Are you planning a trip or move to South Africa?
With a whopping 11 official languages, you may wonder how you will communicate when you come to South Africa! But if you are able to read this article, then you will be just fine. South Africa is considered a ‘native English speaking country’ (a product of their colonial past) and English is widely spoken especially in the cities. With that being said, there are still some strange nuances of South African English that may require some explanation for an unsuspecting visitor. As a native South African born and bred, let me help you out. Learn these and you will definitely impress the locals:
Now now, just now and now
African time is more of an indication of what time things should/could happen rather than when they will actually take place. This may be confusing to non South Africans. But even more confusing are the concepts of “now”. “Just now” could mean anything between 5 minutes to 5 hours. “Now now” usually means immediately but again, could be interpreted as anything between 5 minutes to an hour. Now is open to interpretation for example, when your parents are visiting relatives and say, “Time for us to leave now” but 30 minutes later you are still there and everyone is standing in the driveway discussing Jacob Zuma’s latest scandal.
Braai and Game drives
If you want to fit in in South Africa, and let’s face it, with such a diverse population it is wholly possible that you can, you need to avoid the two words, “Barbecue” and “safari”. Although both activities are done by most South Africans, locals never use these two words and using them will ensure that you stick out like snow in Durban. Instead, substitute barbecue for braai and safari for game drive. In order to really blend in, avoid this type of sentence, “I really enjoyed the wine we had in Hluhluwe after our safari.” Aim for this instead, “We enjoyed a few drinks in Hluhluwe after our game drive.”
People are always greeting each other in South Africa. Don’t be surprised if someone waves at you when you hoot at them in order to bring attention to whatever silly thing they are doing on the road (usually picking up passengers in an unauthorised zone). We are so used to greeting each other that it is weird to find that people in other countries don’t do this and give us odd looks when we try to. The acceptable South African greeting is “howzat” pronounced “how zit”. This term has been adapted from the original cricket term meaning, “How is that?” when used to question a decision taken by an umpire. In cricket it usually said in this manner and position:
However in real life South Africa, “Howzat” can be interpreted as a question meaning, “How are you?” but sometimes it is just hello. An appropriate response back could be another “howzat” or “hey” or “hello”. If you sense a questioning tone, you can respond by saying how you’re feeling.
To the rest of the world, robots are mechanical beings capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer. So you could be thinking about something like this:
But in South Africa, these are robots:
Yes they are traffic lights. Apparently, they used to be called robot policeman in South Africa (back in the day) and over time, the name was shortened. So the next time you wind down your window to ask someone for directions and they tell you to turn left at the next robot, do not expect a transformer waiting for you down the street. It is a simple traffic light. Beware of elderly people who call robots to robo’s. It is essentially all the same thing. Oh and these sort of sights are considered normal in South Africa:
Remember, South Africans drive on the left (pretty important piece of information that) and most people drive non-automatic cars.
South Africans love to put ‘hey’ at the end of their sentences. For example, “It was crazy hey.” There is no question here; the person doesn’t need you to affirm that the night really was crazy. It is just a way of ending a sentence. Another typical way that this is used is when someone is asked a questions and the response is, “Ya hey.” Which simply means, yes. Hey isn’t always a greeting or a questioning word (but it can be sometimes. Oh boy I see how confusing this is).
Most people around the world consider these as examples of costumes:
In South Africa, this is a costume:
So basically a swimsuit of any kind can be considered a ‘costume’ whether it’s a bikini, tankini, monokini, burkini or even just a loose t-shirt and shorts that you will be swimming in. For example, “We are heading to Camps Bay beach tomorrow, don’t forget your costume!” If you really want to fit in, respond with, “I’ve already packed my cozzie”. Because costume isn’t strange enough, some South Africans have to shorten it to cozzie (which isn’t really shorter since they have the same amount of syllables but that’s South Africa hey).
You have no idea what these refer to? Ironically I had no idea what the proper word for them were until I moved abroad. Takkies are:
Essentially what the rest of the world calls ‘trainers’ or ‘sneakers’. Used in a sentence: “Those Nike takkies are finally on sale!”.
The average South African is not well travelled. This is as a result of a few factors- besides the obvious socioeconomic problems the country faces, South Africa is large and we tend to explore our own land before heading out. Flights out of South Africa are expensive and they take AGES due to the country’s topographical location. As a result, geography isn’t where South Africans shine. South African never talk about going abroad, they always talk about going overseas. Any place can be referred to as overseas- France, Jamaica, New Zealand, America or the whole world collectively for example, “Nobody overseas calls traffic light robots.” Don’t be surprised the next time you hear someone say, “Oh you’re from overseas!” and wonder which sea they are talking about.
– South Africans never refer to themselves as “Saffers”. This is term given to us by foreigners and is only used when one is not in South Africa by non South Africans (usually Americans). People in South Africa are usually defined by their cities for example, “Joburgers, Capetonians and Durbanites”. Also, never say the full name, Johannesburg- locals always call it Jozi or the more popular, Joburg. Oh and Durban can be shortened to Durbs and Cape Town can be referred to as ‘The Cape’ but never ‘C Town’ which is what I heard someone calling it in a restaurant in Dubai.
– If you come from the USA, you’ll most likely be horrified to hear people being called ‘Coloureds.‘ Don’t be. It’s not an insult in South Africa. In fact people in south Africa often refer to each other by race and this isn’t considered offensive unless it is purposefully meant to be.
– South Africans love tea. You will most likely be offered two kinds of tea- “Normal tea or Rooibos?” Rooibos is famous enough. Normal tea is the well-loved brand of black tea, usually Five Roses label. Whereas anything else: Earl Grey, peppermint, chamomile, green, fruit tea is not normal tea and needs to be asked for specifically. South Africans usually take their tea with milk so specify if you want it without.
– If you are stuck for conversation and trying to impress a South African man, try discussing religion. In South Africa, Soccer/Football, Rugby and Cricket are the religions to discuss but nearly every other sport is played here as well. Except for American Football and that’s because we play rugby. And you will never convince us that American football is tougher. Don’t even try or your conversation will be terminated ASAP.
Although I am one of a small minority of South Africans who speak English as their mother tongue, I do battle when I talk to non South African people. I need to remember to talk about barbecues, swimsuits and traffic lights. Stop putting “hey” at the end of my sentences and give an approximate time instead of saying “just now”. I remember the first time I accidentally told someone in Kuwait, “Howzat?” and they asked, “How is what?”. Or once when I was asking about buying a costume in South Korea and someone asked me if I was going to a Halloween party. Although it is always a relief to return home and hear the familiar words I grew up with, whenever I come back, I find that my speech has been altered and my friends complain that I no longer sound the same!
I hope this little guide helps people visiting South Africa and has made a few South Africans nod and laugh! Let me know what funny things you say where you are from and if you too, have to modulate your speech when you travel!