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My Lessons from Cape Town: The Beauty & Complexity South Africa

Sooo, I traveled to South Africa. Specifically, I traveled to Cape Town—South Africa’s legislative capital— as part of a two-and-a-half week study abroad class called “Social Transformation in South Africa”. While there, my nine classmates and I studied historical and contemporary social, political, and economic issues facing the country, including the legacy of apartheid* (a brutal system of racial and ethnic segregation that formally ended in the 1990s). We also were honored with the opportunity to provide social media, fundraising, and campaign creation support to two incredible South African non-profit organizations: Triangle Project and Just Grace.

As my very first time in South Africa—let alone the continent of Africa—this trip was incredibly special to me and I left with a lot of lessons. Here are my top 3 :))

#1: (South) Africa is nothing like home—and very much like home

There is no one way to describe Cape Town. I found the city and surrounding communities absolutely beautiful in terms of nature, street art, and architecture; just about every person we met—strangers on the street, tour guides, non-profit workers, artists, cooks, etc.—were super friendly and helpful. The City Bowl, the area where our hotel (the Stay Easy) was located, felt quite safe and beyond unhoused people occasionally asking for food/money, I never experienced much concern.

Views of Cape Town (City Bowl & Bo-Kaap neighbohood)

Also, I found Cape Town’s diversity of races, ethnicities, nationalities, and languages super fascinating! As of June 2023, South Africa has 12 official languages (most recently South African Sign Language**). As a nation formerly colonized by the Dutch and English, Afrikaans (a Dutch-derived, but distinct language) and English are widely spoken, as are the indigenous languages of Zulu and Xhosa (which is distinct for its use of clicks).

At the very same time, the Cape Town area is a place with deep, visible social and economic inequality. Just a few minutes from my hotel, there were tented encampments of dozens of unhoused people living in unhealthy, cramped conditions. Since it’s currently winter time in South Africa, I’d commonly see people huddled around trash can fires at night to keep warm. Also, despite the end of apartheid almost 30 years ago, wealth is still very much connected to race. The City Bowl and other wealthy parts of Cape Town had noticeably more White people than the more economically disadvantaged areas, which were overwhelmingly Black or coloured*** (South African term for mixed race).

In a lot of ways, these contradicting parts of Cape Town are really similar to South Florida (where I’m from) and Washington, D.C. (where I go to school). Beautiful, yet unequal cities with a fascinating diversity, deeply-rooted socioeconomic challenges, and wonderful people.

#2: “God is a woman and Her name is Mother Nature”-Abby Tucker

That was my friend Abby’s response when I asked her “So, what did you think of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden?” I totally agreed with her excited, candid response to the gorgeous place we’d just visited. So, I’ll let the Nature pictures do the talking lol

Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden

Entrance view (looking up at mountain)!

"Krants Aloe" and "Pink Trumpet Vine" flowers

Boulders Beach (home to a colony of adorable Cape/African Penguins)

Looking out at the sea at Boulder's Beach

Cuties from the Cape Penguin colony :))

Table Mountain

Overlooking part of Cape Town & part of Atlantic Ocean

Looking at Table Mountain from the Company Gardens (City Bowl)

#3: Having an open-mind 🤝 Having a GOOD TIME

We read up on South Africa’s history, politics, and contemporary social issues to make sure we weren’t completely ignorant. We also had an awesome and super knowledgeable tour guide, Cole. He connected us to other guides within several neighborhoods and gave us background info for essentially every place we visited (e.g. museums, gardens, mountains, towns, community centers, etc.)

Even with all of this support and preparation, my schedule was super different day-to-day: one day, we’d visit the top of Table Mountain; a few days later, we’d visit a gathering and education space for women; other days, we toured Cape Town’s surrounding suburbs and townships.

Through it all, I had no specific expectations. I tried to simply be curious about all of these new people, places, and perspectives I was blessed to encounter. As a result, I could appreciate Cape Town as the one-of-a-kind place that it is. That curiosity helped me form relationships I never could have imagined. That open-mindedness also helped me (re)discover parts of myself—like my child-like joy as I overlooked Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain (see below)

Mind blown at the top of Table Mountain XD (Credit: Cole Reizenberg)


There’s a whole lot more about my (first) trip to South Africa that I want to share: the food, diverse communities, community gardens, my amazing classmates and professors. But I don’t want this post to be a bajillion words long lol.

More importantly though, I could never hope to capture the infinite stories of Cape Town, South Africa better than the people who call it home. So, Enkosi kakhulu (Xhosa for “Thank you very much”) for reading this piece of my experience! Feel free comment any questions or thoughts you have 🇿🇦 ~Akil


* Learn more about South African apartheid


Big shout-out to my professors, Dr. April-Sizemore Barber and Dr. Sabrina Wesley-Nero, for an unforgettable course! Also, shout-out to our tour guide, Cole Reizenberg, for the above-and-beyond support and our driver, Cecil, for getting us places safely with a kind smile and great stories.

Thanks so much to the incredibly smart, ambitious, and talented friends I made through this course. Super grateful for y'all and looking forward to staying in touch 💙

Mirror pic credits: Chloe :)

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This is amazing!!! so lucky to have been able to travel/learn with you!!!

Akil Cole
Akil Cole
Jul 12, 2023
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Thanks Maeve! I'm so grateful we got to cross paths on this incredible experience. See you on campus in the Fall :))

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