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 dynamism of social and political change in South Africa, an extraordinarily diverse country in transition, with key figures at the forefront of its young democracy.

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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 in the 20 years after apartheid. The program includes multiple excursions, including a comparative visit to neighboring Mozambique which played a significant role in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and has pursued a different path in its own recent history of independence.

Students discover the significant role that Durban, the program's base, has played in South African history, particularly its position in and against apartheid. Highlights of the program include a visit to Robben Island in Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison, and an international excursion to Mozambique, where students learn of the close collaboration between the ANC and FRELIMO and their shared role in the struggles for freedom. 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.

Students learn from and work with key figures in South Africa’s social and political spheres, including Dr. Michael Sutcliffe, for-mer Durban city manager; Janine Hicks, senior commissioner with South Africa’s Commission on Gender Equality; Kiru Naidoo, political analyst and ANC communications manager; and Dr. Ntabiseng Motsemme, UKZN’s director for Capacity Building (UKZN) and truth and reconciliation scholar. Through these extensive networks of decision-makers and thought leaders, the program provides unprecedented opportunities to learn from those at the forefront of South Africa’s young democracy.

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

  • Asiye eTafuleni — championing inclusive urban planning and design
  • The Abahlali Shack Dwellers Movement — campaigning around housing issues and working to give voice to the poor and homeless
  • Phoenix Zululand — applying the principles of restorative justice in 13 KwaZulu-Natal prisons
  • KwaZulu-Natal Youth Empowerment Project — operating 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) — headquartered in Durban and working on conflict resolution in crisis areas throughout Africa

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, 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) reconciliation through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). 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; emerging 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 an analysis 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 — as it is difficult to analyze one without considering its relationship to the other.

Review course syllabi.

Congratulations to Desmond D’Sa, a longtime Durban activist and lecturer for the SIT South Africa: Social and Political Transformation program, on being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize! Read more.

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

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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