South Africa: Social and Political Transformation

“I am so thankful I had the opportunity to study with this program in South Africa. The SIT staff is extremely helpful and the multiple homestays are really a treasure. I got such a feel for South Africa’s cultures and made really strong bonds and connections.”

-- Morgan Sullivan, Saint Michael's College

Experience the socioeconomic, political, and cultural dynamics of South Africa, an extraordinarily diverse country in transition.

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Following decades of systematic segregation under apartheid, South Africa is striving to free itself of a legacy of racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and political authoritarianism to build a democratic and equitable regime. Nation building is a complex process that involves reconciling the past and forging the way to a common future.

Through coursework and community engagement, students on this program focus on issues of memory, reconciliation, development, and nation building as they relate to South Africa’s social and political transformations.

Students discover the significant role that Durban, the program's base, has played in South African history, particularly its role in and against apartheid. To provide students with learning opportunities in many different contexts, the program also includes field visits to Johannesburg, rural areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the Umfolozi and Hluhluwe game reserves, and the Drakensberg mountain range.

Interact with a range of organizations involved in South Africa's social and political transformations, including:

  • The Abahlali Shack Dwellers Movement — which campaigns around housing issues and works to give voice to the views of the poor and homeless
  • Phoenix Zululand — which works to apply the principles of restorative justice in 13 KwaZulu-Natal prisons
  • KwaZulu-Natal Youth Empowerment Project — which operates a school feeding scheme and youth club in the Cato Manor area of Durban where students have their first and longest homestay. Students participate in both of these activities on a weekly basis.
  • The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) — an African-oriented conflict resolution center based in Durban.

Durban street signs - photo: Emily Orlaska

The program is grounded in the experiences of the residents of KwaZulu-Natal, but the focus is nationally and internationally comparative. While investigating the complex issues of inequality and poverty, and racial, ethnic, and gender-based discrimination in the context of South Africa, students are challenged to draw and reflect on the experiences of their home countries in dealing — or not dealing — with these same issues.

The program has two interrelated thematic seminars that are fundamental to understanding South Africa’s past, present, and future transformations. The program’s seminars focus on:

  • Memory and Reconciliation in South Africa through the examination of 1) the challenges of transition; 2) re-membering the past through individual and popular memory; and 3) the challenges of reconciliation through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), among other approaches, in a fledgling democracy. Lectures and discussions aim to provide students with a solid grasp of the historical background of South Africa's apartheid system; contemporary developments leading to the dismantling of that system; the visions for post-apartheid South Africa; the political, economic, and social structure of the future South Africa; the role of memory in healing the trauma of the past; and anthropological and cultural approaches to understanding South African society.
  • • Development, Transformation, and Nation Building in South Africa through the examination of: 1) development in South Africa; 2) nation building explored through education and the media in South Africa; and 3) gender and social change. A central premise of this course is the interconnected nature of issues of development and nation building in South Africa — it is difficult to analyze one without considering its relationship to the other.

Review course syllabi.

Program alum Olivia Greene (Columbia University) has received a Fulbright to return to South Africa to work on human rights and transitional justice issues at the University of the Western Cape, Department of History.

“My study abroad experience got me thinking about the world around me in a whole new way. Each week we encountered a new lens through which to view South African society — healthcare, housing, education, gender, music, soccer, and the justice system. Through the field-based approach, I saw details about what I was learning that could never be conveyed in a classroom.  The program’s curriculum and homestay component left me with wonderful memories of conversations, adventures, and friendships that ignited my curiosity and also challenged me.  The program asks students to be daring from within and, because of this, I grew personally in ways that proved to be invaluable as I thought about my future aspirations.”

Stephanie McKee Program alumna Stephanie McKee returned to South Africa where she created a collaborative series of artwork with prison inmates from the KwaZulu-Natal Prison and interned with the Phoenix Zululand Restorative Justice Organization. McKee was a 2012 Alice Rowan Swanson fellow. Learn more.

Browse this program's Independent Study Projects/Undergraduate Research


Costs Dates



Credits: 16

Duration: 15 weeks

Program Base: Durban

Language Study: isiZulu

Prerequisites: None

South Africa

View Student Evaluations for this program:

About the Evaluations (PDF)

Fall 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Spring 2013 Evaluations (PDF)
Fall 2012 Evaluations (PDF)


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