Having grown up in one of South Africa’s major cities, many of Johannesburg and Cape Town’s matriculants don’t consider themselves suited to small town life. What they don’t realise is that these towns offer a freedom, space and independence that is unmatched by big cities.
Back in 2012, I was one of Johannesburg’s many matriculants who began setting their sights on big city life elsewhere in the country. Many of us went to Cape Town, attracted to the beaches and vibrant social scene. Aspiring vets and engineers flocked to Pretoria, while others opted for gap years spent surfing Durban waves.
Few of us imagined ourselves settling in the small student towns of Grahamstown or Stellenbosch. Based on three happy years studying in Grahamstown, here are 6 reasons why small towns are an off-campus student’s dream.
- Campus is always close to home.
As a student, there will be days that you will spend long hours on campus. Lecture schedules, especially in first year, can be unforgiving. Living in a small town allows you to pop home to make lunch, take a break in the gaps between lectures or even make a change of clothes as the weather shifts.
Friends of mine studying in UCT have described how petrol costs and the lack of parking on campus forces them to stay on the university grounds, even if they have large gaps between morning and afternoon lectures. While this isn’t necessarily a problem if you can spend that time working in the library, the freedom of movement between the Rhodes campus and your home is very practical as a student.
- Freedom of movement.
This freedom also applies to your nightlife, your friend group, grocery shopping and, if you decide to pick up a student job, to your workplace.
Being able to walk home after a night on the town has been one of my favorite elements of Grahamstown life. Not having to worry about driving to or from student bars has been a drastic change from going out in Johannesburg. It’s freeing to be unworried by the need for designated drivers or organising cab services for every evening out.
Another element of living in Johannesburg was having to drive between distant suburbs to visit friends. In Grahamstown, no-one is more than a 20 minute walk away. If that seems like a lot, consider that you will never have to worry about traffic or not having petrol. You will get used to walking in a matter of weeks, and both campus and town are beautiful at the pace of a stroll.
Living two or three streets down from Pick ’n Pay and your student workplace, similarly, is very practical. Freedom of movement not only makes student life more practical, but having everything and everyone be so accessible gives university life a feeling of radical freedom and adult-like independence.
- A car isn’t a necessity.
Getting a car was not an option for me when finishing school, and this would have been a problem had I lived off-campus in Johannesburg or Cape Town. Many matriculants are not able to afford cars, and all the related stresses like safety, insurance, petrol, and eventual replacement parts are additional reasons some parents cannot or are not prepared to give their 18-year-old’s cars right out of high school.
I have spent three years in Grahamstown without a car and would strongly recommend putting off this big buying decision if you are uncertain about it. It can be expensive, a big source of anxiety and, in Grahamstown, unnecessary. While it’s fun to be able to take a weekend away in Kenton, there will always be enough people with cars for you to do this with some planning.
- It is much cheaper.
Besides the costs of a car, living in Grahamstown is also lighter on the student wallet for a number of reasons.
Many restaurants, bars and shops are geared towards the student community, catering to student budgets and needs. There are second-hand bookstores, clothing shops and other stores that are just as good the big retailers, and almost all students make use of these places because of their high quality and affordable prices.
Property is also very cheap in Grahamstown. There are many good apartments costing less than R4000 a month between two people, and many popular student houses cost less than R3000 a month per person. The 5-bedroom house I have stayed in for the past year, complete with a very large garden, only cost me R2400 a month.
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- You have much more time.
Navigating a big city uses up a lot of your time. Traffic and driving long distances are a big reason for this, and there will be many days as a student that you will need all the time a day can offer. The time spent walking in Grahamstown is much less than that spent travelling through the suburbs and centres of Joburg or Cape Town.
Small towns with small populations also have other benefits. Personally, I have never spent more than 30 minutes at home affairs, the police station or my bank. Which brings us to the final point;
- More people, more problems.
You don’t need to be an introvert to appreciate this point. Besides the shorter lines in banks and municipal buildings, there’s something appealing in reducing the amount of people in your life to the few ones you actually interact with.
A small community of people creates a sense of intimacy and connection with your environment, something that is difficult to establish in a big city. This helps combat depression and feelings of loneliness that we are all susceptible to.
Having to balance a city full of people can be exhausting, and I didn’t realise how much peace could come from having fewer people in my life.
When considering whether to study in the national centres of Cape Town and Joburg or in the periphery provinces of the Eastern Cape and Western Province, realise that you are going to live there as a student. As a student, you will have specific needs and a particular lifestyle. Small town life can make this lifestyle much easier, freer and more fun.
You won’t be in University forever, so consider maximising the freedom, independence and productivity of this time by spending it one of this country’s small, intimate and beautiful University towns.