How South African students see the United States: Reflections on teaching US foreign policy at the University of the Witwatersrand

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How South African students see the United States: Reflections on teaching US foreign policy at the University of the Witwatersrand

Christopher Williams

07 Oct 2020

9min min read
  • Human rights
  • Political development

This article is published in partnership with the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at Wits University.


n 2019 I taught United States (US) foreign policy to a class of 25 students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. While I hope my students learned something about US foreign policy, I certainly learned something about how they perceive the United States – my country of origin.

I began the course by taking a casual survey. I asked the students to raise their hand if they had a positive view of US foreign policy and America’s role in the world. Not one did. While I had imagined the response to this question would be more negative than positive, I was surprised to see not a single hand go up.

After that first class I checked the polling data available on South African views of the United States to see if my class’ view was representative of how most South Africans view America. It was not. A Pew poll in 2018 found that 57% of South Africans have a favourable view of the United States. This presented a puzzle. Why were the views of the Wits students I was teaching so overwhelming negative towards the United States? And, why was it so different from that of their countrymen and women? The rest of this commentary will address these questions by examining how four factors – (1) The Wits university context and the ambivalent influence of American culture; (2) race relations in the United States; (3) The asymmetrical influence of America’s largest aid program in South Africa, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR); and (4) the personality and policies of President Donald Trump – all shape my students' views of the United States in important ways.

The Wits context and the uneven and unnerving impact of American culture

One factor that explains part of the ambivalence some students at Wits feel toward American culture is the milieu in which they operate. Wits, which was once compared to the University of California, Berkeley by its vice-chancellor, is known for the progressive thinking and critical scholarship that emerges from it. Critiques of Western neo-imperialism are heard regularly throughout the School of Social Sciences, and the movement to decolonise curriculums and build on innovative and indigenous forms of African knowledge has gained real momentum. This atmosphere likely has an impact on how South African students, compared to the country’s general public, absorb American culture and think about it vis-à-vis their own.

American culture, as it is throughout many places in the world, is ubiquitous in South Africa. And, as it does elsewhere in the world, the prevalence of American food, fashion and film often evokes a positive image of the United States. This, at least in part, likely accounts for the 57% of South Africans who viewed the United States favourably in 2018.

At first blush, students at Wits appear similar to the broader South African population when it comes to their embrace of American culture. There seems to be as many New York Yankees hats worn in Braamfontein as in the Bronx, and American hip-hop is often the music of choice at student events. But these (superficial) indicators of the acceptance of American culture can be deceptive. In class discussions, some students expressed resentment at American cultural penetration. They communicated concern about the loss of their own traditions and pressure to conform to American styles and tastes.

Race relations in the United States

Not long after the class began, I was walking across the Library Lawns that form the heart of Wits’ east campus when I overheard one student say to another: “I don’t want to go to the US – they shoot black people there.” After that, I paid close attention to how my students thought about race relations in the United States. Over the course of the class I observed that they were keenly interested in this subject. In class dialogues, topics such as police shootings of black Americans, the treatment of immigrants and the rise of white nationalism were all discussed and hotly debated. In general, the students felt that race relations in the United States were poor.

Here they are not so different from the rest of South Africans. Since 2008 Pew has asked citizens in a range of countries to agree or disagree with the statement: “The government of the United States respects the personal freedoms of its people.” The percentage of those agreeing has vacillated considerably in South Africa, from a high of 70% in 2014 to a low of 51% in 2018. The picture from the rest of Africa appears different. In 2018, 69% of Nigerians and 71% of Kenyans indicated they believed that the United States did respect the personal freedoms of its people.

Why did South Africans hold such a distinct view from their counterparts in Nigeria and Kenya? One hypothesis has to do with the parallels between the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Because these two movements share important similarities and connections, it could be that South Africans pay especially close attention to the state of race relations in the United States.

There is evidence that contemporary activists for racial justice in the United States and South Africa feel part of what Imraan Buccus, a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, calls “an international impulse toward decolonization”. In 2015 Bree Newsome, an artist and activist, climbed to the top of a flagpole located next to the South Carolina state house in Columbia and removed the Confederate flag from the pole. She later said she was inspired by the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa. In turn, the Open Stellenbosch student movement at Stellenbosch University stated, “We stand in solidarity with Bree Newsome and the Black Lives Matter campaign. Penelope Andrews, the dean at the University of Cape Town faculty of law from 2016-2018 writes, “Protests in the US under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter have resonated strongly with this generation of South African students, with respect to both the racial realities and the economic inequalities that continue to haunt both societies.” My observations dovetail with those of Andrews: South African students care about racial justice in the United States because the issue is something they can relate to.

Race relations in the United States are typically thought of as a domestic issue, but in this case they have foreign policy implications. As Joseph Nye points out, a key source of a country’s soft power is its political ideals, and how well it “lives up” to these professed ideals. The inhumane treatment of immigrants on America’s southern border and police violence toward black Americans are evidence of a gap between American values and American actions. This gap engenders negative perceptions of the United States in South Africa, especially so amongst students at Wits who pay close attention to such issues.


During the class on US foreign policy, students were assigned several readings on PEPFAR. Under this program, the United States contributed $6.26 billion to fight HIV/Aids in South Africa between 2004-2018. At Wits, PEPFAR funding helps support the HIV testing tents that are set up on campus at several points each year. Despite this, very few of the students knew that the US supported South Africa’s response to HIV/Aids. None knew what PEPFAR was. Based on the limited media coverage PEPFAR gets in South Africa, this should not be surprising.

A search on reveals that in 2019 South African media outlets ran far fewer stories on PEPFAR than the media in much smaller surrounding countries such as Namibia or Lesotho. It also shows that the coverage on PEPFAR in South Africa dealt primarily with whether funding for the program would be continued. Reports about how PEPFAR assistance was contributing to the fight against HIV/Aids were scarce. Interestingly, a handful of such reports came from smaller city papers such as the Letaba Herald from Tzaneen, Limpopo and the Zululand Observer based in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal. These (positive) local stories on PEPFAR illustrate how the program can be a potent soft power tool. In the period 2007-2011 countries in which PEPFAR was operating had on average a 68% approval rating of the United States – a considerably higher number than the 46% global average during this period.

I believe PEPFAR does contribute to the fact that more than half of South Africans hold a favourable view of the United States. However, this positive impact may be uneven, affecting certain regions and demographics more than others. Regionally, Gauteng’s HIV rate of 17.6% among adults 15-49 years of age is significantly lower than that of the Eastern Cape, Free State and Kwa-Zulu Natal, all of which have a rate of over 25%.

Demographically, college-aged students in South Africa have a lower rate of HIV infection than the overall adult population. While 26.4% of 25-49 year-olds are HIV positive, 7.9% of 15-24 year-olds are infected with HIV. University students are even less likely to have HIV/Aids. A study published in 2010 by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training found that the overall rate on university campuses in South Africa to be 3.4%. In the combined provinces of Gauteng, Northwest and Limpopo, the rate at universities was 2.2%.

HIV/Aids is still a major concern in South Africa but it is less likely to have a direct and daily impact on the lives of Wits students compared to many other demographic groups in the country. This may explain why they are not familiar with the valuable assistance provided by the United States through PEPFAR, and thus unlikely to factor this assistance into their overall view of the country.

The Trump factor

President Donald Trump was on the minds of many of my students during the US foreign policy class. Polling indicates Trump’s election was not well-received by the South African public. Pew asked South Africans on several occasions over the last decade whether they had “confidence” in the US president. When Barack Obama was in office, 72%-77 % of South Africans, depending on the year, responded in the affirmative. During the three years of Trump’s presidency that number has hovered between 39%- 42%. This precipitous drop is commensurate with a drop in the favourable view of the US in South Africa during Trump’s tenure. During the four times South Africans were asked whether they viewed the US favourably during Obama’s tenure, the average favourability rating was 68.5%. This dropped to an average of 53.3% the three times the question was asked during Trump’s presidency. At least until recently, South Africans’ view of the United States seems strongly influenced by their view of who leads that country.

The negative impact the Trump presidency has had on South African views of the United States seems to have operated especially acutely on my students’ opinions. His massive media profile overshadowed less sensational, but more substantive foreign policy issues. This is because some of the issues Trump is closely associated with – inimical race relations, harsh immigration policies and the rise of white nationalism – are the same issues students in my class find most concerning about the United States.

Concluding class

My class’ perception of the United States diverged from that of the broader South African population for several reasons. First, many of the students were intensely focused on issues of race relations and social justice. The view that the US has regressed in these areas under Trump contributed to a negative perception of the country and deepened the students’ antipathy toward America.

Interestingly, contemporaneous issues of social justice elsewhere in the globe, such as the Chinese government’s crackdown against the Uighur community in Western China (a major news story in 2019), did not animate the students in the same fashion. One reason for this discrepancy might be the relatively light media coverage of these issues in the South African press. For example, a search of the SA Media database indicates the term “Uighur” was used in only 45 articles throughout all of 2019 in South Africa, and more than a third of these mentions were incidental references in reports that dealt with other issues such as US-China relations or South African economic issues vis-à-vis China.

It also seems that students hold the United States to a higher standard (or to its professed values). In other words, expectations of the United States are greater and so the disappointment is more acute when it falls short of these ideals.

Secondly, although students at Wits embrace elements of American popular culture, they are often conflicted about the influence this culture has on their identity. The general South African population, on the other hand, is less likely to engage in deep introspection about the impact of American culture, and more likely to enjoy it. Finally, Wits students are less likely to be HIV positive, and thus are often not aware of or immediately impacted by the valuable aid programs the United States runs in South Africa such as PEPFAR.

The students in my class represent a small segment of the country’s overall population. But it is an influential segment – one that will in the near future shape South Africa, and the country’s relationship with the United States in important ways. The Young African Leaders Initiative is an innovative American program that allows talented young Africans to be educated in and experience the United States. This program, however, provides an intense experience for a limited number of youth. To complement this program, US diplomats should consider a dialogue series with university students in South Africa that tackles challenging issues such as the influence of American culture in Africa and the state of race relations in the United States. Engagements on these subjects will provide an opportunity for American and South African interlocuters to discuss and debate the issues thoughtful young South Africans think about when they consider the United States. Though such engagements might be difficult, they will also be revealing and rewarding.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Getty/Klaus Vedfelt)