You often hear South Africa described as “The Rainbow Nation” because of its ethnic and racial diversity. With so many different people living in the same country you hear a wide variety of languages spoken in public.
South Africa has eleven official languages. The four most common languages are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and English, in that order.
Zulus are not generally from the areas around Cape Town, so you don’t hear a lot of Zulu spoken in this part of the country. In Cape Town, English, Afrikaans and Xhosa are most common.
Fewer than 10 percent of South Africans speak English as their first language, but in Cape Town it is the lingua franca. South African media is dominated by English and it is also the language of commerce.
Afrikaans is the language Dutch settlers developed and shares many similarities to Dutch. It was the dominant language under apartheid and is still taught to all schoolchildren. English-speaking whites generally speak at least some Afrikaans and coloured people also speak dialects of the language.
Zulu and Xhosa are Bantu languages and are the two largest “home languages,” or languages spoken before European settlers arrived. They share similar structure and vocabulary. Native speakers of one language can generally understand the other.
Zulu is predominant in the eastern part of the country so you don’t hear much of it in Cape Town. Rather, Xhosa tends to be the predominant language among Cape Town’s black population.
If you’re looking at the word Xhosa and thinking, “how the heck do I say that?” then check out the video below. Xhosa features three clicks. A written “x” represents one of the clicks.
The kitchen staff at The Foreign Exchange, Oliver and Sean’s bar, are all Xhosa speakers and each Monday the head cook Ivy holds a Xhosa class for anyone who wants to drop in.
I went to my second lesson on Monday evening and I’m starting to get a decent grip on the basic greetings. I can now say “hello,” “how are you?” and “I’m fine, thank you.”
Allow me to demonstrate in writing so you can practice along. Here’s a basic greeting:
Me to a female friend: Molo, sisi! Hello, sister! (Molo is often followed by calling someone brother, sister, father or mother, even if the person isn’t related to you. Sister is sisi, brother is bhuti, father is tata and mother is mama.)
Friend: Molo, bhuti! Kunjani? Hello, brother! How are you?
Me: Ndiphilile, enkosi. Kunjani kuwe? I’m fine, thank you. And how are you?
Friend: Ndiphilile, enkosi. I’m fine, thank you.
That’s pretty much what I have down, although it’s enough to put a big smile on the face of my friends in the kitchen when I walk in the bar and say “Molweni bosisi!” (Molweni is “hello” to a group of people and “bosisi” is the plural “sisters.”)
After Monday, Ivy was also gracious enough to cook a traditional Xhosa meal for dinner. The meal was all vegetarian and reminded me very much of traditional Southern food.
The center of the dish was umqushoo, which is made of samp and beans and to me tasted like black-eyed peas. If the Internet is to be believed, it was apparently Nelson Mandela’s favorite food. (Mandela spoke Xhosa and was born in the Eastern Cape, where most Xhosa people still live.)
We also had pap, a maize mash that tastes like spongy polenta; umfino, which is boiled spinach; isonka samanzi, a steamed bread; amogqinya, a savory fried donut; and chakalaka, a relish with peppers, corn beans and other vegetables that is actually not a Xhosa dish, but is very common across South Africa.
Tomorrow afternoon I’m going on a tour of the Imizamo Yethu township in Hout Bay, the suburb where I live. Hout Bay is an interesting place because the center of town in an affluent, predominantly white beach neighborhood, but it is bookended by two townships that are very poor. Imizamo Yethu, where I’m going, is the predominantly black township and Hangberg is largely populated by coloured residents.
(Don’t think of coloured in the American sense. It is a racial term used to describe people who have mixed ancestry from Khoi tribes, Europe and other assorted groups. Coloured people had a different, higher status than blacks under apartheid. I’ll get more into this is a later post I’m writing about my reflections on race in South Africa.)
I’m going on the tour with a community organizer in the township who Sean introduced to me. I’ll write more about it in the coming days.
Hear legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba perform “The Click Song” to really appreciate how beautiful Xhosa can be:
(Ndifunda Xhosa in the title translates to “I’m learning Xhosa.”)