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Conversing with the Locals: an Introduction to South African Slang

South African Slang

To my ears South African slang is strange. Combining slang words coming from all eleven national languages – particularly Afrikaans, English and Zulu – I sometimes found it difficult to keep up with locals conversation, though most people were happy to take the time to translate.

So before you leave for your trip to South Africa, and wonder why the people keep saying “shame“, wonder what you signed up to when you get invited to a “braai” and explained what “sharp-sharp” means before you think a local is going to try stab you with scissors… accidentally of course, I wanted to share this quick crash course with you explaining some of the most popular South African slang I heard!

Howzit?

One of the most common phrases you’ll hear in South Africa. Howzit is a common greeting meaning “hello” and/or “how’s it going?”

  • Eg. “Howzit my China?” (How’s it going my friend?)

Lekker

You’ll hear this word everywhere! Lekker means something that is very ‘tasty,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘fun.’ Lekker can also be used to express approval.

  • Eg. “The food is lekker” (tasty/delicious) /”What a lekker jol” (what a great party)

Braai

South Africans LOVE to braai almost as much as Australians. That’s right, a braai is a BBQ!

  • Eg. “Lets have a braai” (lets have a BBQ)

Izzit?

Simply used in please of “really??” in language.

  • Eg. “Jan broke up with Shelly.” “Izzit??”

Robots

Don’t worry, South Africa doesn’t have Star Wars-style robots walking the streets. Instead, a robot is a traffic light!

  • Eg. “We need to turn right at the next robot.”

Fever Blister

Used in place of the word ‘cold sore’.

  • Eg. “I have a fever blister.”

China

“My China” is the cockney rhyming slang for “China plate” (meaning “my mate”). In South Africa, My China means a friend/mate.

  • Eg. “Howzit my china?”

Biltong

Not so much a slang but you’ll frequently get asked if you have tried this spicy, seasoned, dried raw meat, made from beef, venison, kudu, ostrich or any other red meat. Similar to American “jerky”.

Shame

I was a little confused by this one when I first began talking to a local who said it three or four times in a sentence. Confused, I had to ask him what he meant by it.
South Africans use the word “shame” to sympathise with a person’s misfortune or an objects cuteness. Confusing much?!

  • Eg. “I fell down the stairs today and now I’ve missed my flight.” “Shame.” (sympathise)
  • Eg. “Ag shame, look at that baby!” (cuteness)

Dop

One word you need to know before heading to South Africa is ‘dop’, meaning ‘drink’. Trust me, there’ll be plenty of opportunities to have a dop – from the Cape Winelands to a local shebeen, you’ll always find someone up for a dop.

  • Eg. “Lets go have a dop in the shebeen.”

Kaal-gat

Want to explain to your South African friends that you accidental went to a nudist beach and saw naked people? Used the phrase “Kaal-gat”, meaning naked or bare bummed!

  • Eg. “He was kaal-gat!”

Sharp-Sharp

Heard frequently, particularly amongst the black community, ‘sharp-sharp’ can be used as a greeting, farewell, as an agreement or just to express enthusiasm. Can also be said just as “sharp“.

  • Eg. “I’ll see you later.” “Sharp-sharp!”

Just now/Now now

If you’re in a rush you don’t want to hear these words. This phrases means “very soon”, “eventually” or even “never” and it could happen in 10 minutes, tomorrow or maybe they won’t do it at all.

  • Eg. “I’ll do it just now”/”I’ll do it now now” (I’ll do it very soon/eventually)

Sawubona

Pronounced ‘Sah-wu-bo-nah’. A Zulu greeting meaning “I see you”. Used in the same way as “good morning/good afternoon/good night”.

Now it’s over to you:

Which countries slang do you like the most?
Are there any more words you’d add to the list?

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    No-Backpacker
    May 17, 2014 at 2:35 am

    Funny, I remember some of the words from when we were in Johannesburg during Christmas. I also remember it was something funny with the mobile-phone line, but can’t remember what it was, only that we laughed when we heard it and laughed even more when we were told about the “robots”. 🙂

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    Corinne
    May 20, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    I love this. Wish I’d read it before heading to South Africa, but now I’ll just have to go back and try some of these out. Awesome list!

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    Elena
    May 25, 2014 at 4:09 am

    I’d never thought that anyone could call refer to traffic lights as robots. That’s hilarious!

  • Reply
    rebecca
    May 28, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    haha great post! certainly very useful!

  • Reply
    Vaughan McShane
    July 30, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Excellent article!

    Your examples are spot on, and I couldn’t have been prouder reading this.
    My wife and I are South African Travel Bloggers based, for the meanwhile, in Malaysia, and reading about home through other people’s eyes (and ears) is always fascinating.

    I’m glad we can provide a little bit of humour to the rest of the English speaking nations. To anyone who hasn’t visited South Africa yet, print this list out and go discover for yourselves how magical it is.

    • Reply
      Nicole
      August 5, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      I’m so glad you approve! Some of the words I’m still a little confused on but the South Africans I got stuck in O.R. Tambo with insisted I include them, haha.

      Hope you’re enjoying your time in Malaysia and hope to see you in my home (Australia) one day soon. 🙂

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