The English in South Africa

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The English in South Africa

LOCATION: South Africa
POPULATION: About 3.6 million
RELIGION: Christianity; Judaism


Though whites of English-speaking descent make up only about 8% of South Africa's population of 44 million, their culture and their language are powerful influences in a country where more than three-quarters of the people are blacks. English is one of 11 official languages in South Africa (the others are Afrikaans, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu) but it is one of the most widely spoken. A foreign visitor to South Africa who speaks only English will have no difficulties at all getting about and being understood. English is the principal language of business and tourism, English-language newspapers are published daily and can be obtained everywhere. Public signs and notices are always posted in English.

With South Africa's economy expanding rapidly into the global market place and with computerized personal communications becoming a feature of the workplace as well as schools and colleges, a good working knowledge of English is regarded as an essential requirement for young South Africans of all communities who want successful careers in business and the professions. English is taught in all the schools, is the medium of instruction (sometimes in addition to Afrikaans) in all universities, and is continuing to be a dominant force in South Africa's young democracy even though the constitution requires recognition of all the official languages.

The international status of English as the language of many of the world's leading countries is one of the reasons for its continued dominance in South Africa. Books, magazines, movies, TV shows and musical recordings flood into the country from the English-speaking world—mostly from the United States and Britain but also to a lesser extent from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—and are popular and influential. The pop stars and cultural icons of America and England are popular in South Africa too and going to the movies is a regular pastime. South Africa has vibrant media and entertainment industries of its own and, while a local African flavor often adds spice and a special character to these activities and Afrikaans music is undergoing a popular resurgence, the impact of the international English-speaking world is seen clearly in tastes and trends.

Throughout most of the 20th century, South Africa's political life was dominated largely by white Afrikaners, descendants of settlers who began to arrive in the 17th century, mostly from the Netherlands but also from France and Germany. After April 1994, when South Africa became a non-racial democracy and Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president, control of the country passed into the hands of the black majority and apartheid was finally abandoned. Although they were never in political control in the 20th century, English-speaking South Africans were prominent in commerce and industry and the professions throughout much of this period—and remain influential as one of the best-educated and most affluent sectors of the population.


White English-speaking South Africans have historic and language ties to Britain but they do not regard themselves as British expatriates. They see themselves as South Africans, an important sector of a racially and culturally diverse nation. They live throughout the country but are concentrated mostly in and around the cities and urban areas—the coastal cities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, and the inland cities and towns of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Grahamstown, and Kimberley.

South Africa has an estimated 44 million people and about 9.6%, or 4.2 million, are whites. English South Africans make up less than half of that group. Their presence in the country goes back to the end of the 18th century when Britain seized control of the Cape of Good Hope, the first white settlement area in Cape Town, during the Napoleonic Wars. The British government encouraged its citizens to emigrate to the Cape—mostly to establish a buffer between African tribesmen and farming colonists on the eastern frontier—and the first sizable group of 4,000 began to arrive in 1820. These 1820 settlers faced enormous day-to-day difficulties in making their new lives in the wilderness, but they prevailed and brought much needed skills to the colony. Their legacy is still strong, especially in the eastern Cape around Port Elizabeth, East London, and the university town of Grahamstown.

Their presence also contributed to a major event in South African history—the Great Trek during which Afrikaner farmers migrated inland to escape British rule. The Great Trek, roughly equivalent to America's western migration of the 19th century, brought the Afrikaners (known as the Boers) into conflict with African tribes, notably the Zulus in what is today the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Eventually, the British government went to war with the Zulus, defeating them after a number of bloody battles and establishing the British colony of Natal. At the turn of the century, British forces defeated two republics founded by the migrating Boers in the Anglo-Boer War (now known as the South African War) and the whole of the country was incorporated into the British Empire. In 1910 South Africa became a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Throughout this turbulent history, English-speaking South Africans settled widely.


English was established as a mother tongue in South Africa in the 19th century. It is little different from the English spoken elsewhere in the world but has a distinct flavor, accent, and character and has absorbed, informally, a number of words and sentence structures from other ethnic and racial groups. Some of these words have crept into usage abroad—such as “trek” for a journey and “veld” for the prairie. In an analysis of South African English pronunciation, the Collins English Dictionary cites the words “yes,” “kettle,” and “axle,” which are commonly pronounced “yis,” “kittle,” and “eksel.” South African English slang has borrowed some structures from Afrikaans, such as: “She threw him with a stone” and “I am going to the shop, will you come with?” It has also taken some words from African languages, such as “indaba,” which means a gathering. Some phrases are unique to South African English, such as “just now,” which means “soon but not right at this time.”


Since they share their language with English-speaking peoples around the world, English South Africans also share in the special anniversaries, legends, and myths that are part of the international culture of the language. They celebrate Christmas in the traditional way with gifts, family gatherings, and dinner and get together for parties and celebrations on New Year's Eve when the midnight hour is greeted with hugs and kisses and the singing of Auld Lang Syne—a familiar scene around the world. In coastal ports like Cape Town it is common for ships to sound their sirens to greet the New Year.

The community has nothing like Halloween but, until fairly recently, they marked Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) with fireworks and bonfires. Guy Fawkes Day recalls an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the British Houses of Parliament. Today, however, private use of fireworks is banned in many areas because of the danger to lives and property and the event is rapidly passing out of memory. Apart from that, there is little folklore uniquely associated with English South Africans.


Religious beliefs are an important part of the daily life of many South Africans. The major faiths are Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Religion has played a key role in the history of the country, especially in its opposition to racial discrimination known as apartheid. Religious leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church in South Africa, became politically prominent in their campaigns for equality and democracy. Nearly all of the denominations were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle—Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians and others. Most English South Africans belong to protestant Christian denominations with a lesser number but significant number adhering to the Catholic Church.

A small number—about 200,000—are Jews who tend to live mainly in the affluent areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town. Jewish influence in South Africa is much larger than the community's numbers would indicate. English-speaking Jewish South Africans have leadership positions in medicine and law, commerce and industry, and education and politics, and many have excelled in sport and the arts. The first South African to be posted to Washington as the country's ambassador during the transition away from apartheid was Jewish.


The English of South Africa observe the country's national and religious holidays. These include Human Rights Day (March 21), Good Friday (changes yearly), Family Day (changes yearly), Freedom Day (April 27), Worker's Day (May 1), Day of Reconciliation (December 16) and Christmas Day (December 25).


The rites of passage for English South Africans would be familiar to their counterparts in other parts of the world. One of the earliest events is kindergarten at age five or younger, followed by primary school at age six. Junior school starts at age eight and high school at age 13. After graduation from high school—known as matriculation in South Africa—it is common to go on to a technical college or to a university. Colleges and universities are seldom referred to as “schools” in South Africa, except in some instances as “school of medicine” or “school of law.”

Reaching the age of 18 when it becomes legal to drive, to vote, and to drink alcohol is an important rite of passage. The 21st birthday is the most important rite of passage when it is usual to present the celebrant with a silver key to adulthood.

After university graduation—and sometimes before—it is common for young English South Africans to travel abroad. Typically, they travel to Britain and the European continent (11 or 12 hours away by air) but increasing numbers are traveling to the United States, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Because of the expense involved, many try to get work during their travels, and it is not uncommon to find them working as farm laborers, maids, nannies and in other casual jobs before moving on to the next stage of their journey. There are currently for example, thousands of young South Africans working in London and this has become a kind of rite of passage in itself.


In the past, English South Africans—like other communities in the country—tended to keep to themselves with most social contacts confined to members of their own group. Several social and political trends have changed that situation. The most dramatic change was the transition to democratic government, which began by stages in the 1980s and was consummated in 1994. This has brought whites and blacks together in schools, colleges, the workplace, and on sports fields with an intimacy that did not exist before. As a result, different communities are being exposed to customs and personal practices that may be different from their own. For instance, in some rural African areas it is still considered polite to sit down and not to speak first when a prominent person or someone elderly enters a room. English South Africans have been taught traditionally that younger people should stand up as a mark of respect and greet a more senior person first. They are learning that their own way is not necessarily the only or correct way for everyone. All communities serve in a volunteer defense force and this development has further demolished past barriers. Previously, this was by conscription for white and “coloured” 18 year old males only.

Another major influence was the introduction of television in South Africa in 1975. Before that time, there was only radio with separate language channels. TV programs sometimes alternate the languages or have subtitles, which means that, for the first time, English-speaking South Africans were being exposed to other tongues and cultures, also from abroad, under the powerful influence of entertainment.

All these trends have tended to break down the barriers between social groups in South Africa. One of the most memorable examples of this was the nationwide celebration when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and again in 2007. Rugby is still played mainly by whites and particularly by Afrikaans-speakers. However, the whole nation reacted joyously when the national team won these tournaments. All the games had been broadcast live. In 2010 South Africa is hosting the FIFA World Cup (soccer/football), which is also providing South Africans with a common focus.


Transition to democracy has opened up equal opportunities for everyone, and there are no longer legal barriers to communities living in each other's previously restricted areas. However, political change has come much faster than economic change and many blacks still live in poverty while many English South Africans continue to live the relatively privileged life-style that was once considered their right. The typical successful white South African lives in a style similar to his or her counterpart in the United States—in single-family houses on wide suburban streets or in apartments or semidetached row houses with neighborhood playgrounds, shopping centers, and cinemas. As the economy grows and blacks take advantage of new employment and educational opportunities, they are increasingly achieving a similar comfortable standard of living. There is some concern, however, that this applies mostly to a new black elite.


The social stability provided by the family unit is recognized by the government, which has a policy of supporting family cohesion. In English South African families it is not unusual for both parents to work during the day and for younger schoolchildren to be cared for by live-in domestic workers when they come home in the afternoon. Marriage nowadays usually occurs in the late twenties to early thirties. With high interest rates and sharply rising property prices, it has become more common for older children to continue to live at home for longer than they would have in the past and even—if the property is large enough—for families to build separate structures that allow either the children or the elderly parents to live nearby but separately for privacy. It is a case, perhaps, of a tight economy contributing to family cohesion. English South African families celebrate the traditional events such as birthdays, anniversaries, special achievements in school or in sports, and often take vacations together, renting cottages or apartments at the seaside. These days it is common for family members who live apart to communicate daily with each other by computer e-mail or cellular/mobile telephone. Family pets are popular with one or two dogs and cats being the norm.


Day-to-day clothing is similar to that worn by middle-class people throughout the world. Increasingly, however, it is common to find men shedding jackets and ties in the work environment, following a trend set by the previous president Nelson Mandela who made colorful open-neck shirts fashionable, even at formal meetings. Schoolchildren are required at most schools to wear school uniforms. Sometimes, these uniforms are still the traditional blazer and tie for both boys and girls, which can be hot and uncomfortable during the summer, but many schools have opted for open-neck clothes. Jeans, shorts, and T-shirts are popular on weekends. Young English South Africans spend much of their money on leisure clothes. They strive to conform to current fashion trends.


The meal associated traditionally with English South Africans is the English-style roast beef or lamb with roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding prepared on Sunday morning and eaten at a family lunch—followed by a nap. That may be turning into a myth, or at least a memory, as life-styles permit less time in the kitchen and a desire to eat lighter and less costly food. Similarly, the traditional breakfast of bacon and eggs often gives way today to coffee or tea and toast or one of the many breakfast cereals familiar to Americans. Fruit is also a popular first meal of the day. There are usually three meals each day—breakfast, a sandwich at lunch, and dinner in the evenings. Dinner could consist of grilled steak with fried or baked potatoes, or fried or baked fish, which is especially popular in coastal cities, washed down with beer or wine or plain water. In winter, stews are popular. Known as bredies, they can be made with mutton or beef and any kind of vegetable. English South Africans like to garnish their food with a pickled relish called chutney, and many enjoy a bread spread called Marmite, a dark-colored yeast extract with a salty taste. Fast foods are gaining in popularity, and hamburgers are frequently eaten—to the concern of some diet specialists.


South Africa has a literacy rate of some 86.4 percent for those over 15 in the nation at large, but for the English-speaking community the rate is almost universal. Education is compulsory to the age of 16 and it generally takes 12 years to obtain a high school diploma or senior certificate, which is required to continue studies at a technical college or university. University undergraduate degrees generally take three years to complete with longer academic years than are usual in the United States. An additional year of study after a bachelor's degree can lead to an honors degree, followed by further work for master's degrees or doctorates. These days, it is becoming more difficult to get a good job without at least a bachelor's degree or a technical college diploma. Many families devote a great deal of time, energy and resources to education and will sacrifice to ensure that their children are well prepared for a future in which advanced technology will play a key role in everyday life. In a tight economy many find it hard to keep their children in the classroom for extended periods.


English South Africans have inherited a rich local cultural heritage, mostly in the area of literature in which writers have achieved international renown for their depiction of dramatic events against a South African background. Probably the best-known such writer is Alan Paton whose novel Cry the Beloved Country explores the impact of racism on whites as well as blacks. It has been made twice into American movies. An extremely popular author is Herman Charles Bosman who, writing in English with an Afrikaans flavor, takes a humorous look at daily life in a rural community. Other writers who have achieved international fame include Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee while other South African writers, such as André Brink (Afrikaans) and Njabulo Ndebele, have made major contributions to English literature in South Africa. Playwright Athol Fugard has also achieved international fame with his dramatic portrayals of life through South Africa's race-tinged prism. Western classical and pop music is popular but many English South Africans have developed a taste for African music, such as the close harmonies found in the singing of groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. American musician and entertainer, Paul Simon, has done much to bring the charms of this kind of music to an international audience.


A typical work week ranges from 40–46 hours, and a legally mandated minimum wage is adjusted from time to time. Until 1979, special classes of labor were reserved for workers by race. However, in the late 1990s, this situation started changing. Some English-speaking South Africans expressed concern over black economic empowerment (BEE) programs, in which special consideration is given to employing and promoting blacks. Some claim now that this has led to a new kind of apartheid in which whites are unable to get jobs and promotions because of their skin color. Few disagree with the need for affirmative action, but many argue with the way in which it has been implemented, given that South Africa is some 14 years into democracy with a post-apartheid generation now at school. Policymakers hope that the problem will ease and disappear eventually as a growing economy opens up job opportunities for all.


Because of the country's generally benign climate throughout the year, outdoor sports are very popular. The most popular sports are rugby, soccer, and field hockey played in winter, and cricket in summer. Tennis, golf, track and field athletics, competitive cycling, and swimming are also extremely popular. Lawn bowls, played mostly by older folk but also by a growing number of young people, has a large following. American-style baseball has a few adherents but is not nearly as popular as cricket, which—in the view of some—has joined rugby as a national obsession. Wind-surfing, surfboard riding, and both fresh- and salt-water yachting are enjoyed all year long while hiking and mountaineering have many adherents. Sports events that attract the largest crowds in the country's many fine stadiums are rugby, soccer, and cricket. Events that attract thousands of spectators as well as participants include annual road marathon races in Cape Town and Natal. Professional horse racing also has a large following and two races in particular—the Cape Metropolitan handicap and the Durban July—are major media events where the fashions worn by the race goers get as much attention as the horses. South Africa has produced world and Olympic champion individuals and teams in many of its sports.


Popular recreation attractions in South Africa include Kruger National Park and several game reserves. Entertainment facilities include symphony halls, theaters, movies, nightclubs, and discos. The annual National Arts Festival held in Graham-stown is a major event featuring mainly English plays, music, and arts, and also crafts stalls.


The English in South Africa enjoy the varied hobbies of citizens of an industrialized nation.


South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994 brought equal rights and new opportunities to the disadvantaged sectors of the population. Unfortunately, it also sparked a dramatic increase in the rate of crime and violence—an inevitable byproduct of poverty and high unemployment in the context of a new political system where social expectations are unrealistically high. Burglaries, muggings, car-jackings, rapes, and murders all increased since the late 1990s. English-speaking South Africans are as much the victims of this crime rate as any other sector of the population and it has led to demands for tough action by the government as well as a return to capital punishment, which is banned in South Africa. One result has been a growing rate of emigration. Another has been the growth of private security-related services and the development of gated communities.

South Africa's transition also made it a target for foreign narcotics traffickers who saw the opportunities in newly opened borders for a major international transshipment point. Illicit drugs are now being shipped through South Africa to North America and Europe in a network that has made it hard to trace their origins. Nations with more experience in dealing with this cruel trade are helping South Africa address the problem, but drug trafficking has boosted crime within the country and is a major societal concern.

HIV/AIDS is also a major problem, with the adult prevalence rate at 21.5% (2003 est.). The number of people living with HIV/AIDS was estimated at 5.3 million (2003) and the number of deaths caused by the disease was estimated at 370,000 deaths in 2003.


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 108 of 1996) specifies individual rights and their protection. Chapter 2[9(3)] specifically indicates that “the State may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender,...etc.”. This is observed in practice by all government agencies. For example, the Department of Education runs a program, the Girls Education Movement (GEM), launched in 2003. It is a key program supporting and fostering education for girls and was implemented in partnership with the United Nations' (UN) Children's Fund.

This program aims to ensure that girls not only have access to education, but that they stay in school and succeed. GEM was founded on three pillars: career mentorship, skills development, and advocacy.

Through GEM, girls are placed in partner companies during their Easter, winter, and spring school breaks, to discover first-hand how skills acquired in school and the skills-development program relate to the workplace.

They are exposed to a structured job-shadowing program and to new and exciting career paths in the fields of mathematics, science, and commerce. The GEM Skills Development Program aims to address gender disparities through education and advocacy.

Compared to many other communities in South Africa, the English in the country, even in rural areas, are much farther along the road of gender parity. Much like their counterparts in other industrialized nations, English women in South Africa are career-oriented and fill prominent positions in virtually every sector of society.


Butler, G. The 1820 Settlers. Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1974.

Mallaby, Sebastian. After Apartheid. New York: Random House, 1992.

Paton, Alan. Towards the Mountain, An Autobiography. Cape Town: David Philip, 1980.

Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa. Cape Town: Reader's Digest Association, 1994.

South Africa Yearbook 2007/08. Pretoria: Government Communication and Information System, 2008.

Suzman, Helen. In No Uncertain Terms, A South African Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993.

—by M de Jongh

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The English in South Africa

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