I have been travelling to South Africa for business, and what strikes me as odd, is that almost everything is done in English, even though English isn't the most widely spoken language in the country (it even seems to be the fourth in people speaking it at home).

I understand you would use English for business with companies in Europe or America, but when checking several online shops, they are all only in English. As a consumer, I'd like to be able to shop or communicate in my own language (whether it be Zulu or Afrikaans, or one of the other nine official languages). Also, many if not all billboards around the country are in English.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not about travel (yes, even though it contains the word).
    – fkraiem
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 16:19
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    Short answer (I was born there): Britain won the wars there (eventually). Longer: There were a lot of laws made pushing English (and Afrikaans) as the leading languages, and as such it's become the language of the day. Historically, the English speaking people had the money too. However, there are IIRC 11 official languages now. Look up wiki articles on Apartheid, Afrikaans, Nelson Mandela and the Voortrekkers for some history :)
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 22:36
  • @fkraiem which StackExchange site would be a better fit then? Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 7:47
  • @MarkMayo I read the history, but we are already 25 years after the abolishment of apartheid, I'd say at least some companies would offer other languages. Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 7:49
  • @BartFriederichs indeed, some do. But change takes time. More shows and channels in Zulu, Xhosa etc help.
    – Mark Mayo
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 7:56

1 Answer 1


While English isn't the most common mother's tongue language in South Africa, it is the most understood language.

This is actually the case in most African countries. While many people speak the languages of their ethnic group in private, a European language became the main language for public communication. So many people are bilingual.

Before the age of colonialism, the different ethnicities in Africa mainly kept to themselves.

When the Europeans came and divided Africa into multi-ethnic countries under foreign rule, they brought their languages with them. Africans who wanted to prosper under this system had to learn the foreign language in addition to their own. After decolonisation, the African countries gained independence, but kept the colonial borders. In order to keep these new multi-ethnic countries together, they kept using the languages of the colonial powers. Having a common language used for public business helps to bridge the cultural barriers which internally divide most African countries. Keeping the ethnic languages alive for private affairs helps to maintain all the unique cultures of Africa.

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    The same effect is visible in India too (although not to quite the same extent). Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 8:57

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