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Diversity in Cape Town

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CIEE wants all our students to feel welcomed, supported, and empowered to succeed while studying abroad. On this page, local CIEE staff have provided details about conditions and cultural attitudes that students with specific identities might encounter at their location.

The information below is just a broad overview so if you have specific questions or concerns not covered here, please email We would be glad to have local staff share their perspectives, talk with you about accommodations, connect you with resources, and/or put you in touch with a program alum who could speak about their experiences navigating a program in this location

No matter where you choose to study abroad with CIEE, our staff—all of whom receive regular and comprehensive training in diversity, equity, and inclusion—will be on hand throughout your program to provide advice, resources, and support regarding these issues. 

Body Size/Image

Some South Africans consider overweight/obese bodies to be a sign of robust good health and wealth.  However, overweight bodies are often not viewed as attractive, with most local social media influencers conforming to a slender, curvy stereotype in terms of the body image they project. Stereotypes about gender and body shape persist here as they do worldwide.



Differently abled people are still not fully accommodated in South African society, although some sectors are very intentional about building accessibility into services and buildings.  The University of Cape Town campus is located on a mountainside, with many stairs, but is wheelchair accessible.  Wheelchair users will need to allow more time to navigate the campus.  The free shuttle bus to campus can accommodate wheelchair users, by arrangement.  The university disability unit supports all kinds of disabilities including neuro-atypicality, among students. Academic accommodations by way of reader/scribe and/or extra time, can be made by arrangement and on assessment. 

Students are encouraged to provide as much information as they can related to their specific disabilities (or related needs) prior to arrival so CIEE staff can assess potential challenges and arrange for appropriate accommodations.


Socioeconomic Status

Most South African students get by on less than 300 US$ /month, so you may feel that your money goes a long way in South Africa.  However, it's important to remember to live as the locals do if you want to stretch your budget: this includes eating out rarely and cooking healthy foods at home. It is wise to budget for safe transport (door to door services such as Uber are common) since public transport is unreliable and not always safe.  Much of Cape Town's natural beauty—beaches, mountains—is free to access, and museums and galleries are free to enter on "First Thursdays”.


Gender and Gender Identity

South Africa is in large part a traditional patriarchal society, with deference given to men, especially fathers. Typically, women undertake most unpaid labor in the household, even when holding paid work outside the home.  Some social events are sharply divided along patriarchal lines. That said, Cape Town is a modern cosmopolitan city, where many women and men identify as feminists and so do not subscribe to patriarchal norms. Gender Based Violence is an ongoing problem in South Africa, with girls and women being the majority of victims of this violence. Cape Town is the 'queer capital' of Africa and so a lot of gender diverse people choose to make it their home. During orientation and throughout your program, CIEE staff are on hand to provide advice and support regarding issues of gender and gender identity.


X Gender Marker

While there have been plans to revise and introduce gender-neutral identification of South African Identity Documents since 2018, these plans have yet to be implemented. This revision has gained traction in 2021 and 2022 as 530,000 people living in South Africa have self-identified as non-binary in the latest survey. This momentum has not yet resulted in widespread education on gender diversity let alone the realization of gender-neutral identification administratively. Unfortunately, students with the X gender marker on their passports would still be required to fill out documents in the gender binary (male and female), with little understanding of the difference between sex assigned at birth and self-identified gender. As such, non-binary students might still experience gender dysphoria and/or distress due to gendered bathrooms and the high level of gender-based violence in many South African communities. Fortunately, at CIEE Cape Town, we have queer-identifying and gender inclusive staff, as well as housing options available for gender non-conforming individuals to make our site a welcoming and inclusive space for all students to study.


Heritage Seekers

South Africa's history of apartheid has left a divisive legacy, and the existence of 'Coloured' as a description of a group of people can create pain and confusion for heritage seekers in South Africa, since here 'Blackness' is not a singular concept for many people. Students who identify as Black at home may be misidentified as Coloured in South Africa, and/or assumptions about linguistic fluency can be made, which can be alienating.  Owing to the history of colonization, slavery, and migration in South Africa, there is a diverse array of heritage in South Africa, including Asian, African, European, Indian, and others.


Racial and Ethnic Identity

Race and Ethnicity have been and still are at the heart of South African history, politics, society, and economy since the European colonization. The Apartheid hierarchical Racial Categories favored Whites, then Coloureds, Indian and Chinese, and then Blacks. This inequitable Racial Categories continues to result in ongoing tensions between the different racial groups in South Africa. South Africans still live into and refer to each other by these racial terms. US students of color need to be aware that South Africans may attempt to ascribe the race Coloured or Black to them. The term Coloured is generally used and accepted in South Africa. Asian American students may be referred to as “Chinese” irrespective if are from China or not. The ongoing protests, by mostly Black Students, have resulted in universities and society becoming more aware and inclusive. The student #RhodesMustFall Movements have supported and received solidarity from the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. 

During orientation and throughout your program, CIEE staff are on hand to provide advice and support regarding issues of race and ethnicity.



Freedom of religion is enshrined in the South African constitution.  The country is host to a multiplicity of religious beliefs and organizations, while the majority of citizens (80%) identify as Christians.  In the Western Cape Province where Cape Town is located, Islam is a prominent religion.  Observant Muslims close businesses for Friday prayers, and many schools permit scholars to leave early on this day for this reason. Judaism and Hinduism, as well as African traditional religions, are all practiced throughout the country. Several annual national holidays are observed as public holidays according to the Christian calendar including Good Friday, Easter Monday, Christmas Day.


Sexual Orientation

South Africa’s 1996 Constitution specifically protects full and equal rights for LGBT people. In 2006, the nation legalized same-sex marriages—the first country in Africa and the fifth in the world to do so. However, many say that the law jumped many years ahead of society. While LGBTQI+ people can live freely in many parts of the city, in others, LGBTQI+ people are persecuted and the targets of violence.  LGBTQI+ rights exist in law, but actual freedoms are extremely unequal, usually fractured along poverty lines in the city. Pride month is celebrated in October.

Programs in Cape Town