What languages do South Africans speak? Is South Africa a democracy? Are there big cities with modern amenities? Are the roads tarred? How far will my money go? … You’ve got three minutes to spare? Here’s the lowdown on why South Africa’s going to surprise you.
Welcome to the southern tip of Africa. Here, two great oceans meet, warm weather lasts most of the year, and big game roams just beyond the city lights.
This is where humanity began: our ancestors’ traces are still evident in fossilised footprints 80 000 years old, and in the world’s oldest rock paintings.
Today, South Africa is the powerhouse of Africa, the most advanced, broad-based economy on the continent, with infrastructure to match any first-world country.
You can drive on wide, tarred highways all 2 000 kilometres from Musina at the very top of the country to Cape Town at the bottom. Or join the millions of international travellers who disembark at our airports every year.
About two-thirds of Africa’s electricity is generated here. Around 40% percent of the continent’s phones are here. Over half the world’s platinum and 10% of its gold is mined here. And almost everyone who visits is astonished at how far a dollar, euro or pound will stretch. Welcome to the Republic of South Africa.
Who lives in South Africa?
South Africa is a nation of over 47-million people of diverse origins, cultures, languages and beliefs. Around 79% are black (or African), 9% white, 9% “coloured” – the local label for people of mixed African, Asian and white descent – and 2.5% Indian or Asian. Just over half the population live in the cities.
Two-thirds of South Africans are Christian, the largest church being the indigenous Zion Christian Church, followed by the Dutch Reformed and Catholic churches. Many churches combine Christian and traditional African beliefs, and many non-Christians espouse these traditional beliefs. Other significant religions – though with much smaller followings – are Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
What languages do people speak?
There are 11 officially recognised languages, most of them indigenous to South Africa. Around 40% of the population speak either isiZulu or isiXhosa. You don’t speak either? If your English is passable, don’t worry. Everywhere you go, you can expect to find people who speak or understand English.
English is the language of the cities, of commerce and banking, of government, of road signs and official documents. Road signs and official forms are in English. The President makes his speeches in English. At any hotel, the receptionists, waiters and porters will speak English.
Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, which northern Europeans will find surprisingly easy to follow.
Is South Africa a democracy?
South Africa is a vigorous multi-party democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press. One of the world’s youngest – and most progressive – constitutions protects both citizens and visitors. You won’t be locked up for shouting out your opinions, however contrary. (But be careful about smoking cigarettes in crowded restaurants!)
What about apartheid?
Up until 1994, South Africa was known for apartheid, or white-minority rule. The country’s remarkable ability to put centuries of racial hatred behind it in favour of reconciliation was widely considered a social miracle, inspiring similar peace efforts in places such as Northern Ireland and Rwanda. Post-apartheid South Africa has a government comprising all races, and is often referred to as the rainbow nation, a phrase coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
Is foreign business welcome?
The “open for business” signs are up. The country offers an investor-friendly environment in which 100% foreign ownership is allowed. Repatriation of profits is liberal. The exchange rate is favourable. And if you’re doing businesses anywhere in Africa, this is the gateway to the continent.
What’s the weather like?
Summery, without being sweltering. In Johannesburg, the country’s commercial capital, the weather is mild all year round, but can get cool at night. Durban, the biggest port, is hot and sometimes humid, a beach paradise. And in Cape Town, where travellers flock to admire one of the world’s most spectacular settings, the weather is usually warm, though temperamental. If you’re visiting from the northern hemisphere, just remember: when it’s winter over there, it’s summer over here. Bring sunglasses and sunscreen; leave the mackintosh at home.
Is it a big country?
To a European, yes. The country straddles 1.2-million square kilometres, as big as several European countries put together. To an American, maybe not – it’s an eighth the size of the US. Still, it’s more than a day’s drive down the highway from Johannesburg in the north to Cape Town in the south (if you’re driving sensibly), with the topography ranging across the spectrum from lush green valleys to semi-desert.
How is it divided up?
South Africa has nine provinces. Gauteng, the smallest and most densely populated, adjoins Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga in the north. The Northern Cape, the largest province with the smallest population, is in the west. The Free State is in the middle of the country. And the coastal provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape lie to the south.
Are there big cities with modern amenities?
There’s more to Africa than lions. Johannesburg, a city of skyscrapers, sprawls wider than London or New York. The lights work, the water flows, there are multi-lane highways and – unfortunately – traffic jams. You can book into a Hilton or a Hyatt or a Holiday Inn and eat at cosmopolitan restaurants serving anything from sushi to burgers to crocodile steaks. Or you can lie back on a couch and choose from five analogue and over 50 digital TV channels.
What are the big cities?
South Africa has two capitals. Cape Town, the oldest city, is the legislative capital, where Parliament sits. Pretoria, 1 500 kilometres to the north, is the executive capital, where the government administration is housed. Next door to Pretoria, and close enough that the outer suburbs merge, is the commercial centre of Johannesburg, once the world’s greatest gold mining centre, now increasingly dominated by modern financial and service sectors. The second-biggest city is Durban, a fast-growing port on the eastern coast, and the supply route for most goods to the interior.
How do I get to South Africa?
By air – unless you have a boat or rugged overland vehicle. Over 50 airlines and more than 30-million passengers a year move through South Africa’s 10 principal airports, including the three major international airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
You say the roads are tarred?
Yes, even in the smallest towns. The major centres are connected by over 9 000 kilometres of tarred and regularly maintained national highways, including over 2 000 kilometres of dual carriageway, and the numbers are increasing steadily. The national railway has some 30 000 kilometres of rail track connecting the smallest hamlets.
I’ll be able to phone home?
That, and more. With a network that is 99% digital and includes the latest in fixed-line, wireless and satellite communication, South Africa has the most developed telecommunications network in Africa. The country’s three cellular operators provide telephony to over 39-million subscribers, covering nearly 80% of the population. The number of South Africans enjoying competitively priced access to the internet, uninterrupted connections and broadband access is growing steadily.
Are there modern banks?
South Africa has a world-class, sophisticated financial sector, abreast of all the latest technological trends. From the moment you step off the plane you’ll start seeing banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers (ATMs) all over. All major credit cards can be used in South Africa, with American Express and Diners Club enjoying less universal acceptance than MasterCard and Visa. Foreign banks are well represented, and you can bank by ATM or internet.
How far will my money go?
With a favourable exchange rate for many international currencies, you’ll find South Africa a very inexpensive destination. South Africa’s unit of currency is the rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Coins come in denominations of 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5, and notes in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200.
Can I drink the water?
South Africa’s water is of a far higher quality than that of many developed countries. High-quality tap (faucet) water is available almost everywhere, treated to be free of harmful microorganisms and both palatable and safe to drink straight from the tap. Johannesburg’s water, for one, is as good as anything you’ll get in a bottle.
Is it safe to walk around?
Like anywhere, yes – provided you don’t go wandering about deserted streets at the dead of night. Yes, there is crime in South Africa. But you don’t need to do more than take the usual sensible precautions. Know where you’re going before you set off, particularly at night. Don’t display valuable possessions carelessly in public. Lock the doors at night. And, like anywhere else in the world, know that there are some areas of the major cities where outsiders present a more vulnerable target. It is easy to avoid these areas without lessening your enjoyment of a country and a people who are, with a few exceptions, remarkably warm and welcoming.
Is it true that there are robots on the street corners?
Yes, there are. In South Africa, traffic lights are known as robots, although no one knows why. A pick-up truck is a bakkie, sneakers are takkies, a barbeque is a braai, an insect is a gogga and an alcoholic drink is a dop.
Will I get to see wild animals?
You won’t have to go far to do so. An hour’s drive from such urban jungles as Pretoria and Johannesburg, you can see lions, elephants, buffalo and hundreds more species in their natural environments.
One of the world’s first wildlife conservation areas was South Africa’s Kruger Park, more than a century old. Today it is part of a single broad conservation area that spans private and public game parks and stretches across national borders into neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
There are other reasons for visiting South Africa too: golden beaches, some of the world’s best surf, spectacular scenery ranging from mountains to deserts, eco-systems found nowhere else in the world, an opportunity to experience African culture first-hand – and one of the least expensive holiday destinations you’ll find.
Useful facts for tourists
What facilities are open on public holidays?
In the major cities most stores, cinemas and restaurants are open on most public holidays. The exceptions are Christmas Day, 25 December and New Year’s Day, 1 January.
The calendar of South African public holidays for 2009 is:
• 1 January – New Year’s Day
• 21 March – Human Rights Day
• 10 April – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday)
• 13 April – Family Day (the Monday after Easter Sunday)
• 27 April – Freedom Day
• 1 May – Workers Day
• 16 June – Youth Day
• 9 August – Women’s Day
• 24 September – Heritage Day
• 16 December – Day of Reconciliation
• 25 December – Christmas Day
• 26 December – Day of Goodwill
If a public holiday falls on a Sunday, the Monday following becomes a public holiday.
Where can I smoke?
The law prohibits smoking in most public spaces, including airports and railway stations. Most restaurants have designated smoking and non-smoking areas.
South African time
South Africa does not change its clocks during the year, and there are no regional variations within the country. South African Standard Time is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean (or Universal Standard) Time, one hour ahead of Central European Winter Time, and seven hours ahead of the USA’s Eastern Standard Winter Time.
Tipping is common practice in South Africa for a range of services. In restaurants the accepted standard is around 10% of the bill, although sometimes a gratuity will be included (often in the case of a large party). Barmen are tipped a similar percentage.
Petrol stations are manned by attendants who will expect a tip of two or three rands for filling up with petrol, checking oil, water and tyre pressure and cleaning windscreens. Hotel porters should be tipped two to five rands. It is also appropriate to tip taxi drivers, tour guides and even hairdressers.
If you park a car in a populated area such as near a shopping centre, street security guards will usually ask whether they can watch over your car and in return should be paid a small fee – anything from two rands upwards.
• Summer – mid-October to mid-February
• Autumn – February to April
• Winter – May to July
• Spring – August to October
Banks and foreign exchange in SA
With a favourable exchange rate for many international currencies, you’ll find South Africa a very inexpensive destination. And an easy one – our financial institutions are world-class, with no shortage of banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers.
Rands and cents
South Africa’s unit of currency is the rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Coins come in denominations of 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5, and notes in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200.
How far will my money go?
A long, long way. With a favourable exchange rate for the major international currencies, you’ll find South Africa a very inexpensive destination.
Banking made easy
You’ll also find South Africa an easy destination. From the moment you step off the plane you’ll start seeing banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers all over.
The banks are generally open from 9am to 3.30pm Mondays through Fridays, and 8.30am to 11am on Saturdays, but those at the airports adjust their hours to accommodate international flights.
The major banks have branches as well as automated teller machines (ATMs) in most large towns – and all over the cities. International banks (see the “foreign exchange services” links below) have branches in the major cities. Thomas Cook (represented by Rennies Travel) and American Express foreign exchange offices are also available in the major cities.
Credit cards and cash
All major credit cards can be used in South Africa, with American Express and Diners Club enjoying less universal acceptance than MasterCard and Visa. In some small towns, you may find you’ll need to use cash.
When it comes to paying for fuel, you may also have to pay cash. Our filling stations can now take credit card payments – regulations allowing them to do so came into effect in July 2009. However, many filling stations (or garages, as we call them) may take a while to adjust, or may choose not to. Look out for the “cash only” notices.
Many locals have special fuel credit cards, known as garage or petrol cards, for use only at filling stations. These will still be accepted.
Road tolls, on the major routes between cities, can be paid using MasterCard or Visa.
Health tips for travellers
Nothing can spoil a holiday more than feeling off-colour, and nothing can dull the pleasure of your holiday memories more than getting ill far from home. There are a number of health issues that you should be aware of, particularly if you’re from the northern hemisphere.
However, while there are risks anywhere, South Africa has a relatively salubrious climate and our levels of water treatment, hygiene and such make it a pretty safe destination.
If you’re an adult, you won’t need any inoculations unless you’re travelling from a yellow-fever endemic area (the yellow fever belt of Africa or South America), in which case you will need certification to prove your inoculation status when you arrive in South Africa.
It is recommended that you have the required inoculations four to six weeks before you travel to South Africa (a yellow fever inoculation certificate only becomes valid 10 days after inoculation – after which it remains valid for 10 years).
Hepatitis B inoculations are recommended for children up to the age of 12 who have not completed the series of injections as infants. Booster doses for tetanus and measles can also be administered.
Medical facilities in cities and larger towns are world-class, but you will find that in rural areas the clinics and hospitals deal with primary health needs, and therefore do not offer the range of medical care that the large metropolitan hospitals do. Trained medical caregivers are deployed round the country, so help is never far away.
We have a warm sunny climate and sunscreen and a hat are recommended whenever you are out of doors during the day, particularly between 10:00 and 16:00, regardless of whether there is cloud cover or not.
Even if you have a dark complexion, you can still get sunburned if you are from a cooler climate and have not had much exposure to the sun. Sunglasses are also recommended wear, as the glare of the African sun can be strong.
Can I drink the water?
High-quality tap (faucet) water is available almost everywhere in South Africa, treated so as to be free of harmful micro-organisms, and in any area other than informal or shack settlements, is both palatable and safe to drink straight from the tap.
In some areas, the water is mineral-rich, and you may experience a bit of gastric distress for a day or two until you get used to it. Bottled mineral water, both sparkling and still, is readily available in most places.
Drinking water straight from rivers and streams could put you at risk of waterborne diseases – especially downstream of human settlements. The water in mountain streams, however, is usually pure and wonderful.
In the Cape, particularly, the water contains humic acid, which stains it the colour of diluted Coca-Cola – this is absolutely harmless, and the water is wonderful. You may also find this colouring in tap water in some areas. It’s fine – it just looks a bit weird in the bath.
Do I need to take malaria tablets?
Many of the main tourist areas are malaria-free, so you need not worry at all. However, the Kruger National Park, the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal do pose a malaria risk in the summer months.
Many local people and some travellers do not take malaria prophylaxis, but most health professionals recommend you do. Consult your doctor or a specialist travel clinic for the latest advice concerning malaria prophylaxis, as it changes regularly.
Whether you take oral prophylaxis or not, always use mosquito repellent, wear long pants, closed shoes and light long-sleeved shirts at night, and sleep under a mosquito net in endemic areas (the anopheles mosquito, which carries malaria, operates almost exclusively after dark). It is advisable to avoid malarial areas if you are pregnant.
As in other countries, always take precautions when having sex. South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world.
Other health issues
Bilharzia can be a problem in some of the east-flowing rivers, but it is easily detected and treated if it is caught early. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have a routine test a month or two after you get home – just to reassure yourself.
Ticks generally come out in the early spring and may carry tickbite fever, which is easily treated. You should also be aware of hepatitis, for which you can be inoculated.
SAinfo reporter and South African Tourism
Last updated: June 2010
South African English is lekker!
South Africans speak English, that doesn’t mean you’ll always understand us. Our robots are nothing like R2D2, just now doesn’t mean immediately, and babbelas is not a shampoo.
SA English has a flavour all its own, borrowing freely from Afrikaans – which is similar to Dutch and Flemish – as well as from the country’s many African languages, with some words coming from colonial-era Malay and Portuguese immigrants.
Note: In many words derived from Afrikaans, the letter “g” is pronounced in the same way as the “ch” in the Scottish “loch” or the German “achtung” – a kind of growl at the back of the throat. In the pronunciation guides below, the spelling for this sound is given as “gh”.
abba – Carry a child secured to one’s back with a blanket. From the Khoi-San.
amasi (pronounced um-ah-see) – A popular drink of thick sour milk. From the isiZulu. An alternative name is maas.
apartheid (ap-art-hate) – Literally “apart-ness” in Afrikaans, apartheid was the policy of racial separation, and the resulting oppression of the black majority, implemented by the National Party from 1948 to 1990.
ag (agh) – Generally used at the beginning of a sentence, to express resignation or irritation, as in: “Ag no man! What did you do that for?”
babbelas (bub-buh-luss) – A hangover.
bakgat (buck-ghut) – Well done, cool, awesome.
bakkie (buck-ee) – A pick-up truck.
bergie (bear-ghee) – From the Afrikaans berg, mountain, originally referring to vagrants who sheltered in the forests of Cape Town’s Table Mountain and now a mainstream word for anyone who is down and out.
biltong (bill-tong) – This South African favourite is dried and salted meat, similar to beef jerky, although it can be made from ostrich, kudu or any other red meat.
biscuit – In South Africa a cookie is known as a biscuit. The word is also a term of affection, as in “Hey, you biscuit”.
bliksem – To beat up, hit or punch – or a mischievous person.
bobotie (buh-boor-tee) – A dish of Malay origin, made with minced meat and spices, and topped with an egg sauce.
boerewors (boor-uh-vors) – Literally, farmer’s sausage. A savoury sausage developed by the Boers – today’s Afrikaners – some 200 years ago, boerewors is South African food at its most traditional.
boet (like book, with a t) – A term of affection, from the Afrikaans for brother.
boma (bow-mah) – An open thatched structure used for dinners, entertainment and parties.
bosberaad (borse-bah-raad)- A strategy meeting or conference, usually held in a remote bushveld location such as a game farm.
braai (br-eye) – An outdoor barbecue, where meat such as steak, chicken and boerewors are cooked, served with pap and bredie.
bru (brew) – A term of affection, shortened from Afrikaans broer, meaning “brother”. An example would be “Hey, my bru, howzit?”
bunny chow – Delicious and cheap food on the go, bunny chow is curry served in a hollowed-out half-loaf of bread, generally sold in greasy-spoon cafés. Perfect for eating on the side of the road while backpacking across South Africa.
bushveld (bush-felt) – Taken from the Afrikaans bosveld (“bush field”), the bushveld is a terrain of thick scrubby trees and bush in dense thickets, with grassy groundcover between.
café (kaf-ay, kaff-ee or kayff) – The ubiquitous small neighbourhood convenience store, often found on street corners and stocking cigarettes, cold drinks and newspapers.
china – To most people China is the country with the largest population in the world, but to a South African it can mean something entirely different. China means good friend, as in “This oke’s my china”. It’s one of the few Cockney rhyming slang words to survive in the country, coming from “china plate” = “mate”.
chommie – Friend, from the English chum.
cooldrink, colddrink – This is the common term for a soda, such as Coca-Cola. Ask for a soda in South Africa and you will receive a club soda.
dassie – The rock hyrax, a small herbivore that lives in mountainous habitats and is reputed to be the species mostly closely related to the elephant. The name comes from the Afrikaans das, meaning “badger”.
deurmekaar (dee-oor-muh-car) – An Afrikaans for confused, disorganised or stupid, as in “He’s a bit deurmekaar.
dinges (ding-us) – A thing, thingamabob, whatzit, whatchamacallit or whatsizname: “When is dinges coming around?”
doek (like book) – A head scarf worn to protect a woman’s hair.
donga – A natural ditch resulting from severe soil erosion. From the isiZulu for “wall”.
dop (dawp) – An alcoholic drink: “Can I pour you a dop?” It can also mean failure: “I dopped the test.”
dorp – A small town on the platteland.
droewors (droo-uh-vors) – Dried boerewors, similar to biltong.
dumpie – A South African beer served in a brown 340ml bottle.
Durbs – The city of Durban.
eina (ay-nuh or ay-nar) – Ouch! Can also mean “sore”.
eish (aysh) – Used to express surprise, wonder, frustration or outrage: “Eish! That cut was eina!”
Fixed up – Used to mean “that’s good” or “sorted”. Example: “Let’s meet at the restaurant.” The reply: “Fixed up.”
flog – No whips implied. South Africans use flog to mean sell, as in “I’ve had enough of this old car. I think it’s time I flogged it.”
frikkadel (frik-kuh-dell) – A traditional meatball.
fundi (foon-dee) – Expert. From the Nguni umfundisi, meaning teacher or preacher.
fynbos (fayn-baws) – “Fine bush” in Afrikaans, fynbos is a vegetation type unique to the Cape Floral Region – a Unesco World Heritage Site – made up of some 6 000 plant species, including many types of protea.
gatvol (ghut-foll) – Taken from Afrikaans, this means fed up, as in “Jislaaik, china, I’m gatvol of working in this hot sun.” Translation: “Gee, my friend, I’m fed up with working in this hot sun.”
gogga, goggo (gho-gha or gho-gho) – Insect, bug. From the Khoikhoi xo-xon.
gogo (goh-goh) – Grandmother or elderly woman, from isiZulu.
graze – Eat.
hang of – Very or big, as in: “It’s hang of a difficult” or “I had a hang of a problem”.
hey – The popular expression hey can be used as a standalone question meaning “pardon” or “what” – “Hey? What did you say?” Or it can be used to prompt affirmation or agreement, as in “It was a great film, hey?”
homelands – The spurious “independent” states in which black South Africans were forced to take citizenship under the policy of apartheid. Also known as bantustans.
howzit – A traditional South African greeting that translates roughly as “How are you?”, “How are things?” or simply “Hello”.
indaba (in-daa-bah) – A conference or expo, from the isiZulu word meaning “a matter for discussion”.
inyanga – A traditional herbalist and healer.
is it (as one word: izit) – An expression frequently used in conversation and equivalent to “Is that so?”
ja (yaa) – Yes.
jawelnofine – Literally, “yes, well, no, fine”, all scrunched into a single word and similar to the rhetorical expression “How about that?”
jislaaik (yis-like) – An expression of outrage or surprise: “Jislaaik, I just saw Elvis!”
jol (jawl) – A versatile word with many meanings, including party, disco, having fun, or just thing.
Jozi (jo-zee) – The city of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, which is also known as Joburg or Joeys.
just now – If a South African tells you they will do something “just now”, they mean they’ll do it in the near future – not immediately: “I’ll do the dishes just now.”
kasie (kaa-see) – Shortened form of lokasie, “location” in Afrikaans, the older word for township – the low-income dormitory suburbs outside cities and towns to which black South Africans were confined during the apartheid era.
khaya (k-eye-ya) – Home. From the Nguni group of languages.
kif – Cool, neat, great or wonderful. From the Arabic kayf, meaning enjoyment or wellbeing.
kraal – An enclosure for livestock, or a rural village of huts surrounded by a stockade. The word may come from the Portuguese curral (“corral”), or from the Dutch kraal, meaning bead, as in the beads of a necklace – kraals are generally round in shape.
kugel (koo-gell) – An overly groomed materialistic young woman, from the Yiddish for a plain pudding garnished as a delicacy. A bagel is the male variety.
kwaito (kw-eye-toe) – The music of South Africa’s urban black youth, a mixture of South African disco, hip hop, R&B, ragga, and a heavy dose of house music beats.
kwela (kw-eh-la) – A popular form of township music from the 1950s, based on the pennywhistle – a cheap and simple instrument taken up by street performers. The term kwela comes from the isiZulu for “get up”, though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the kwela-kwela. It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those drinking in illegal shebeens of the arrival of the cops.
laatlammetjie (laart-lum-et-chie) – The youngest child of a family, born (mostly by accident) to older parents and many years younger than its siblings. The word means “late lamb” in Afrikaans.
laduma! (la-doo-mah) – A popular cheer celebrating goals scored at soccer matches, from the isiZulu for it thunders.
lappie (luppie) – A cleaning cloth.
lekgotla (lek-ghot-lah) – A planning or strategy session.
lekker (lekk-irr with a rolling r) – Nice, good, great, cool or tasty.
Madiba (muh-dee-buh) – An affectionate name for former President Nelson Mandela, and the name of his clan.
mampara (mum-puh-rah) – An idiot, a silly person. From the Sotho languages.
mampoer (mum-poo-er) – Extremely potent brandy made from peaches or other fruit, similar to the American moonshine.
Marmite – Trade name of a dark-coloured spread made from vegetable extract and used on bread or toast.
mealie (pronounce mih-lih) – Maize or corn. A mealie is a maize cob, and mealie meal is maize meal, the staple diet of South Africa, which is mostly cooked into pap. From the Afrikaans mielie.
moegoe (moo-ghoo) – A fool, buffoon, idiot or simpleton.
muti (moo-ti) – Medicine, typically traditional African medicine, from the isiZulu umuthi.
Mzansi (m-zun-zee) – A popular word for South Africa.
nca – Fine, beautiful. Pronounced with a downward click of the tongue.
nê (neh) – Really? or is that so? Often used sarcastically.
now-now – Shortly, in a bit: “I’ll be there now-now.”
oke, ou – A man, similar to guy or bloke. The word ou (oh) can be used interchangeably.
pap (pup) – The staple food of South Africa, a porridge made from mealie meal (maize meal) cooked with water and salt to a fairly stiff consistency – stywepap being the stiffest. Pap can also mean weak or tired.
pasop (pus-orp) – An Afrikaans word meaning “beware” or “watch out”.
pavement – South Africans walk on pavements and drive cars on the road (at least that’s the idea). The pavement is the sidewalk.
piet-my-vrou (peet-may-frow) – The red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarus). The name, an approximation of the bird’s call, literally means “Peter my wife” in Afrikaans.
platteland (plutt-uh-lunt) – Farmland, countryside. Literally flat land in Afrikaans, it now refers to any rural area in which agriculture takes place, including the mountainous Cape winelands.
potjiekos (poi-chee-kors) – Traditional Afrikaner food, generally a rich stew, cooked in a three-legged cast-iron pot over a fire. The word means “little-pot food” in Afrikaans.
puffadder – A viper or adder of the species Britis arietans. From the Afrikaans pofadder.
rand – The South African currency, which is made up of 100 cents. The name comes from the Witwatersrand (Dutch for “white waters ridge”), the region in Gauteng province in which most of the country’s gold deposits are found.
robots – Traffic lights.
rooibos (roy-borss) – Afrikaans for red bush, this popular South African tea made from the Cyclopia genistoides bush is gaining worldwide popularity for its health benefits.
rooinek (roy-neck) – English-speaking South African, from the Afrikaans for red neck, but without the connotations given the term in the US. It was first coined by Afrikaners decades ago to refer to immigrant Englishmen, whose white necks were particularly prone to sunburn.
rubbish bin (alternatively dustbin or dirt bin) – Garbage can.
samoosa (suh-moo-suh) – A small, spicy, triangular-shaped pie deep-fried in oil. Originally made by the Indian and Malay communities, samoosas – known as samosas in Britain – are popular with all South Africans.
sangoma (sun-go-mah) – Traditional healer or diviner.
shame – Broadly denotes sympathetic feeling. Someone admiring a baby, kitten or puppy might say: “Ag shame!” to emphasise its cuteness.
sharp – Often doubled up for effect as sharp-sharp!, this word is used as a greeting, a farewell, for agreement or just to express enthusiasm.
shebeen – A township tavern, illegal under the apartheid regime, often set up in a private house and frequented by black South Africans. The word is originally Gaelic.
shongololo – Large brown millipede, from the isiZulu ukushonga, meaning “to roll up”.
sjambok (sham-bok) – A stout leather whip made from animal hide.
skelm (skellem) – A shifty or untrustworthy person; a criminal.
skop, skiet en donner (skorp, skeet en donner) – Action movie. Taken from Afrikaans, it literally means “kick, shoot and beat up”.
skrik – Fright: “I caught a big skrik” means “I got a big fright”.
skrik vir niks – Scared of nothing.
slap chips (slup chips) – French fries, usually soft, oily and vinegar-drenched, bought in a brown paper bag. Slap is Afrikaans for “limp”, which is how French fries are generally made here.
smokes – Cigarettes.
sosatie (soh-saa-tee) – A kebab on a stick.
spaza – Informal township shop.
taxi – Not a metered car with a single occupant, but a minibus used to transport a large number of people, and the most common way of getting around in South Africa.
to die for – An expression popular in the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg and Cape Town, denoting enthusiastic approval for an object or person: “That necklace is to die for.”
tom – Money.
toppie – Old man.
townships – Low-income dormitory suburbs outside cities and towns – effectively ghettos – to which black South Africans were confined during the apartheid era.
toyi-toyi – A knees-up protest dance.
tsotsi – A gangster, hoodlum or thug – and the title of South Africa’s first Oscar-winning movie. Although Will Smith thought otherwise at the awards ceremony, the word is not pronounced “sossy”.
ubuntu – Southern African humanist philosophy that holds as its central tenet that a person is a person through other persons. (See box on the right above.)
veld (felt) – Open grassland. From the Dutch for “field”.
voetsek (foot-sak) – Go away, buzz off.
vrot (frot) – Rotten or smelly.
vuvuzela (voo-voo-zeh-lah) – A large, colourful plastic trumpet with the sound of a foghorn, blown enthusiastically by virtually everyone in the crowd at soccer matches. According to some, the word comes from the isiZulu for “making noise”.
windgat (vint-ghut) – Show-off or blabbermouth. Taken from the Afrikaans, it literally means wind hole.
witblitz (vit-blitz) – Potent home-made distilled alcohol, much like the American moonshine. The word means “white lightning” in Afrikaans. See mampoer.
SAinfo reporter. Additional information sourced from Wiktionary, Wikipedia and the Rhodes University Dictionary Unit for SA English.
isiZulu phrasebook for tourists
South Africa is a friendly country, and if you’re travelling around, take the time to speak to people you meet.
Don’t be afraid to try a new language and, although they might correct your pronunciation, most people will respect the effort you’re making in their language.
isiZulu is the first language of about a quarter of all South Africans, and is understood by many more.
Pronunciation is very simple in isiZulu, and there are fewer click sounds than in isiXhosa. Generally the emphasis falls on the first syllable, for example: “Unjani?” The last syllable of each word, except in a question, is often dropped, so sawubona may be spoken as sawubon’.
isiZulu words are compound words, which at first glance can be intimidating. The first syllables include pronouns, tense and usage case. The suffix may change for the negative.
Additionally, isiZulu nouns have classes, analogous to the genders found in many European languages, except that there are many more classes.
If all of that sounds complicated, don’t worry. As a spoken language, isiZulu is very easy to pick up, and intuitive to use. The best way to learn is to get out there and practise!
Sawubona – Hello.
This greeting is an acknowledgement of having seen the other person. If you are greeted in this way, you could reply:
Yebo, sawubona – Yes, I see you.
Unjani? – How are you?
Ngiyaphila, wena usaphila? – I am well, how are you?
Kulungile – Good.
Sanibonani – I see you.
Yebo, sanibonani – Yes, I see you.
Ninjani – How are you?
Siyaphila – We are well.
Yebo – Yes.
Cha – No.
Ngicela – Please. (The c is pronounced with a click, similar to a ch sound.)
Ngiyabonga – Thank you.
Uxolo – Excuse me. (The x is pronounced with a click in the back of the mouth, making a sound like kho.)
Kulungile – That’s all right.
Ukhuluma isingisi? – Do you speak English?
Nibizani lokho? – What do you call that?
Lokho kusho ukuthini? – What does that mean?
Angizwa – I don’t understand.
Angikhulumi isiZulu – I don’t speak isiZulu.
Ngiphuma e… – I am from …
Kuphi? – Where?
Nini? – When?
Yini? – What?
Kanjani? – How?
Kungaki? – How much?
Kungaki? – How many?
Ubani? – Who?
Ngani? – Why?
Iphi? – Which?
Ungisize! – Help
Ngiyabonga – Thank you.
Last updated: June 2009