Security in South Africa: navigating personal and social mobilities

There are several aspects (or cultural practices) to life in Stellenbosch that I could write about. The range reaches from load shedding, bureaucracy, greetings, time management, relationships between lecturers and students or – “simply” –  the way in which race influences all those areas and areas beyond that. However, since I can never tackle such an intricate debate in this one blog entry, I decided to write about something more concrete, something that requires that I adapt my behaviour, and is also linked to race and inequality. It is the subject of security. After introducing a few words on security, this blog will illustrate how the reality of inequality and the resulting desire to move socially upwards with the example of course advertising and the number of economics students at the University of Bern (UniBe) and Stellenbosch University (SUN).

The basic security program entails the following and may paint the overall picture of security at SUN:

  1. The residences are fenced, gated, and continuously guarded. Entry is granted with fingerprints.
  2. In general, Campus Security guards the campus day and night by making their rounds.
    1. You never walk anywhere (especially not alone) when it is dark outside. You call an Uber or you own a car.
    1. When you are in said Uber, you do not use your cellphone while inside the car crossing a crossroads. A nice Uber driver has informed me that people spot cars that are worthy of robbing by looking at which cars have cellphones in them. The rob those “worthy ones” by throwing nails on the road stopping the car and robbing the passengers, often at gunpoint and especially around Cape Town.
    1. There is the option of being accompanied home by Campus Security at night in case you have to walk home.

The more I talk to locals, the more detailed the picture. A couple told me and a friend of mine that Stellenbosch is “pretty safe”. Their conclusion was that “in Stellenbosch you get mugged, in Capetown you get murdered”. Moreover, apart from stories about people getting mugged, there is the amount of drug use that is considered normal among students, all the way over to one student showing me his scar on his chest where he got stabbed during a mugging.

Coming from Switzerland, this situation feels surreal. I feel like I cannot fully grasp the seriousness. I still feel too safe (or I feel like I might feel too safe, i.e., what does the behaviour, appropriate to this situation/information/collective knowledge, look like?). All of this tells me that this topic will accompany me throughout my stay. This might be something to which I will adapt my behaviour to again and again.

The (or one) main root of this problem is of course the big gap between rich and poor. This gap has struck me twice so far: The first time was driving from Capetown Airport to Stellenbosch: The road was enclosed by townships that are multiple times the size of my home city, Bern. Sheet metal huts after sheet metal huts, sometimes one atop the other, creating a two-story sheet metal house. The second time was when a few friends and I left this one club, Aandklass, late at around 2 o’clock: Right around the corner on the parking lot, there were several homeless people sleeping in their sleeping bags while the rich students were celebrating and spending their money in the club.

To me, this reality of a big inequality and the desire of social and professional mobility manifests itself in the aims, conversations, study interests etc. the students and non-students have. One example is the way in which courses, study books, skills etc. are marketed and sold as tools that help students building a career. This is done with courses (or study plans) that are obviously related to business and career, e.g., courses in the Department of Economic and Management Sciences. However, it is also done with language courses such as Basic Xhosa (which is one of the courses I am taking, although not the more preferrable one-, two- and/or three-year course). The following quote stems from the course description on the Department of African Languages’ Webpage:


The multi-lingual South African community has a variety of communicative needs, and a knowledge of at least one African language is vital for effective functioning in respect of communication needs on both a personal and professional level. Good communication abilities in an African language and an insight into aspect of communication of the African Languages is a great benefit in the workplace, in practically any career. A good knowledge of the literature, language theory and communication aspects of isiXhosa, is of particular value in any career which requires language and communication skills in IsiXhosa. These careers include those of language teachers and language teaching practitioners (who teach isiXhosa to adults for specific work-related needs), publishing houses, translators and language and communication divisions in the government sector as well as in the business world, as well as people involved in advertising and the broadcast media.”

(Full description:

Of course, it is not at all uncommon to advertise BA studies with the prospect of having career opportunities. However, I noticed that at Stellenbosch University this is done with Language Courses/Studies while in Switzerland I did not perceive language courses being marketed in the same way.

Another indicator of that desire to be socially mobile might be the comparison between the number of Economy students at the University of Bern and SUN. While at Bern roughly 15% (2’894 out of 19’297) of students study at the Department of Economics, roughly 28% (7’545 out of 26’587) of the SU-students are students of economics.[1]

The reality of inequality and the desire to be socially mobile is well summarized by Naartjie, a fellow student from my Afrikaans class: In a conversation about this and that, we came to talk about Generational Wealth. Naartjie said to me that (paraphrased): Everything we do, school, learning studying etc. we do because we want the same generational wealth as white people have nowadays already.

[1] Doctoral students were not included, only BA and MA in both the calculations for Unibe and SU.

Sources: SUN :

Unibe :

Luca Mast

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