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South Africa is a country full of unique people and cultures, and there are dozens of phrases and practices you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world. Some will greet you instantly upon arrival; others you will fully understand only when you have made a few South African friends.
South Africans from all walks of life are proud of their ability to braai, or cook meat over open flames. Though this practice is not unique to South Africa, don’t ever consider comparing a barbecue to an all-South African braai. And even if you understand the art of the braai, you’re likely to encounter dozens of self-assigned professionals who’ll claim they, and only they, know the true art of cooking meat over an open flame.
South Africans love celebrating the disappearance of the sun with an alcoholic beverage or two. Though visitors might congregate to witness a spectacular South African sunset, only those with South African friends will know how seriously many locals take it. Though there’s no real rule book for the perfect sundowner, make the suggestion to a friend and watch his or her eyes light up and a masterplan kick into action.
South Africa’s numerous languages mean there’s never any shortage of choice swearwords, and Afrikaans in particular lends itself nicely to insulting phrases that are pleasingly phonetic. Just listen to any song by Die Antwoord or Jack Parow, and you’ll likely encounter some choice swearwords in the first few seconds.
If you’re not a fan of delivering a good, insulting vloek, but still like to use colourful slang, you’ll learn a lot from your South African friends. The nation is packed full of amazing slang that may be difficult to learn at first, but will become strangely infectious the longer you spend around locals.
There’s a level of patriotism in South African sport that’s fascinating to witness when you’re allowed behind the closed doors of your new friend’s house. On the odd occasion that there is more than one national sporting event taking place on the same day, you’ll witness the most impressive ability to skip between each, without missing any of the action.
If you’ve managed to make a few local friends, it’s only a matter of time before you learn the hard way what they mean by ‘now-now’ or ‘just now’. That’s because, although both seem to indicate an imminent arrival, they’re loose references to time that could have you sitting alone at the bar for anything from five minutes to a few hours. Best you get an exact time reference, and if you’re in Cape Town, add another 30 minutes to that, just in case.
South Africans love to apologise, but they’re not really sorry. They also regularly claim things are funny, but without cracking a smile. That’s because each has taken on multiple meanings. ‘Sorry’, at its closest to the literal meaning, might appear in the form of ‘Sorry I left you waiting alone at the bar for so long.’ But it can also mean your friend didn’t hear what you said and that you should repeat it. ‘Funny’ is another confusing one: it also doubles as ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’, as in, ‘This milk tastes funny; I think it might be off’.
Though South Africa is more technologically advanced than many first-time visitors realise, we’re not quite at the stage where we have androids helping to ease the traffic flow. But over the years, locals have taken to calling traffic lights ‘robots’.
South Africa has been though a lot over the years, and anyone who tracked the country’s progress from oppressive apartheid regime to fledgling democracy will know that its people have a remarkable ability to overcome hardship. In spite of the real difficulties that many South Africans still face, you’ll never have to look too hard to find an infectious laugh or a triumphant spirit, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Fleeting visitors to South Africa tend to ask questions like, ‘Do you speak African?’ But ask the question to your South African friend, and you’ll receive an abridged history lesson about how Africa is not a country, and that there are in fact 11 official languages in South Africa alone, and dozens of unique cultures throughout the country.
This one might be more apparent to those with South African friends living abroad, but there’s a strangely fierce loyalty to South African snacks. Ask any South African holed up in London what he’d do for NikNaks, Milo, milk tart or even basic bubblegum squares in the form of Chappies, and chances are they’ll start frothing at the mouth. Not because they’re particularly high quality, but because they’re all forms of edible nostalgia.