Have you arrived in South Africa and feel as if you are not fitting in because of your accent? You ask a local for directions and they ask you to repeat yourself a few times because they can’t understand what you are saying. You are unsure of what is acceptable when greeting people, and when meeting people for the first time. You want to try some of the local food and delicacies, but you don’t quite know what they are and where to go and find them.
In informal settings, South Africans have a laidback culture and generally enjoy socialising. They also welcome people from other countries. South Africa has been greatly influenced by British and American culture, and you will see these influences in television programmes, food, how people dress, and how they speak. Many things are still only seen, heard and done in South Africa, however, making it unique compared with other countries.
South Africa has 11 official languages. This may come as a huge surprise, but it reveals the enormous diversity of South African culture, and the complex nature of life as a South African. As you can imagine, words from some of the languages spoken in South Africa become interchangeable. Locals start using them across the various languages, which may confuse you from time to time. English is considered the main language and is used across different race groups and cultures in informal and business settings. Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu are also widely spoken by some locals.
I am now going to introduce you to some local words and terms used in South Africa that will go a long way to making you fit right in and feel at home. Keep in mind that some words are used only in informal settings with close friends and relatives, and may not necessarily be used in a business environment.
“Howzit?”, an informal greeting as a way of finding out how someone is doing, is sometimes used as “Howzit, bru?”, translated as, “How are you doing, brother?” The word ‘bru’ can be substituted with ‘cherry’, ‘chomma’ or ‘china’, all used when greeting a friend.
South Africans have great “gees”. This refers to great “spirit”, as seen during the FIFA World Cup held in South Africa in 2010. If you would like to spend a day swimming on the many beautiful beaches in South Africa, you would bring your “cozzie”, meaning your “bathing costume”.
When someone directs you to a certain place, they may tell you to turn left at the “robot” (“traffic light”). When in a building someone may tell you to take the “lift”, otherwise known as the “elevator”. The word “sarmie” is a South African shortened form of “sandwich”.
The word “lekker” is from the Afrikaans language, and is widely used when something is said to be “nice”. When eating at a restaurant, one would ask for the “bill” when ready to pay. “Bucks” refers to “money”. When travelling around South Africa by car you could stop in a number of little “dorpies” (“small towns”) along the way.
The word “Eish!” is used as an exclamation to express disapproval, sometimes used on its own or at the beginning of a remark. “Fundi” refers to someone who is an expert at something. “Yebo” is a Zulu word meaning “yes”.
The word “indaba” is often used in business and refers to a conference. Things are done or said in the spirit of “ubuntu”, which refers to compassion, kindness and camaraderie, literally “I am because you are”.
Because of the great diversity of the South African people, many local dishes are a melting pot of the different traditional foods of South Africa together with global influences. Biltong, dried meat, is a firm favourite amongst locals especially enjoyed with locally-brewed South African beer while watching a rugby match over the weekend, or enjoyed as an everyday snack. The large majority of South Africans cannot live without often having a barbecue (known as a “braai” in South Africa) and spending some quality time with their friends on a hot summer’s day. A “braai” involves cooking meat over an open flame on a grill. Often boerewors (a local type of sausage) will be put on the braai along with some seasoned braaivleis (meat).
“Bobotie” is a local dish made with mince, raisins, and curry spices originally from Indonesia. It was introduced by the Dutch, and adopted by the Cape Malay people of South Africa. Koeksisters and milktart are Cape Malay dessert favourites, enjoyed with a cup of tea. Various local stews, known as “bredies”, are enjoyed by many South African families, especially during the winter months. The large Indian population in Durban, together with the Malaysian influence in the Cape, have introduced many spicy dishes such as curries into the South African culinary experience.
South Africans love the great outdoors because of the long hot summer days, the large wide open spaces, the many wonderful beaches around the coast no matter which coastal city you are in, and the many mountain ranges to explore around the country. South Africans enjoy a vast array of outdoor sports activities and leisure activities. Most of the country can be explored by car from city to city, with many quaint ”dorpies” to visit along the way. If you feel overwhelmed by the many different cultures and traditions of South Africa, hang in there. The majority of South Africans are very tolerant, friendly and inclusive, and you are sure to make some great friends.
As you start experiencing the culture, you will start learning what is acceptable, what to say and when to say it, and where to find the best local food and restaurants. We know that you will fall in love with South Africa as so many other foreigners have, and grow to call South Africa your new home!