Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why white South Africans should learn the grammar of blackness

Twitter does funny things to former cabinet ministers. Just before midnight on Sunday, Tito Mboweni started a discussion about hair extensions. Why, he wanted to know, did black women not want their natural hair? So there we had it: our former reserve bank governor talking about weaves. Imagine Tony Leon talking about fake tan. That’s the level of strangeness we’re dealing with.

The fact that I know about weaves and the debate around them makes me something of an exception. Because I’m a white South African who happens to be interested in the stuff that black South Africans talk about, and it seems (if we’re totally honest with ourselves) that there aren’t nearly enough of us.

“Why are so many white South Africans shamelessly uninterested in the grammar of blackness?” Eusebius McKaiser asked the other day. He made a good point: black South Africans know the grammar of whiteness because they have to if they want to get ahead, but white South Africans are amazingly ignorant of contemporary black culture.

(That’s not a lecture, by the way — just a statement based on years of observation.)

Here’s an example. Recently, I decided to embrace twerking. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes 10 000 hours to be really good at anything, so I have a long and hard road ahead of me. Possibly quite a few sessions at the chiropractor too.

But how many of you reading this actually know what twerking is?
Or towning?
Or what people mean when they talk about sidechicks?
A yellowbone?
Ben 10s?
(Nando’s made an ad about Izikhothane, and you’ll never look at Ultramel in the same way again.)
And yes, claps hands once.

These are all subjects of ongoing discussion on Twitter, and by and large it’s a conversation that takes place between black South Africans.

This brings me to a larger point. The fact that most whites don’t have a clue about the grammar of blackness is a problem. Social cohesion is desirable — in fact, it’s essential to the long-term stability of South Africa. Often, we get our knickers in a knot over what it means to be South African; we get misty-eyed over the halcyon days of Madiba Magic and rainbowism, and that’s silly, because the basis of common identity isn’t love, it’s recognition. Acknowledging others. Being in on the same joke. We don’t have to like each other, but we have to “get” it. If we don’t have the same cultural reference points, we end up talking past each other.

This is why Twitter has such power as a tool of social cohesion: it allows us to talk to each other. It gives us a glimpse of other conversations, and gives us an in into other people’s jokes. This is also where advertising has such huge power, and why I would love to see more brands investing in creating common points of reference.

The pervasive ignorance of the grammar of blackness is analogous to the monolingualism of English-speaking white South Africans, who expect everyone else to make an effort for them, but can’t do the same. I know this, because I am one of them, and I am trying to change. So yes, I practise my twerking. I get involved in conversations about towning with Khaya Dlanga. I watch the MTN Samas and laugh along with everyone else at the poor Venda dude who peed his pants.

In a way, to use the expression used by Eusebius, I am dabbling in the grammar of blackness. This is not about being patronising, or adopting blackface, or trying to be something I’m not (I’m decidedly white and middle class). I’m just … interested. Because here’s the thing: at the most basic level, paying attention to others — and paying attention to what they are interested in — is a way of saying that they matter.

So to my fellow white suburbanites: guys, there’s more to black South Africans than Julius Malema. There’s more to connecting with your fellow citizens than the corporate team-building exercise or calling the attendant at the local Caltex “Chief”. A lot more. So why not pay attention? Talk to people. Show an interest. I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned. Don’t let the opportunity to connect with your fellow citizens pass you by.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • The rainbow nation needs a paint job
  • Franschhoek Literary Festival: Breaking the silence
  • Is it time for the DA to ditch Helen Zille?
  • The men and women who make SA great, sort of
    • Ouch

      please provide dictionary

    • Yvette

      Hey Sarah

      what an intriguing article , you not the only one it also took forever for a black sister (me) to know what Towning & Twerking means.

    • mich

      Well-said! The fact that there are people who are “interested” in getting to know what they missed out on during apartheid (and for the many years after) makes me feel an optimism about SA; one which is sorely lacking amongst too many South Africans who aren’t interested in the grammar of blackness.

    • Zeph

      Yes, Twitter (aka technology/social media) is an extremely powerful tool to break down cultural barriers. It will erode the ‘old cultures’ by creating (fewer or more dilute)new ones. This is not a bad thing as a static culture is a dead culture.

      Just as an aside – if I am going to spend some time in the rural Eastern Cape I brush up slightly on the main cultural aspects that might affect me there. I do this as I am immersing myself in that world and it is for my best interest and not for my love of diverse cultures. I find some cultures to be a hindrance by being a lazy excuse for many deficiencies…and before I get crucified for something imagined and imposed on me; I do the same before I go on a trip to Germany.

    • johann

      This is not the issue – as you say, there ARE cultural differences, but don’t expect us, who are really not ALLOWED to have a past and a history, now to become infatuated with the culture and antics of those who are now the oppressors and the currently advantaged. I have no interest in ANY culture that refuses to acknowledge mine. As for the language of twitter or any other critter, it’s not my scene – and I think I speak for many other currently discriminated against people…

    • Alan

      Good call. Good advice. Will check some of this stuff out.

    • Robert

      Refreshing piece Sarah.

    • Lamb

      Why can’t we all just speak normally? Next thing u gonna b tel’n us 2 spk lyk dis

    • Melanie

      It is the best part of our freedom, now we can all chat about everyday life, learn about why things happen as they do, and take what is best from each other’s culture.

      For example attending a funeral for a death in a black family showed me how imporant it is to let everyone talk about the person, not just some ‘authority figure’. We used the same approach for my brother’s funeral, and it really helped everyone start coming to terms with his death.

      Long live our diversity and interest in each other.

    • TlanchTau

      Nice article Sarah, very true what you say. We need these for social cohesion. It would be nice if more of these words make it into our languages like e.g.
      Yellow Bone
      Cheese Boy

      But yes, very true, we need these for social cohesion. Clap once is normally done by the Gogo’s and ladies to show shock, disbelief and astonishment. Not the patronizing “Themba’s voice” that whites do when they talk to colleagues that they consider inferior to them.

    • Sharon K

      Lovely! I remember not getting why white folk made having ‘Red Hair’ such a strange thing. So yes, get along and get it guys. There are many crazy, fun, and arb things in the language of blackness.

    • Khanyi

      There are many barriers that need to be crossed in SA and language is just but one of them albeit a good start. I this is where comedians and other artists need to push the boundaries in educating us about this terminology. I agree with some of the comments, especially one that says urban and rural culture and traditions are not the same even within one race. White South Africa sometimes assumes this ‘sameness’ about all things black and maybe vice versa as well. So the learning needs to be in both directions. There is some good in all cultures but we cant see or experience this ‘goodness’ if we keep assuming superiority of one culture over another. Sadly, these conversations are not being amplified enough.

    • Quite a White Ou

      Hi Sarah, I share a lot of your sentiments!
      It would be great if you viewed some of my work. I believe that language learning, and cultural awareness are vital to the process:


      – Quite a White Ou’s Kwaito Song “Ndingumlungu”:
      – with subtitles:  

      – Tedx Talk on Xhosa language learning:   

      Read it here:
      Watch it here:

    • PM

      Ahhhh, cultural change. There are always early adapters, and then the resisters (who feel that world has turned upside down, and that they are being discriminated against).

      The thing is, it will happen. No King Canute will stop cultural change. So it is simply a choice of participating or not–and attitude. But the young will adapt, regardless of what their parents do.

      Thanks, Sarah, for helping to bring this to our attention. Old fogies need guidebooks!

    • Roxzy

      Almost half these aren’t South African but global pop culture terms …

    • AsYetUnknown

      Great article Sarah. It will take a white ‘saviour’ to liberate our white people from their ignorance. Maybe you are that ‘liberator’ Sarah. Get white people to step outside their ‘comfort zone’, integrate, and not distance themselves. Some are already doing it, and we need more of them

    • Nkopane

      “Because here’s the thing: at the most basic level, paying attention to others — and paying attention to what they are interested in — is a way of saying that they matter”- because black people need “your” acknowledgement, that they matter, that they are significant, hmmmm. Here is my take: White people must never be under any obligation to show any form of interest to how black people live or talk, black people do not need that, please!

    • Drew

      Yes, we South Africans desperately need a shared vocabulary. We need to engage each other beyond our prejudice and (reckless) assumptions. I’m a white Afrikaans speaking South African and I think what ultimately divides us – as South Africans – is our cultural ignorance. We fail to grasp the minds of the people we live and work every day. Because of this we don’t know the “cultural-other” and we resort to our negative assumptions about them. I read somewhere that a new South Africa requires us to be new South Africans. More than words we also need a change of heart which ought to be reflected in the language we use, for we clothe our hearts with our words.

    • The Praetor

      I still dont know why you find so many people who remain ‘culture vultures’, IE johann and many others in this country, and the world.
      As far as I am concerned, culture is all about distancing yourself from others, ito, I am different than you, so I do differently than you.

      In a world that is forever shrinking, and as we ralise that we are in fact all human, and probably come from the same common ancestors, we should reject different cultures and practises in its entirety. Why cant people just be people, without having to promote their differentness through this cultural identity nonsense. I therfore at the idea of ‘United in our diversity”

      I find it entirely foolish that grown german men would dress up in funny, short, leather pants with suspenders, and funny hats, and prance around…
      Just as I find it rediculous that people still feel the need to send their boys to the ‘bush’, for them to be mutilated and have a high likelyhood of either dying from infections or losing their manhood.

      it is high time for people to grow up and just e human without the need for ‘cultural crutches’ to remind them of who they are

      The Praetor

    • Jazz

      Oh, nonsense! This is all just slang and has absolutely nothing to do with whites being insensitive about black culture. I am white and I love my children, but I can assure you that I do not understand half of the language they use when they text their mates. Does that make me insensitive to them, uncaring, aloof, patronising? No!

    • Brendon

      Oh sarah you are just so modern. Pat you on the back once.

    • David

      Mumbo jumbo gobbledygook.

    • GrahamJ

      Boston-bam-bam. Onesy-threesy. I could make a list of terms or phrases that you have probably never heard of.

      I know many cultures. Your point is OK’ish but also a bit sycophantish taking into account Roxzy’s point as well.

    • Ben

      Hi Sarah, Yes I agree that we should learn more of the black languages being spoken in R.S.A. But these terms you quote as “blackness” sound more like “gutter slang” from
      the Bronx. As Roxzy said , these are mostly pop culture terms adopted by some black people in R.S.A. As Yvette says, even black people don’t understand these terms.

    • Noks

      this is just patronising! Whites must always be reminded that social cohesion is important.

      ‘the different black person that needs to be understood’, you need to know how they speak, really?. frankly us blacks shouldnt care anymore. it is simply not worth is as the views of whites to blacks will always be those of inferiority. and i really dont see why we constantly have to give reference to Julius Malema. there are many horrible whites like the Tereblances, so why is Julius Malema the face of crazy black? he shook the whites by telling them the truth and not like the whites, he didnt kill anyone! BLACK MAN YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN

    • Sean

      I think you have overstated the issue. I realised years ago what a fraud I was when I tried to converse with the friends of my teenagers using their language. So when I said something was “cool”, or “far out” I was quietly laughed at. The lesson is that to communicate across generations and across culture you need to be what you are. Why should I try and understand these ‘hip’ words? Should I do so because I need to be guilty about being white and so try and assimilate the current culture of a 20 year old black South African? The other point is that these phrases apply to a small niche of a smaller group- a tiny fraction of a fraction, so if you follow Sarah’s advice you will be chasing your tail constantly. Rather be yourself. And learn another South African language- proper, I mean!

    • Oy

      Still self Indulgent I note…… I have lots of black friends and colleagues, none of whom know most of the terms you mention here. Truly, I don’t care. If I have to use some crappy slang to be accepted then I guess its fine not to be accepted. I prefer to have my pals round to dinner and bond over a few good drinks. Just chill and accept and mix with people because you actually like them and want to be in their company. The rest sorts itself out. People are far less judgemental when they know each other and are open to new friendships and knowledge.

    • Heinrich

      Sorry, I just get a bit weary of all the “black / white” articles. It is as if there is a puppet master constantly pulling strings to keep the racial puppet dancing.

      We are all South Africans. The grammar and the vocabulary of Nigeria is also “Black”.
      Can’t we find some other handle for a concept other than one pertaining to race? Is racism such fun to write about?

    • Zeph

      @Noks – cry me a river. As Cyril said – we gotta stop whining!

    • Ann 2009

      I think many of the people who commented on this article miss the point. Taking the time to try to understand the vocabulary used by another group of people doesn’t mean you have to use the vocabulary or that their sense of who they are is dependent on your willingness to try and understand their use of language.
      It is about communication – simple. When you don’t understand someone’s vocabulary or the context in which it is used, you tend to assume a lot of things incorrectly. Misunderstanding is born out of such situations and hostility between groups as well.
      Simply put: it makes it much easier to interact with one another with a lot less drama too!

    • Thapelo

      Interesting, however I find it very hard for white South Africans not willing to learn our culture and our way of life (blacks), you will always see non South African white know more about South African blacks compare to White South Africans. Lets enjoy our diversity and build our country.

    • Momma Cyndi

      It is more slang or ‘tstotsitaal’ than anything else. Just like you couldn’t understand colourd slang or the ‘white’ slang of my time. It changes with the times. For that reason, this is a bit 96 :)

    • Gary Koekemoer

      Great input! The naysayers comments speak volumes.

      South Africa is a mengelmoes, it is what makes us somewhat unique. It is something to be embraced, celebrated and nurtured! It doesn’t mean giving up your own culture or negating who you are. As there are Umlungu/ Darkie differences, there are Girls/ Boys differences, Gauties and Coasties, Fossils and Hipsters. We are different. We are the same. We can either cower in the corner and bite any hand that approaches or we can reach across whatever barrier and seek to understand.

      Guilty as charged on the “Chief”!

    • http://ThoughtLeader Sandra

      Wasn’t there an article the Problem with Whites? That writer did not want whites using black slang when speaking with blacks. I often ask on Twitter what certain words mean and I hardly get a response. It would seem whites are scorned for not knowing the black languages or slang and when we ask for help we are made by some to feel we are not worthy of such knowledge.
      i don’t need this knowledge to communicate with others, i just want to know for my own enlightenment.

    • Mujaahid

      I like to say that a person’s language is at their jugular. You can’t understand anyone’s identity without understanding their speech, because speech is an integral part of identity. But I doubt we all need to understand each other. I think knowing that we don’t understand each other is entirely more important, and a far more achievable goal.

      I’m Cape Malay, you know, and it’s worth noting that while my people did, at some point, speak Malay, we don’t any more. Maybe three or four words survived into modern dialect. Most of us speak English or Afrikaans, or a mixture if not formally educated in either language. A small minority are fluent in Arabic, and most of us can read the script. Basically, we ended up adopting the languages most useful to us, and all but dropped the rest. The same will happen with other cultures. We already have a lingua franca of English, and vernacular language is going to stick for a while, but I imagine, without formal education in those languages – which are grounded in oral tradition (and not writing) – they will eventually be assimilated into English/Afrikaans.

      An umXhosa comedian buddy of mine even has a joke about how most people ‘in the hood’ speak Xhinglish.

    • Clarence Esau

      Learn to understand the people you spend time with… BUT how about NOT pointing out that you have NO intention of expanding that group beyond the current comfort friends you allow into your company who do not expect of you that you extend your vocabulary or cultural baggage at all as they have clearly been assimilated into your class?

      If we are to have a South African society at all, and I’m not so sure that we ever will or that we really need to have this to be a kinder, more empathetic nation to those different to us, we do need to extend our exposure beyond the known.

    • Reality

      Lets all get real. Few young people socialise with adults old enough to be their parents or grandparents. There are generational traditions in all cultures, and most people mix with their peers, except at family gatherings. That’s the way it will always be. If your peers use slang – well that’s fine. But it is unlikely that anyone, black or white, of the more mature generations uses, or is even aware of the terms that Sarah has mentioned – they have different fish to fry, and quite frankly, they just don’t care.

    • Markant

      Big deal, different strokes for different folks. We have to question this relevance considering that about half a dozen of these types of grammar differences exist just amongst coloured folk in the western cape.

    • Caroline

      I am black and I can’t relate! There is nothing wrong in reaching out to other cultures, in fact it’s to be encouraged. The person reaching out, benefits more than the person embraced.

      In my growing years, my father forced me to learn the much hated Afrikaans. I complained and defied him. So he asked me, if an Afrikaans speaking person pisses u off, are u going to tell them where to get off in Sepedi? I was stunned. I learned Afrikaans. Later in life, I got my first job because whilst there were many law graduates waiting for the same job, I was able to distinguish myself because I spoke fluent Afrikaans. My daughter is learning French and Afrikaans, the languages of the people that run corporate South Africa. French is spoken in many African countries and the French control many multinational companies and UN organizations.

      I really don’t feel pratonised by a person that wants to learn black culture and lingo, beware though……. There isn’t a universal black culture………

    • Duduzile Mkhize

      This article reminds me of Fanie Fourie’s Lobola movie. Fannie’s father in law who is black ask Fannie what does he know about black people. Fannie says one of his best friends is John, their garden boy. He has known him for 20 years. So the father in law asks how old is this ‘boy’. Fannie says same as age as you sir. It is also revealed that even though Fanie considers John a friend, he has no idea where he leaves. If only we could go past the artficial surfaces of the relationships.

    • Zulu

      “There is more to black South African’s than Julius Malema.” There is twerking, towning, yellowboning and izokathane? Wow, after reading this article, Sarah, you make bridging the gap seem quite distasteful, hollow and a waste of time.

    • Tina Phillips

      I’ve never heard such a load of twak! I don’t know the intricacies of Italian, German, Greek or a lot of other cultures, but manage to get on perfectly well with people from these cultures who live here in SA. I don’t want to know any more than is shoved down my throat abut twerking or towning or yellowboning, in any case using those words in the same sentence as culture is totally tasteless. Why don’t we just have live sex shows on prime time telly – after all it’s also a cultural activity and at least it’s one shared by all cultures – black, white, and yellow!

    • Nana

      To Drew: I am a Consultant on Cultural Diversity in the workplace. As I was reading your comment I noticed that you are very much interested in this matter. I would like to engage you more on this subject if it is okay with you, and that maybe could also help your colleagues.