“Just Now” or “Now Now”?

Or: The South African Concept of Time

South Africans have a fairly complicated relationship with the word “now.” This is an across-the board phenomenon and has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. There are three distinct forms of “now,” and as an expat you better learn the various meanings, or you will be very frustrated when things don’t happen.

coffee cup with just now written in the foam

The following should give you some idea:

Now: Eventually, Maybe.

What could be simpler than interpreting “now” as meaning “at this very moment,” like “immediately? But don’t be fooled! “Now” spoken by a South African is more like the exact opposite of the word as we know it. If you’re told “now,” what the other person really means is “maybe later, but definitely not now.” As in “I’m leaving now to fetch your license plate,” meaning anytime between several hours from now until maybe next week, or, quite frankly, never. Especially if this was the first request of whatever it is you’re asking for, an answer containing “now” should not be what prompts you to check it off your to-do list!

Just now: Later.

“Just now” is a bit higher on the priority list than “now.” It’s a distinct improvement but still nowhere near “this instant.” If you’re told “I’ll check into your claim and call you back just now,” you might actually expect that to happen the same day, but clearly not immediately.

Now now: Shortly.

If you thought you’d finally find out how to make something happen immediately in South Africa, you’re mistaken. I hate to disappoint you, but even the third and last iteration of “now” will fall short of your expectation. “I’ll do it now now” means “I will get to it as soon as I can.” That’s the best you’re going to get.

But don’t be frustrated by any of this. The weather is great here, the people are lovely, and there is biltong and Chardonnay!

The best way to enjoy South Africa is to adapt and learn. Understand which “now” is meant and move on. Soon enough, you’ll be  throwing out “now’s” and “just now’s” of your own, and happily continue what you were doing without a second thought.


You might also like: My 43 Favorite South Africanisms


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