics, and knew my place racially. In the SA major racial division, where people are either black or white, coloured people were a subgroup of the black people, which included the Africans and Indians, and I belonged to the majority African group. In the US, in addition to being black and African, I was also a person of colour, foreigner and one of the numerical minorities. I understand how disconcerting it must be to Africans coming to SA to find that they are regarded as foreigners and that they are classified as black, as opposed to being Nigerian, Mosotho or Mauritian, with all the trappings that go with that racial classification.

Local group stratifications

Foreigners quickly find out that not only do they have a racial classification they may have never known, but there is a predetermined status for people like them, or some stereotypical beliefs about people from their country or continent. As a foreign student in the US, I quickly learned that even among the foreigners, Far East Asians, especially Japanese, had a higher status than Africans or Caribbeans. Looking like an Indian in SA may result in people being treated like a local, but then they also assume the historical status of the new group, and being a SA Indian means being historically disadvantaged, and that may be very uncomfortable if they had always been privileged and enjoyed the dignity of all humans.

I am aware that this discomfort with classification is not only for those associated with historical disadvantage, but may also be equally, if not more, unnerving to those who suddenly assume benefit and privilege by virtue of their colour. White international students, for instance, may not only find themselves suddenly belonging to a privileged group, but on the down side may be deemed to have been unfairly advantaged over others because of their race. They may also be linked to previous oppressors, simply by virtue of their colour.

Understanding and appreciation of local history and dynamics

A requirement that I could also refer to as a universal rule is for foreigners to learn and appreciate the local history and dynamics without judging the locals. It is important not to take sides in any divisions in the local society, or at least not to be vocal about their views. A tendency is for the African internationals, who have not experienced apartheid, to easily dismiss the eternal wounds as a result of the previous unjust system. The foreigners see a new SA, the world icon Mandela’s political organisation, the African National Congress (ANC), whose members are predominantly black, in power, and assume that all is well. The fact that all races are now attending the same universities, which may be headed by black principals, suggests that all are equal and, to the foreigners, everyone has an equal chance of succeeding. This assumption is, of course, naïve.

Many African societies are not racially constructed, with any observable racial divisions between Africans and non-Africans. Class divisions do exist, but in terms of race and language, most African societies are homogeneous. The SA society is, of course, not one of those. In addition to the class divisions there are also racial divisions, and the two may coincide. As a result of the continuing inequalities, including the type of education accessed by different groups, it is students from certain groups and certain classes who manage to get into postgraduate programs, especially in historically advantaged universities, which may also be world-class universities. Locals understand the challenges faced by students from specific socio-economic classes, also from specific residential and geographical areas, in accessing education offered in these universities. As the Mauritian interviewee observed, SA students would be surprised to find that in Mauritius education is not a privilege, but free, together with the health system, and that transport for students is free. Often international students have no appreciation of the unequal construction.

The subtle divisions and classifications may escape visitors and international students, who have no real understanding of language and racial politics. In SA, for instance, the numerical minority ‘coloured’ people predominantly (79.5 per cent) speak Afrikaans, a historically privileged language, as a home language (SouthAfrica.Info 2010), and yet they are historically a disadvantaged group. It should not be surprising, therefore, if their registration numbers are found to be low in university postgraduate programs, even when the main language of learning is Afrikaans. This nuance may escape foreigners, who may not even notice that there is an under-represented group in their university classes.

Universities’ redress mandates

As a redress measure, SA universities are required to ensure representation of all racial groups in admitting students. This means that admission cannot be limited to merit only. For truly representative student populations, universities get some subsidies. This leads to suspicions in many quarters about the universities’ motives for admitting large numbers of African international students. Of course the universities may genuinely be attracting these students to contribute to the continental capacity building drive, or be doing so out of the desire to change the profile of the student body to be more international.

Internationalisation versus Africanisation

The phenomenon of international students in universities is an opportunity for cultural and indigenous knowledge exchange between people of different nationalities and continents. However, while there is a generally understood and distinct American education, the same cannot be said of African education. It seems to me the SA universities are not using this experience to export African indigenous education or an Africanised version of knowledge. What the SA universities are offering in terms of curriculum is similar to British and American curricula. To local and African international students that is reassuring because it translates into ‘high standard’ global education, the same education students would get if they went to a British or an American university. For me, however, this is a missed opportunity to export an Africanised, but still world standard, education. For the students from the western countries, especially Britain and the US, it would have enriched their knowledge and lives to add a curriculum with an African flavour to what they had already learnt in their own countries. With respect to international education in SA, the renowned SA novelist and academic Njabulo Ndebele has asked: ‘What are South Africa’s framing national values, and how do we promote them? What aspects of tertiary education do we wish to promote? What are the curriculum implications of multiculturalism and internationalism?’ (Kishun 2007, 456). As far as I am aware, these questions have not yet been answered.

Aside from the formal curriculum, international students do get educated informally through social interaction. The interaction may take place inside the university through group discussions; social contacts on and off campus; and organised interactions, such as visiting institutions including local crèches, hospitals or residential communities. This may be a required component – a practical component or fieldwork – but it may just be the students’ desire or interest to find out more about the environment. International education is also facilitated by the existence of local host families, whereby students may learn the local language, which may be the learning language for those who do not speak English well. The form of compensation for boarding and lodging may be financial or it could be services or assistance offered, such as housekeeping or teaching the host family’s child or children the student’s home language if seen as prestigious or of future benefit, for example French, Spanish or Japanese.

Being an international student and being a host institution of international students is also a form of investment, the returns of which include international citizenship. The international student phenomenon has resulted in lifetime friendships and networks across the globe. Some of these end up being political connections when the students achieve powerful positions on the global stage, such as country presidents, foreign affairs ministers or United Nations officials. In the modern world global careers and global citizens are increasing and international education contributes to this.


So what are the benefits of the existing and increasing number of African international students in the SA universities? Drawing on the views expressed by the students in my study and others such as the ASSAf’s 2010 PhD study, the following benefits are identified:

  • For the cynics, universities increasing their number of international students kills two birds with one stone: they are able to meet the black student quota admission without spending lots on academic support for under-prepared students. Universities also benefit from the diverse international student (and even staff) population and from having to offer an international curriculum.
  • Students from outside South Africa get access to ‘quality’ education and a wide variety of courses and qualifications that they would not get at home, just a few hours away from home. These international students also experience personal growth and a global experience that opens their horizons.
  • It has been reported that one-third of international PhD students in South Africa intend to stay after graduating. If this materialises, it would make a positive contribution to South African society, which would be importing diverse skills and knowledge.
  • Through interactions with international students, South Africa gains global experience. It is good for the local Africans, who are emerging from decades of oppression, to see possibilities and heights they could reach, from watching and interacting with the ‘born-free’ Africans. Myths about Africans and the limits to how far they can go can be debunked.
  • The African countries of origin gain from the experience of international students when the graduates return to their countries with new skills and knowledge. The 2010 ASSAf PhD study recommends embracing ‘brain circulation’ and escalating the numbers of South African doctoral graduates through external intervention programs, to alleviate the problem of blockages in the graduate and postgraduate pipeline and limited supervisory capacity, and to ensure international exposure for doctoral students. These benefits are also possible for the African international students’ countries of origins.

The phenomenon of international students, therefore, should be encouraged, and best practices in making international students abroad feel at home away from home should be replicated all over the world.


ASSAf (Academy of Science in South Africa). 2010. ‘The PhD study: An evidence-based study on how to meet the demands for high-level skills in an emerging economy. Consensus Report. September 2010’. Accessed 15 April 2011. Available from:

Kishun, R. 2007. ‘The internationalisation of higher education in South Africa: Progress and challenges’. Journal of Studies of International Education 11: 455–469. Available from:

Kishun, R. 2008. ‘Measuring international student mobility trends: In and out of Africa’. Accessed 15 April 2011. Available from:

MacGregor, K. 2007. ‘South Africa: Huge growth in foreign students’. University World News, 9 December. Accessed 15 April 2011. Available from:

McLellan, C E. 2009. ‘Cooperative policies and African international students: Do policy spirits match experiences?’ Higher Education Policy 22 (3): 283–302.

Mda, T V. 2010. ‘Politics of dominance: The suppression and rejection of African languages in South Africa’. Paper presented at the World Council of Comparative Education Societies (WCCES) 14th World Congress. 14–18 June; Bo?aziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey.

SouthAfrica.Info. 2010. ‘The languages of South Africa’. Accessed 15 April 2011. Available from:

1 In this paper the terms ‘international’ and ‘foreign’ are used interchangeably.

A Home Away from Home? International Students in Australian and South African Higher Education

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen