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A Quick Guide to Understanding the South African Language

Ever felt confused when hearing new phrases? I did when I first came to South Africa!


South Africa is a country with many faces. Maybe most commonly people talk about the striking contrast between the rich and the poor, safety and violence, as well as the beauty of the country versus its violent past (and sometimes violent present).

There’s also another reason for the many faces of South Africa: the different tribes, nationalities and languages. There are eleven official languages in South Africa: South African English, Afrikaans, IsiNdebele, SeSotho sa Leboa, SeSotho sa Borwa, SiSwati, XiTsonga, SeTswana, TshiVenḓa, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu and South African Sign Language. And those are only the official ones. There are at least two times as many unofficial ones.

As someone who arrived in South Africa fairly confident I knew the English language — it had, after all, been my main language since I was about sixteen — I was sometimes lost in translation.

Firstly, while I was used to speaking with people from South Africa who had different dialects, it turned out those were still all people who had South African English as their first language. Many South Africans have English as a second language and they all speak with different accents. There are actually different English accents even among the people who have Afrikaans as their first language.

So, in the beginning, I had to concentrate to understand what people were saying.

Language goes beyond just understanding words, though. Language is about understanding what people mean with those words. “Shame, man” in South Africa can mean anything from “OMG how cute” to “I’m so sorry.” It all depends on when you say it and how you say it. And in South Africa, half of the time, people say “oh my word,” instead of “oh my god.”

Those are phrases though. That’s easy enough to grasp. Other things took longer. Below you find my very own dictionary. Just in case you intend to visit South Africa and would like to understand what people really mean.

I'll do it now now = I'll do it some time from now till eternity (though really it means, just now)

We'll make a plan = we'll probably do it some time (this is as close to a promise as it can get, but when it will happen is another matter entirely)

Let's catch up next Thursday = let's touch base next week and potentially catch up if nothing else happens first

I'll fix that thing in your house = I'll come up with some half-baked solution that would make an engineer cry and the walls crumble

There's a crew working on it = there are five people working and five to ten people watching them work

I told one person in the township = at least half the township knows

There's a small problem with your house = there's a flea, mouse, scorpion or snake infestation, or, alternatively, a wall is falling down

I'm not safe = the high walls, electric fence, alarm, pepper spray, taser, or emergency button for the helicopter to track my car broke

Braai = BBQ

Lekker = great, wonderful, cool, amazing, tasty…the list goes on

Sundowner = a drink at sunset

The truth is though, the only thing you'll ever need to get to know the South Africans is a braai. In South Africa, people don't go for coffee, or drinks, as much as they do elsewhere. In fact, most of the time, they're in their gardens, braaing. Social life revolves around a braai. Get a braai and the rest will follow...

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