By Hume Johnson, PhD
Ramone Rousseau is a 23-year-old Jamaican student at the University of Pretoria, located in Gauteng Province of South Africa. He is a Political Science Major enrolled in a 3-year degree programme, which he recently completed in November 2015, and has great ambitions to be a Minister in the Jamaican Government. For Ramone, living and studying in South Africa has been an amazing journey, in which he learned many lessons and undergone experiences, which he says influenced his growth into manhood and altered the way he interacts with people, and the world. Ramone encourages students in Jamaica, and elsewhere, to choose South Africa for study abroad. However, in order to enjoy your study abroad experience, survive in a radically new culture, and do well in your studies, Ramone suggests 10 things potential students should know:
- Expect Communication Barriers & Find Ways to Overcome Them: Language and communication barriers were perhaps the biggest challenges, Ramone says, he had to overcome as a new student in South Africa. “Communication, relating to people, even using my own language of English used in Jamaica, was a big hurdle. They didn’t understand some of the words I was using, or for them, it had a different interpretation.” South Africa has 11 official languages, the two dominant of which are English and Afrikaans, and nine tribal languages, all of which are used by South Africans. Ramone advises students not to be afraid to ask questions, as many people speak English as well as their tribal language and can generally understand enough to help.
- Getting Around is Not So Easy: Public transportation in South Africa is definitely not adequate and does not make for easy commute. Instead of buses as you would have in Jamaica, the country deploys minivans as taxis which carry the majority of commuters from various townships into the city centres. “I was always scared of getting lost, and I was so nervous taking the taxi. Transportation is not nice; taxi drivers speak their native language; People drive their own car or use taxis which ply certain routes regularly so you can get by but you have to learn to navigate this aspect,” says Ramone.
- Education is in English: Although there are 11 main languages spoken by South Africans, at South African Universities, English is the language of instruction, so students from English speaking countries, studying abroad in South Africa will be able to adjust quite easily. At the University of Pretoria where Ramone was a student for the past three years, test and exam papers, he says, were delivered in both English and Afrikaans. Ramone was not in agreement with this, stating that the tertiary education system tends to privilege only two of the country’s 11 main languages and ignored the many tribal languages spoken by the people. “Many students from Zulu tribe for example, use their tribal languages; many of them do not speak English or Afrikaans, and they have to struggle to write in English or communicate.” For Ramone, the system could also be more diverse: “Most of the lecturers are white; I had only two black lecturers, and they used European texts mostly.” He believes it is important that the perspectives of black scholars should find more space in the South African education, especially at the University level.
- There is a strong similarity to Jamaica: South Africa is an emerging economy and it shows in the infrastructure, from road networks, telecommunications, and the availability of global consumer goods and services that are farther advanced than Jamaica’s. But for Ramone, because the population is mostly blacks, Jamaican students, Ramone believes, will feel at home in South Africa. “Being a Jamaican, I am very popular at school. I always have a Jamaican kerchief, or wearing a Jamaican sweater, things that indicate that I am Jamaican and students always come over to me and show me love. This experience has made me a real ambassador of Jamaica”. Ramone says many students think weed is legal in Jamaica although now a small amount has been decriminalized. There is also the assumption that all Jamaicans have dreadlocks, so he says “ I constantly have to be correcting myths about Jamaica.”
- Prepare to adjust to a Colder Climate: Ramone noted that he had to make a major adjustment when it comes to the weather when he first arrived in South Africa. Summer came in December to February and Winter is from May to July, with the temperatures still cold even in September. “Winter is very cold, and it was my first time living in a colder climate, so that was a major adjustment for me.”
- Be open to local cuisine: It is important to be open to other cultures. Says Ramone, “I eat pap, the main South African dish. This is the staple of the majority of black South Africans although Afrikaaners, Indians and Coloured people also consume it. It is made from maize (white cornmeal). I also have a bit of western fish and chips, and meat pies.”
- Be conscious of Racism: Ramone had a negative, racial encounter with a white security guard once which has made him more alert to racism in South Africa. “He thought I was a criminal and scolded me for driving in and out of the shopping centre. He assumed I was Nigerian, so he said “Go back to Nigeria”. Ramone explains that this shopping centre is located in a predominantly white community, and the security company has a predominantly white staff, which represents the old Afrikaaner guard, and most of the incidents with this company involves black youth. Ramone continued: “I believe he approached me to intimidate me so that I would not come back to the mall; to scourges the area of black people, so my advice to students coming here is “Just be conscious of it.”
- Don’t Take Your safety for Granted: Ramone says although he is fortunate to have had no experience of crime in South Africa, he advises students coming here to study, to be alert to danger. “South Africa has a very high crime rate in the world so one has to be alert to their own security”, says Ramone. He advises students to be careful of drugs traffickers who peddle drugs in areas where students might reside. “For example, there is the highly addictive drug nyaope, and the trafficking of it is very prevalent in low income areas adjacent to the University of Pretoria that I attended. The areas have massive low income housing so a lot of students rent rooms there as this is what they can afford and they can be exposed to drugs. Robberies are also frequent”.
- Be open to all groups of people: Like Jamaica did with slavery, Ramone adds that there is a strong history of black resistance to apartheid and black oppression that Jamaicans will be able to relate to. At the same time, he says South Africa is an open society and is abhorrent to all forms of discrimination whether it is gender, race, or sexual orientation. Ramone admits coming from Jamaica where there is a strong disagreement to homosexuality, he was wary of gays and did not want to relate to gay people. “But since being here and attending University, I relate to all peoples regardless of colour, or sexual orientation; they foster that type of tolerance here and I have come to respect it.”
- Jamaicans are adored in South Africa: Ramone says his most positive encounter in South Africa is the tremendous love for Jamaicans among the South African people. “Being in Africa, being on the African soil, being a black man, being here, is an honour, getting the love from people, being a Jamaican, there is love in abundance, its crazy.” “This is something I would like all Jamaicans to see and experience; how far the South African and South Africans have come and the complete respect and love they have for Jamaica.”
Dr. Hume Johnson is a Jamaican. She is a journalist and Professor of Public Relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA. She writes extensively on Jamaica’s international image and identity. Dr. Johnson is the Founder and Chairperson of the nation brand think tank, The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org