The shift to Emergency Remote Teaching and Learning (ERTL) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated online learning at home for South African (and other) students. Using a critical paradigm, qualitative approach and case study design, this study, underpinned by critical theory, used interviews, voice notes and text messages to generate data to explore how South African university students’ home contexts shape their experiences of ERTL. Using thematic analysis, the findings indicated that student learning at home was negatively impacted by poor internet connectivity, home responsibilities, cramped living conditions, lack of safety, and financial and psycho-social stresses. The findings exposed the lived realities of students’ home contexts, made more difficult through the pandemic. This study adds to the literature on student adaptation to learning in the pandemic within home contexts characterised by resource poverty and challenging psycho-social conditions.