Zimbabweans at foreign universities: the case of Rhodes University

And He Daki


This chapter seeks to understand the social and cultural experiences and interactions of black Zimbabwean students at Rhodes University in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. It does so by considering the ways in which they, in their everyday lives, manoeuvre in and through the institutional, cultural and social space of the university, including interacting with non-Zimbabwcan (mainly South African) students. This involves investigating how Zimbabwean students, as foreigners, make sense (or try to make sense) of their new social milieu and act out their lives accordingly. All students face certain social-cultural challenges when negotiating their presence in tertiary educational institutions and, for foreign (or international) students, these challenges are normally more pronounced. In this regard, it becomes important to identify and analyse the specific experiences of Zimbabwean students (the vast majority of whom arc black) at South African universities.


Zimbabwe is the most important source country for foreign students studying at well-resourced South African universities (Lee and Sehoolc 2015). In large part, they attend South African universities because of quality deficiencies at Zimbabwean universities and the broader economic and political crisis in the country (Masvawurc 2010), as well as the possibility of post-graduation employment in South Africa. This is despite the widespread Afrophobia existing in South Africa, which is often directed at the “millions of desperate Zimbabweans who arc placing [it is claimed] intolerable strain on public services” (Crush and Tawodzcra 2011:3).

Historically, under Apartheid, Rhodes University was an all-white English-medium university, and it has a present study population of about 8,000 students. Currently, approximately two-thirds of the Rhodes University student body are black, and Zimbabwean students account for nearly 10 per cent of the overall student population. Black Zimbabwean students at Rhodes rely quite extensively on their own funding for tuition and residence. They tend to come from middle-class backgrounds, while South African black students arc more differentiated in terms of social class, with many relying upon government funding. Like all black students, Zimbabwean students must handle the historically established institutional culture of a former white university like Rhodes. Additionally, as foreign students, they must navigate their way socially and culturally amongst the broader student body so as to establish a place they can call, if at all, their own.

Research methods

Because the study focused on understanding the social and cultural encounters, experiences and interactions of black Zimbabwean students at Rhodes University, the research was influenced by a qualitative research methodology (Agbcdahin 2012). This type of methodology entails research which turns “to experience in order to obtain comprehensive descriptions. These descriptions then provide the basis for a reflective analysis to portray the essences of the experience” (Moustakas 1994:1).

The research design was a (qualitative) case-study design since this allows for the exploration and understanding of the complex daily life issues (Zainal 2007) of black Zimbabwean students. In this context, it seeks “to gain an understanding of the underlying reasons and motivations for actions and establish how people interpret their experiences and the world around them” (MacDonald and Headlam 2009:8). This case-study design thus facilitated the emergence of thick descriptions by (and of) a delimited group of (black Zimbabwean) research subjects. There is no claim in this article though that social reality is somehow reducible to experiences as interpreted. Further, though the case study does not allow for statistical generalisations, it docs likely enable insights into the experiences of black Zimbabwean students at other previously white universities in South Africa.

The fieldwork took place from the end of August to mid-Octobcr 2018. The sample was chosen by approaching one of the participants of the population and then asking them to refer the researcher to other subjects of the population. A snowball was created because the participants referred the researcher to their acquaintances or to black Zimbabwean students who suited the more specific criteria for the study. In this regard, the significant variables were gender and year of academic study. These variables, it was thought, likely distinguished the participants and shaped their experiences at Rhodes. All students were attending Rhodes at the time of the research, but it was important to identify the negotiation of their everyday lives over time by incorporating students from first year to post-graduate studies. All the participants are given pseudonyms. Eighteen students in total were interviewed: nine males and nine females; and six first years, six third years and six master’s students. The evidence for the research involved the use of in-depth, informal interviews (with black Zimbabwean students) and these provided for a wide-ranging reflection upon their lives as students at Rhodes.

Reasons for coming to South Africa and choosing Rhodes University

The Zimbabwean students have varied yet comparable reasons for coming to South Africa. The commonality is that Zimbabwe did not offer them a promising quality education and, inevitably, a significantly recognised degree. Overall, the dire economic and political situation in Zimbabwe affected the students such that their decision to leave was beneficial for their future. Thus, Pearl indicated metaphorically that, in Zimbabwe, “[c]vcrything was just going down the drain from 2008 and we needed to move or go down the drain with it”. In a similar vein, Zin-tle notes that she left Zimbabwe and came to South Africa because it facilitated increased chances of being marketable once she obtained her degree. At times, the students felt almost compelled to leave their homes because they wanted a better future for themselves and their families. For Matt and Zola, coming to South Africa was also a cost-effective choice. In the words of Matt, “It’s obviously much cheaper coming here than going overseas. And I wanted to be away from home but not too far from home”. In this regard, studying in South Africa might not have been a personal choice of the students, as the circumstances (including the financial status of their parents) guided the decision to study in South Africa.

When asked why they specifically chose Rhodes University as a study destination, their reasons once again varied, but common reasons were identifiable. For instance, a main reason was the academic fit that Rhodes seemingly offered. In other words, Rhodes seemed to be the best university to study their preferred degree. As Precious put it, the “Journalism Department is really strong, so my dad said this is the best place to come. And everyone talks about the Journ Department to be really good here”. Likewise, Kenneth indicated that Rhodes University “promised to be a better university than most of the universities in South Africa in terms of the [law] degree I intend to study”. Overall then, in coming to South Africa, and specifically to Rhodes University, there were both push and pull factors.

Social experiences and relationships of Zimbabwean students

Given that Makhanda is a small city with no significant entertainment places -besides drinking establishments - which exist throughout the year, most students (including Zimbabwean students) view the town as quite lifeless and boring. Shaun indicated that “I thought Flararc was slow, but Grahamstown is slower. As students, we arc limited like ... we can’t even watch a movie or something like that”. Male Zimbabwean students in particular, but female students as well, stressed that Makhanda was slow-moving and dull, which was contrary to their expectations.

In this context, the “drinking culture” which historically characterises the institution speaks to what many Zimbabwean students do in their spare time; in fact, this leisure activity at times seems to crowd out academic studies, as it does for non-Zimbabwcan students. Some students thus claimed that their academic work

Zimbabweans at foreign universities 171 comes second in their list of priorities, with drinking and socialising more broadly coming first. As Matt put it:

Rhodes is everything they tell you about it. You hear that in Grahamstown, the students don’t have anything to do that is true. All we do is drink, get drunk and turn-up [party]. It’s this constant buzz of people having fun every weekend, Friday to Sunday, and even during the week with things like two [drinks] for [the price of] one. There’s little time to focus on your books [laughs] but who cares?

Some students in fact noted that when they arc bored, they drink. This often entails buying alcohol at the bottle store during the day (normally on a Friday and sufficient to last the entire weekend), and then drinking in their on- or off-campus residence from the early evening before going to a bar in town where “there’s an entire road dedicated to clubs”. Mary, in her third year, explained that “[b]cforc we go out, we have pre-drinks at Res while we get ready. By the time we get to Prime [a local pub], we arc already wasted [laughs]. That’s the best part . . . getting there ON [drunk]”.

For some students, there may be drinking during the week and hangovers the following day, missing morning lectures as “I don’t want to be bored by lecturers” (Zola) given that the lecture notes from the lecturer arc available on-line. It seems that for many Zimbabwean students, including first year students Noel and Precious, drinking is the main form of entertainment in town and this (apparently, drinking first and studying second) is the socially acceptable way to act at the university. As Noel added, and not in jest, “[j]just have fun man . . . we’re still young you know . . . we’ll be serious later”, by which he meant later in life, or at best later in the academic year.

Nevertheless, for some Zimbabwean students, their academic studies came first. Flappiness (a female, first-ycar student), for example, is more reserved and deeply focused on her academic studies. She spends most of her time at the university library and not “out and about”. Happiness even indicated that her only meaningful social interaction in Makhanda, attending River of Life Church, had been minimised by her academic commitments and plans for the future, which also entailed studying on Sunday. Pearl and Thandcka, both female students, arc pursuing their master’s degree and, likewise, they arc also not as outgoing, in terms of socialising, as most of their fellow undergraduate Zimbabwean students. For Pearl and Thandeka, this might be because of the sheer pressures of their postgraduate degree, which inhibits interaction with students and campus life more generally. As articulated by Pearl:

As you progress, socially, not just by choice but just the structure of the studies, they force you and you become less interactive with other people and what’s going on around campus. In undergrad in general you get to see and hear more about what’s going on around campus and interactions around campus you’re up to date. But in postgrad you’re almost socially secludedfrom things happening on campus. They don’t really affect you. You’re just in your own little bubble and so now being in second year masters, it’s actually narrowed down more, it’s just me [and] my lab. So social interactions end up being on your phone; on social media than in person.

Additionally, most of their friends had left Rhodes, therefore limiting the scope of their social relationships on campus. In the end, Thandcka felt sorry for the undergraduate students who, from her perspective, were acting against the very reason they came to South Africa (to study) in the first place.

Broadly speaking, then, social experiences of Zimbabwean students at Rhodes can be categorised into the drinking, partying and socialising category alongside the academically focused category. The latter category tended to be the outlier category, consisting of students who went contrary to campus culture, with students in the former category tending to normalise their socialising life as the hegemonic culture.

It is also crucial to consider the social relationships established at Rhodes amongst the Zimbabwean students. While the students intermingled with South African and (non-Zimbabwcan) foreign national students, the Zimbabwean students tended to hang out together, with Amanda reflecting upon hearing students speak Shona and wanting to engage them “because you feel like you share the same views and backgrounds”. Sbo noted that “I have friends from all over the world [and] I get along with people from different countries or regions”. Similarly, Noel indicated that ”[m]y friendship circle is mixed”, but he added that “it’s mostly Zimbabwean students”. It seemed though that they were more inclined to associate with other Zimbabwean students at the beginning of their stay at Rhodes, with their friendship circle expanding as they became more familiar with their new, perhaps strange, environment. Amanda and Happiness thus indicated that they became friends with non-Zimbabwcans only once they experienced a degree of comfort with the institutional and cultural milieu. Pearl spoke about this as well, noting that the difficulty of engaging with non-Zimbabwcan students in the beginning was an obstacle she soon overcame:

When I got here, I only chilled with Zimbabweans. It was nice seeing people who arc like you and people from home.... I felt close to them because I could relate. When I got lost with them. ... I knew that we were lost together. And another thing ... it wasn’t just about seeing people who are from Harare only, even other Zimbabweans. But as time goes on, you meet other people and you start moving away from your ‘comfort zone’... you meet nice people ... you know ... South Africans [laughs] and other people who welcome you.

Culture in South Africa: challenges for Zimbabwean students

The initial association with fellow Zimbabwean students involved an attempt to ease into their new institutional and cultural environment, in order to undercut the possible shock of the newness and corresponding discomfort. The Zimbabwean

Zimbabweans at foreign universities 173 students soon realised that there were significant cultural differences at Rhodes and in South Africa more broadly (compared to back home), and they were indeed struck by these differences. Befriending at first fellow Zimbabwean students allowed them to stand at some distance from certain cultural views and practices in South Africa, as a basis to make sense of them if not to come to fully understand and appreciate them. This was one way in which they sought to negotiate their way into university life. In fact, what they expected when arriving at Rhodes was in many cases vastly different than what was experienced and, in this context, the students (in the interviews) reflected upon their initial impressions.

According to Amanda (a final year master’s student), and Sbo (a male in his third year), Rhodes seemed like a completely new world. To quote them, with particular reference to sexual identity:

It’s [Rhodes University] a bit different... so different anyway. Culturally, it’s different from my own original culture. I think it’s because of the constitution, so there arc things allowed here that arc not allowed in Zimbabwe, so it’s not too familiar. In Zimbabwe there are limits in dressing, what’s expected of you. The issue of homosexuality. In Zimbabwe you can hear rumours of it, but you don’t see people practising it or whatever. In my case, it was not ok. From where I’m coming from, they say it’s not ok, so obviously I was not comfortable.


Everything about this place is weird. It’s not like home. You see guys with makeup . . . but they surely can’t really be guys ... no guy has makeup [laughs]. In Zim they would be behind bars for that makeup [laughs]. But I can’t say that in public here. You guys [South African students] would kill me.


Happiness (a female, first-ycar student) was more open to the presence of gay students on campus and tended to interact with them as she “enjoy[cd] their company”, only to be labelled by her Zimbabwean friends as a lesbian because of this.

It is indeed the case, as Amanda argues, that “homosexuality” in Zimbabwe is not visible and that it is deeply frowned upon, with gay people being subject to “stigma, prejudice and discrimination [as] justified by religious and cultural beliefs” (Mabvurira ct al. 2012:218). The Zimbabwean government has declared that it will not tolerate “homosexuality”, such that “politicians call them [gay people] the ‘festering finger,’ endangering the body of the nation; churchmen say God wants them dead; the courts send them to jail” (Shoko 2010:634). Since “homosexual” practices are a criminal offence in Zimbabwe, Zimbabweans in general have a negative attitude towards them, as many South Africans do as well.

Further, in Zimbabwe, sex of any kind is not a light topic for general conversation, especially amongst adults, with certain cultural protocols in place when it comes to talking about sex to young adults. In this respect, Abby (a female,

third-ycar student) revealed that many of her South African friends were expressive about the topic but, for her, sex and sexuality was a taboo subject. With their strict upbringing, the Zimbabwean students highlighted that they were taught that sex is a sacred act between a married couple and, as implied earlier, a heterosexual couple only. As Abby articulated it:

You guys [South Africans] speak about sex like its normal . . . like you are drinking water. I can’t do that at home. I was taught that sex is a sacred thing. It’s only for marriage. I come from a patriarchal upbringing. I can’t even say the word around my parents. . . . They would think I’m doing it. It’s unacceptable and we can’t negotiate that.

Jessica found this to be a “difficult situation”, as she recognises the need to obey her parents yet she is engaged in sexual activities with her boyfriend at Rhodes.

A culture of racism was also said to exist in South Africa, as repeatedly raised by the Zimbabwean students. As Jessica said:

I faced my first incident of racism when I was here. Here racism is actually a thing. They talk about it, it’s everywhere. Black people know it; white people know it. Students know it, lecturers know it. It’s a bit uncomfortable. Back home we have other different races yes, but no one cares to point them out. Here, it’s in your face. You have to take note of it whether you want to or not. . . you just can’t ignore it. It’s kinda overwhelming . . . and exhausting actually.

At the same time, it is important to highlight that race has been central to the Zimbabwean government’s exclusive and authoritarian nationalism, particularly in the early 2000s, at a time though at which these Zimbabwean students were mere toddlers.

In the case of South Africa, racism is often linked to the growing menace of Afrophobia, as distinctions arc made between different categories of black people (sometimes purely on the basis of skin tone). Black South Africans often refer to black foreigners in a derogative manner: the latter are considered as “the smelly”, “hungry”, “poor”, “illiterate” and “uncultured” Makwerekwere from “poor” Africa and are judged as guilty for “crime, taking our jobs and our women and as such should be resisted” and even removed from society (Isike and Isike 2012:96).

Abby referred to subtle forms of Afrophobia (or at least the propagation of essentialist distinctions) existing amongst South African students. In general, Zimbabwean students (compared to South African students) have a darker complexion, and Abby (in directing her comments to me as a South African student) remarked that “I’ve seen how you guys have serious issues with skin tone. The darker you arc . . . you’re a loser [laughs]; it’s a shame man. Black people are side-lined by the ‘yellow bones’ [light toned black people] who think they are automatically beautiful”. It should be added that this distinction between degrees of blackness, and the privileging of “yellow bones”, also exists within the South African black student body. But for Abby, even using Shona at her residence’s dining hall is troublesome as, when she communicates with other Zimbabwean students, the South African students “expect us to be quiet” - an act which wants her to leave South Africa immediately after acquiring her degree.

As well, John and Noel referred to being subjected to similar Afrophobic dispositions, at least when they visited larger cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. Both students claimed the existence of an observable difference between Makhanda and elsewhere in South Africa. In Noel’s words:

I only experienced xenophobia during the April vac[ation] in Cape Town. I was asking for directions in town . . . then they said I must speak their language. I told them I don’t understand. They started to laugh at me and swear at me ... they said I’m faking ... you know ... like a coconut [black outside, white inside] or something.

Being labelled as a coconut occurs often at South African universities, used by black working class students to denigrate black middle class students who aspire to whiteness.

Being in South Africa and in the Eastern Cape more specifically, which historically is an isiXhosa part of the country, Zimbabwean students at Rhodes University arc also exposed to different locally specific (ethnic-based) cultural norms and practices; as well as to other South African students with a different ethnic background. This relates not only to their interaction with the thousands of isiXhosa-speaking students at Rhodes but also with regard to staff at the university and members of the Makhanda community. As Precious highlighted: “In Zim we don’t really have the dress for our tradition, so seeing people dress up in their traditional garb is kind of nice, and your rituals, you guys acknowledge that. Whereas in Zim, it’s not really a big thing”. While such “ethnic” diversity (epitomised by the notion of the rainbow nation) was broadly respected by the Zimbabwean students, at least one Zimbabwean student spoke about the isiXhosa students “thinking they own this place or something” (Shaun), while another (Jessica) indicated that differences heightened the sense of her Zimbabwean identity and belonging.

Culture shock is not necessarily associated with negative emotions only, as the “crossing over” into another culture, if only temporarily, may be invigorating and even life-altering (Adelman 1988). One of the Zimbabwean students, namely Zola, illustrates this notion of cultural arrangements as eye-opening and in an illuminating way. He expressed that:

When I first arrived, I was shocked ... I think our cultures clash. Things arc very different in Zim ... we perceive things in a different way. There’s a lot of freedom here ... the liberty is good. It’s not like Zim. Here I can do anything and I won’t get into trouble. I’m not used to so much freedom and knowing that I can say anything or do anything and won’t go to jail for it. Back home you need to think twice before you open your mouth . . . ZANU [Zimbabwe African National Union] doesn’t play with children.

Thus, culture shock may open up vistas for personal transformation.

Overall, though, existing within the institutional and cultural confines of Rhodes University, even though not necessarily with a deep sense of belonging to it, involves an ongoing process of negotiation.

Negotiating and adjusting to the space

In effect, Zimbabwean students at Rhodes act out their lives along the sociocultural interfaces existing in the institutional setup, as well as simultaneously co-constructing these interfaces alongside other students at the university. A full interface analysis would admittedly entail focusing on the lives of these other students, rather than simply the Zimbabwean students. Interface theory, which is consistent broadly with the main thrust of the everyday lives literature, examines the ways in which different cultural-social life-worlds come together along interface boundaries within specific societal spaces (such as university spaces) (Drucker 2011). As Long (1997:9) indicates, an interface is “a critical point of interaction between life worlds”, such that it is conceptualised from the perspective of multiple socio-cultural realities and experiences which arc brought together in a fluid and dynamic manner. In entering new spaces, and sometimes as “strangers”, social subjects negotiate access and their ongoing presence. Hence, interfaces become subject to ongoing and sometimes tension-riddled processes of negotiation which might reconfigure and even disrupt the space.

In the ease of black Zimbabwean students, as foreigners in South Africa, they negotiate the university space as well as the wider public space. This is not to imply the existence of a homogenous lifcworld for all Zimbabwean students and another for all South African students. Rather, these life-worlds arc internally differentiated and may overlap in certain ways. Thus, in this chapter, it becomes important to consider the diverse ways in which black Zimbabweans negotiate the Rhodes University space, whether this entails a massive shock and subsequent alienation, adjustments over time, or assimilation into the lifcworld(s) of South African students (Aikenhead and Jegede 1999).

It is well known that university life is a stressful time for students, and more than likely anticipated (Compas et al. 1986). Because of this, it should not come as a surprise when many students (international and local) do not perform academically as per expectations. One research showed for instance that up to 60 per cent of first year students globally leave university without finishing their degrees, and the majority of these students leave within the first two years of study (Friedlander et al. 2007). First year is often the most traumatic year, with new students normally feeling a strangeness intrinsic to the university space, as if they do not belong: “The university terrain is drastically different from that of the school. Students get anxious as they adjust to academic, social, personal and lifestyle challenges that the university presents” (Mudhovozi 2012:251). Many

Zimbabweans at foreign universities 177 students are simply not able to endure the pressures of university and, at times with a limited support system, continuing their studies is not a feasible option.

In this context, adjusting to university life entails a difficult learning curve, as students seek to negotiate and manoeuvre their way through the cultural and institutional space as seeming strangers (Shupak and Cribbic 2007). As intimated, being a stranger is particularly common amongst Zimbabwean (and other international) students. At the same time, without denying the likely presence of class distinctions, the typical Zimbabwean student has middle-class sensibilities which may facilitate their casing into the ways of Rhodes, a possibility which docs not exist for many South African students who have working class or rural backgrounds. Zintlc, in fact, spoke about this with reference to the use of forks and knives in the campus dining halls, and how students who refrain from their use (and eat with their hands) arc seen as “backwards and uncultured”.

Nevertheless, negotiation is a vital process through which Zimbabwean students seek to “fit in” in a manner of their choosing. In doing so, they mainly move along cultural and social interfaces, as discussed in earlier sections - socially with South African students, along with cultural values and practices prevailing at Rhodes and in wider South African society. Importantly, negotiating along these interfaces is not necessarily an explicit and conscious act.

Zimbabwean students tended to negotiate the space differently, from when they first arrived at Rhodes University. Some students seemed to slide into the newness of the situation and interacted with South African students with a degree of ease. As John declared:

I think I’m bit of an extrovert [laughs] so . . . eventually they end up speaking to you. So I kind of dealt with it on my own. Some people arc afraid to get out of their comfort zone so you kind of have to dig deep to try and meet them where they arc and kind of sec the things that they like. So, I dealt with it by taking it into my own hands to try and talk to the people and create a relationship.

Contrary to this, Sbo showed considerable hesitancy and sought the assistance of a senior Zimbabwean student in trying to orientate his way:

I got here like during orientation and people had already grouped into their circles. So, at first, I was by myself, walking by myself, eating in my room not even going to the dining hall. Then eventually yeah.... I got to sec people because in res my sub-warden was Zimbabwean, so he helped me get used to the people.

After students entered the space, and through practices of negotiation, some form and degree of adjustment took place, without in all cases undercutting feelings of strangeness and disconnection on the part of the Zimbabwean students. Although some scholars have suggested that foreign students are generally a resilient group (Reynolds and Constantine 2007), the fact that each student didseemingly adjust (in their own particular way) does not imply an untroubled transition (Mudhovozi 2012). Indeed, cultural adjustment can lead to heightened physiological complaints, and mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety (Constantine ct al. 2004). This often means not crossing over the interface completely and becoming an insider, but remaining on the edge of the interface looking in.

Happiness, referred to earlier as focusing almost exclusively on her academic studies, claimed that she has fallen short of comprehensive adjustment, even though she was still only in her first year. Although on the inside, she felt like an outsider according to the normative culture of Rhodes student life. Unlike many Zimbabwean students who eventually interacted with South African students as a basis for adjusting and crossing over, Happiness negotiated the space by isolating herself from possible social networking:

I don’t think I have adjusted. Some days arc better than others. Some days you feel like I can do this, and then some days you feel like I can’t go on anymore. And then sometimes you have to call home and cry and then you get up and undertake the same routine. So, I don’t think I have adjusted.

Her alienation from the space was, at best, a coping mechanism repeatedly acted out on a daily basis. While declaring not undergoing a process of adjustment, Happiness sought to adjust through co-existence rather than assimilation.

Sbo also at first isolated himself, but then came into contact with the Zimbabwean sub-warden in his residence and underwent a form of assimilation. Kenneth, in his first year, spoke about being not only well-adjusted in the institutional space, but also highlighted that this took time. Despite at first seeking to maintain some distance from the strangeness of the place, he chose to assimilate and thereby embed himself in the prevailing ways of being at Rhodes. As he put it: “I think I can say I have adjusted quite well. At first, I had a plan. But then gradually I just got used to the system and went with the flow . . . I didn’t ask any questions”. Thandeka also observed what she saw around her, and slowly but surely took on board certain ways of being and doing in order to feel more comfortable: “Ok . . . firstly I adjusted mostly by observation. I would look at people and see what they do and see if I like it. If I liked it, I would also start doing it. I copied a lot of girls from my res and dining hall who arc from South Africa. It was easier to do what they do because they are from here”.

Considering the experiences of these and other Zimbabwean students, it appears that negotiation and adjustment (as ongoing processes) are not necessarily smooth and linear processes, and that different students move at different places and in different ways until they go beyond experiences of discomfort. This is exemplified in the experience of Zwcli (a male, third-ycar student), who struggled to negotiate his presence at Rhodes and in South Africa during at least his first year. His minimal interaction with South African students made his experience difficult and uncomfortable, and this was only eventually overcome in third

Zimbabweans at foreign universities 179 year by becoming immersed in social networks. He reflected upon this in the following way:

I didn’t like being around South Africans. The guys from my Res where bullies and always had something to say. Most of the time I was with my girlfriend. ... I did everything with her. But at times she couldn’t do everything with me. I started talking to a guy from King Williams Town who was in my tutorial];... through him I started chilling with the other guys ... eventually things got better.

Connecting with South African students seemed to be central to processes of negotiation. Shaun explained how he adjusted over time, and a crucial moment was when he, along with other Zimbabwean students, were introduced to a part of wider South African society through a South African student: “I only adjusted when we had a South African student join our group. He took us to the township and showed us the chill spots. But before that. . . like ... it was difficult .... [W]hcn we eventually knew the place, it was easy”. Other Zimbabwean students, like Precious and John, adopted a more direct route by taking the initiative to interact with South African students.

Irrespective of the many challenges faced, including cultural differences, ultimately nearly all Zimbabwean students experienced a level of comfort and belonging as time progressed at Rhodes. As Noel (a male, first-ycar) expressed it: “Obviously at first you feel out of place . . . then as time goes on you start to get with the (low and follow the pattern. It’s just easier to do what everyone else is doing you know ... that way no one cares about you, you don’t really stand out”. This quest to assimilate, rather than merely to co-exist, seemed to be the dominant manner in which Zimbabwean students sought to handle their experiences at Rhodes, to somehow overcome the strangeness of place.


The objective of this chapter was to understand the everyday social and cultural experiences of black Zimbabwean students at Rhodes University. In doing so, it identified the various and uneven ways of manoeuvring through Rhodes as an institution and the Zimbabwean students’ engagement with other (non-Zimbabwcan) students. Getting admission to Rhodes, and negotiating the space of Rhodes, was not an easy and smooth process, as it necessitated efforts at “fitting in” in ways which often entailed uncase and discomfort. In the end, the consequences of their negotiation process differed and changed over time. Some students “managed” the space in an active manner, seeking at times to almost assimilate themselves into the everyday culture of Rhodes University. Other students took a more passive stance, standing seemingly outside the world of Rhodes (at least its drinking culture) and trying to isolate themselves from the effects of this world on their academic studies. Inevitably, though, all students somehow adjusted to the space in varying ways and degrees.


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