South African Slang Words

Our guide will help you to understand the most common South African slang words, those words you surely will hear and learn to use when visiting or living in Cape Town. The South African English does not only sound different than the English you know from English speaking countries such as England, the USA or Australia but also uses different terms and some words have different meanings. So be sure to know what is said in the conversation and do not get lost. 

Typical South African Slang Terms

As you will see in our listing below, the South African vocabulary is quite a bit different and often this originates from the various languages that influenced the South African English. South African English is enriched by the many different dialects and other languages spoken in this huge country. Can you answer the following questions?

  • Do you know when South Africans wear a 'makarapa'?
  • Do you know what it means to 'turn at the robots'?
  • Do you know what 'tekkies' are?

The South African English lends quite a few words from Afrikaans and the African languages like Xhosa or Zulu which are spoken widely by the black population of the country. Read more about the languages spoken in South Africa

In South Africa English might be the language of business and the locals speak English usually very well, but you will be taken by surprise when you hear some of the typical South African slang words which are sprinkled in every communication of South AfricansHere are the most frequently encountered South African Slang terms which you will hear when staying in Cape Town. Have a good look at these South African slang words and then go out and use them;)

Most frequently used South African slang words

What means ayoba? In South African slang this expression refers to something surprising or as a seal of approval as in "cool", "so much fun". So it is definitely a term you will hear more and more especially since one big cellphone provider use it as their slogan.

What is a bakkie? This is South African term for a pick-up truck, utility truck or light delivery truck. The cabin is usually small and for up to three passengers, while the back hold is open for easy loading and transport. You will see them often not only used as transport for goods but for passenger transport too. They often carry workers to and from construction sites on the Mother City’s roads too.

What is a bergie? This South African expression describes a person who lives on the streets. Bergies are visible all over town with their belongings packed onto a trolley and begging for money at the robots. The term originally referred to the homeless people living in the suburbs around the Tafelberg/Tablemountain.

What is biltong? This cured and dried meat is a typical South African snack and similar to beef jerky, however it is different in taste due to its ingredients. Biltong is usually marinated in vinegar before being cured. It is not only made with beef, but also available from game meat like kudu and springbok. Kids love to take these protein rich meaty bites in their lunch boxes in South Africa

What is a braai? Braaing is surely the favorite past time of most of the South Africans. The love their braai, which is the African version of BBQ. You will usually taste boerewors, game, chicken or beef steaks and even crayfish in season on a typical South African braai. Often potato salad or pap is served with your grilled meat.

What is a bobotie? This Cape Malay is one of the most popular traditional South African dishes. It combines the curry taste of the Asian dishes with some more mellow sweet taste of ginger and chutney. Already reading the list of ingredients which contains chutney, banana, custard, ginger will make you crave for this lovely local dish. Try out my favorite bobotie recipe , which is really easy to prepare and will be enjoyed by the whole family.

What is a café? This term often refers to a small shop where you can get some essential food, cigarettes and newspapers than to a coffee shop. Although there are now more and more streetside Cafes appearing, I guess this confusing term will disappear soon.

What is a cool drink? In South Africa a cool drink is just a fizzy drink, like a Sprite, Fanta or Coke. Nothing fancy it means usually just a can of a carbonated drink or lemonade.

What is "diski dance"? This dance will be gripping the world by storm during the coming Worldcup, that is for sure. The term "diski" comes from the township lingo and means simply "soccer".

What is a granadilla? South Africans use this Spanish name for the passion fruit (passiflora) or maracuja. It grows to roughly tennis ball size here in South Africa and has a purple-brownish color. To eat the fruit you just halve the fruit horizontally. The more firm the skin the more juice your fruit will have, but the shriveled fruits you often see in the stores are tasty too, as then the flesh is more compact but usually sweeter too.

What means howzit? This is the contracted form of "How is it going?". It is used instead of a greeting. More like "hello".

What is an indaba? This word comes from the Zulu expression meaning "business" and is in the Zulu and Xhosa culture a meeting to discuss important issues.

What are kokis? This is a question manly parents ask, when they get the list of stationary the kids have to get for school. This South African term stands for felt pens.

What means laduma? This term is coming from the Zulu language and means "it is thundering" and stands for "Goal". It is a popular cheering expression during football matches when a goal is scored.

What means lekker? This means nice, good, special and it showing appreciation. The term comes from the Afrikaans language and is use to describe not only a good lekker meal, but also a nice lekker car, a exciting outing. "This was really lekker".

What is a makaraba? A makaraba or makarapa, is the artfully created headgear of the South African soccer fans. The fan helmets are worn during soccer matches by loyal fans who do not only wear their teams colors but also create their own headgear to show their support. You can order a typical handmade makaraba for your worldcup team too. Read more about makarabas here.

What means 'now now'? In South African slang this expression of time means that something needs to be done immediately. If you tell somebody that you need you something done right away imply the urgency by doubling the "now" and say you want it done "now now". Especially if somebody replies that the matter is dealt with "just now", be sure to put some pressure on;) as this usually only tells you the matter will be dealt with some day, maybe never.

What is pap? This traditional porridge made out of maize meal and is the staple dish with the black population in South Africa. More info about Traditional South African dishes here.

What is a robot? Something you really will need to know when driving in South Africa. A robot is a traffic light at an intersection. You might also see signs like "Robots ahead". If gives you road directions you should know that if you have to turn left at the robots, that means turn left at the traffic lights. More about typical South Africa driving rules and customs.

What is rooibos? This word is Afrikaans and means "red bush". Here the needles of the red bush are used for Red Bush Tea which you can find in many different brands and tastes in local supermarkets and health food stores. Have you ever tried Red Cappuccino? It looks like the Italian coffee specialty and the locals swear it tastes even better than the real thing. More info on rooibos.

What is a sangoma? You will find the sangomas or traditional healers in the Townships where they still treat the locals with their herbal medicine, throwing bones, interpreting dreams and counseling. They performed traditional rituals and are believed to heal through their connection with the spirit world of the ancestors. Sangomas still outnumber western doctors in the rural areas of South Africa.

What are second skins? In South African Slang, second skins is swimwear which protects from the suns damaging rays and are looking like nylon T-shirts with long or short sleeves or pants looking like cycling shorts or short leggings. This swimwear is getting more popular all over the world, but here the name for sunshirts is adapted from the local brand name of the manufacturer.

What means 'shame'? Typical South African slang expression showing emotions but not only in the proper sense of embarrassment and guilt. More to show emotions like in "Ag shame, sorry to hear you are not well" or "Have you seen this baby’s big eyes? Shame, he is so cute"

What is a skollie? In Cape Town the term was used first by the Greeks and slowly infiltrated the south African English. It is used to describe shoplifters and streetkids.

What are slip slops? In summer you will see the locals near the beaches walk either barefoot (yes, even in shops and supermarkets) or wearing slip slops which are called sandals or jandals, chappals, thongs or flip flops in other parts of the world. This kind of plastic footware is cheap and easy to find in every shopping center here.

What is a spanspek? This is a cantaloupe melon. The word coms from the Afrikaans and interestingly calls this type of melon "Spanish bacon". You will find more typical South African food terms in my South Africa food guide.

What is a stompie? A stompie is a cigarette buttin South African slang. Do not throw them out carelessly. It is fire season now with the hotter windy days making the risk for runaway fires really high. A careless thrown away cigarette caused a massive fire two years ago on Table Mountain, where one person was killed due to the recklessness of a smoker. Chucking out cigarette butts from car windows is a serious offense here. If you get caught or are be seen by somebody you will be punished harshly. So please be aware of your environment and dispose of your stompie in a safe manner.

What is toyi-toyi? This is the traditional dancing the south Africans do when protesting or being on strike.

What means tsotsi? Tsotsi is the name for a gangsta or do not good. It was used in the award winning moving by the same name which describes the live of a young gang member in a South African township. Tsotsi won the Oscar in 2006 as the best foreign language film of the year.

What means voetstoets? This is a term you will encounter when buying a house. In South Africa there is a clause in the contract that you will buy the property "voetstoets", which means "as seen".

What is a vuvuzela? The vuvuzela is something you will hear more and more now. The sound or noise of the 'instrument' of the worldcup 2010 will blow off your ears at the stadium if you sit right next to an ardent fan who likes to blow it constantly. So be prepared to take some earplugs if you visit any soccer matches here. The noise can be deafening at 120db or more!

What is a witblits? This crystal clear brandy is traditionally distilled as the South African "Aqua Vita". There is even a Witblits Festival in South Africa in Philippolis/Freestate in April every year.

Surfrican: South African slang for surfers

Ever wondered what the surfies are talking about? Surfrican, the south African slang spoken by the surfers is something to know when you want to get into the tight knit surfers communities around Cape Town. Here is a link to South African Surfers Slang Words in SA’s biggest surfing community on the web. Have a great time using the South African Slang Words and communicating with the locals in Cape Town.

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Living in South Africa - Expat Guide Book by Regina Graeff and Derryn Campbell

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