South Africa has 11 official languages: English, Afrikaans (similar to Dutch), Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Southern Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda and Swati. Most people in the urban areas understand and can speak basic English so, if your English is OK, it is not totally essential to learn any of these languages to get by as a tourist. However, its always appreciated when some local phrases are used but if you are not sure which language the person speaks then stick to English.

For instance Zulu is normally spoken in the Durban area whilst Xhosa is spoken by the locals in Cape Town. Also bear in mind that Afrikaans was regarded as the language of the old oppressive Nationalist Government pre 1994 and therefore even trying to say a few words to the locals in this language may be regarded as offensive. Best advice is to keep to English if the person is a complete stranger.

Afrikaans

  • Yes - Ja   pronounced  Yah
  • No - Nee   pronounced  kneer
  • Thank you - Dankie  pronounced dunkey
  • Please - Asseblief   pronounced asserbleef
  • Goodbye – Totsiens  pronounced  totseens

Zulu

  • Hamba Kahle - go well, good bye; see you ( Kahle is pronounced kashle)
  • Sawubona - Hello
  • Ukudla - food
  • Isiphuzo - drink
  • thenga - buy
  • thank - bonga

Slang and similar

Even English-speaking South Africans have words that are only used in South Africa: A traffic light is known locally as a "robot" and a barbecue is called by the Afrikaans word "braai".  If something is really nice the Afrikaans word "lekker" is used, usually pronounced as "lekka". A common greeting is "Howzit?" and if something is going to be done fairly soon, it'll be done "now now" while "just now" is a little later on. 

Another word often used in South Africa is "shame" which can mean anything from "oh cute' - usually said "ag shame", to "you poor thing" to "I feel sorry for you".

An elevator is called a "lift" and  "sms" are used instead of a "text"

 An ethnic word being used by many and really great to say is "eish", it means lots of things usually when you would like to say "oh no...." or "goodness me" or something to that effect. "eish but the traffic is bad today"!

A flash light is known as a torch, your best friend is refferred to as your brah, or broe,( pronounced brew ).A good meal is known as a "lekka chow."

AG: An exclamation of irritation

BILTONG: Dried meat

BOER: Farmer

BOEREWORS: The traditional sausage

BOTTLE STORE: A retail outlet selling liquor

BUNDU: Wild remote country

BUSHVELD: Lowveld, usually Mpumalanga or northern Province

CAPE DOCTOR: A South East wind - Cape Region

CAPE DUTCH: Architecture of the early Western cape

EGOLI: A common name for Johannesburg

FUNDI: Expert

GOGGA: An insect

HAMBA KAHLE: Farewell or goodbye

HOEZIT: A greeting

KOPPIE: A small hill

LEKKER: Pleasant

MEALIE: corn on the cob

MUTI: African medicine

ROOIBOS: A herbal tea

SAFARI: A bush tour

SAMOOSA: A triangular Indian curried delicacy

SANGOMA: A witchdoctor

SAWUBONA: Hello-a universal South African greeting

SIS: An exclamation of disgust

SPOOR: The track or footprint of man or animal

STOEP: The verandah of a house

TOYI TOYI: Picketing, Protest, A protest dance

TSOTSI: A criminal gang member

VELD: South African countryside