South African English Words We Don’t Have In The US

English is far from the only language spoken in South Africa, the largest country in southern Africa. While English is the lingua franca, there are actually 11 official languages in total, with a majority of the population speaking Zulu, an indigenous language. With all this linguistic diversity, it should come as no surprise that South African English has absorbed vocabulary and expressions from the nation’s many other languages.

Many words in South African English come from Bantu languages, which are indigenous to the country. Others come from Afrikaans, a language related to Dutch spoken by the descendants of the Dutch colonists who settled in the area in the 1600s. As a result of all these influences, South African English is unique. Read on to learn just a few of the many words that make South African English singular.

Mzansi [uhm-zuhnsi]

The colloquial term for South Africa and its peoples is Mzansi. The word comes from a Bantu language (Xhosa) word, uMzantsi; the suffix –zantsi means “low,” “south.” Mzansi, meaning South Africa, is found as early as 1999. In 2003, the country launched the low-cost banking scheme known as Mzansi accounts, or South African accounts.

Today, Mzansi is used as an informal name for South Africa, a collective noun to refer to its people, and an adjective to describe things that come from there, as in Mzansi communities.

lekker [leckuhr]

One word you might hear a lot in South Africa is lekker. This word means, roughly speaking, “cool, great, nice.” The adjective lekker can be used to describe anything that’s good, from tasty food (a lekker meal) to appreciating a good joke (a lekker sense of humor). It can also be used to describe someone who looks healthy … or hot (as in sexy).

The Afrikaans word lekker is related to the Dutch verb meaning “to lick.” Examples of it in English texts are found as early as 1900.

springbok [spring-bak]

Springbok is the common name for Antidorcas marsupialis, a species of antelope native to South Africa. These antelope have become something of a mascot for the country. The name springbok comes from Afrikaans: it combines springen (“to leap”) and bok (“antelope”). The word springbok has been in use in English since 1765.

However, by 1906, springbok had taken on another meaning—one related to national identity. To this day, it is used to describe the national sports teams and their players, as in Everyone hopes the Springboks will win the championship.

padkos [pahd-kas]

The plural noun padkos describes something universally beloved: snacks for a journey, or literally, road food in Afrikaans. The English language has known about padkos since at least 1848, although the spelling of it wasn’t settled for a little while.

In South Africa, padkos is an important part of holiday travel. These so-called snacks are sold at roadside convenience stores or made at home and brought along for the ride. A popular padkos is slap chips (French fries typically served with vinegar).

indaba [in-dah-bah]

The word indaba comes from the Zulu for “matter for discussion, affair, account.” It’s been referenced in English since the 1800s, when it was adopted to describe meetings among indigenous peoples. Traditionally speaking, indabas are conferences held by leaders of the Zulu-Xhosa people.

Today, indaba is used frequently in South Africa to refer to a conference or meetings more generally. There are indabas for everything from scouting to mining to design.

braai [bry]

Short for braaivleis, braai is a South African barbecue tradition. The word braai means “grill” and vleis means “meat” in Afrikaans. A braai is an opportunity to fire up the grill or get a fire going, grab your favorite meat (maybe boerewors, a kind of sausage), and hang out. If the invite says “chop and dop,” you’re expected to bring your own meat and drink.

According to Google Ngram results, braaivleis started to show up in English-language texts between 1930 and 1940. Over the years, the popularity of braais has only increased. There is even a national Braai Day in South Africa, on September 24. Braai is one of the gastronomic traditions celebrated throughout South Africa.

yebo [je-boh]

The informal affirmation yebo comes from Zulu and other Bantu languages and means “yes, I agree.” Sometimes, yebo is repeated more than once for emphasis. While yebo is often used to mean “yes,” it’s also the typical way to respond to a greeting in Zulu.

 Saying yebo is also a respectful way to show you are listening, including to an authority figure, like a grandparent or teacher (e.g., saying, Yebo, baba for “Yes, grandpa”).


Even words that you know may have entirely new meanings in South Africa. One of those words is robot.

In general, the word robot comes from Peter Selver’s 1923 translation of Karel Capek’s 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots. Capek’s play envisioned robots as mechanical laborers and named them after rabota (an Old Church Slavonic term meaning “forced labor”).

But in South Africa, robot is a slang term for a traffic light. A red robot is a red light, and so on. The origins of this slang are unknown. However, it is speculated that the name is a shortening of robot cop—a reference to the job cops used to do in controlling road traffic before traffic lights.

ubuntu [oobuhntoo]

A concept you might hear a lot about in South Africa is ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Zulu and Xhosa word that literally means humanity. However, ubuntu represents a lot more than just humanity. An early definition of the word in an English-language source from 1860 describes it as “the true, proper nature of a man.”

Beginning in the 1950s, the word ubuntu was used to describe an African humanism. It became a guiding principle of the post-apartheid South African government and society. Today, ubuntu is the name of a popular open-source computer operating system. But it’s also used throughout Africa as an expression of love, unity, and goodwill (e.g., to spread ubuntu).

apartheid [uh-pahrt-hahyt]

This term is found in US English, but its role in South Africa is important, so we’re highlighting it nonetheless.

For decades, South Africa’s government enforced a policy of racial segregation known as apartheid. The name comes from Afrikaans, and it literally means “separateness,” or apart and heid (meaning “-hood”). Apartheid policies prohibited South Africans of non-European descent from fully participating in society, the economy, and politics.

The word apartheid is found in Afrikaans by at least 1929. Evidence of its use in English dates to 1945–50 in news reports about the effects of segregation in South Africa.

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Mar. 25, 2023

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