South African Time: What Do We Mean When We Say Now
The concept of “African time” is based on racial stereotype. African time is regarded as a cultural tendency to approach things with a laissez-faire attitude – taking things easy and living at a slower pace, the stereotype says. But in the same breath it intimates that Africans just have no consideration for other people’s time.
While in some instances, some will appropriate the former meaning of the concept – laid back, paced differently, ease-inclined – to change the way they are expected to navigate in environments like business, school or cultural exchange, the “African time” stereotype is largely myopic because it’s the gateway used to mark Africans – or black people – as lazy.
In South Africa, time is often measured in three units: “now”, “now-now” and “just now”. These three methods of measuring time cover anything from a few minutes to eternity. These may sound straight forward but tend to be difficult to quantify.
When someone says “now” they are using the truest of these three units to measure time. “Now” suggest that the thing that needs to happen is urgent. When someone informs you that something is happening now or they would like to see something now, they mean immediately. This is the unit of measuring time used most in emergencies. The baby is not coming “now-now”, the baby is coming NOW.
“Now-now” is the promise that something will happen in the near future. An appointment set for now-now means anything from half an hour to hours later. The comforting part of using “now-now” to measure time is that there is hope that the event estimated to happen “now-now” will happen shortly. Hopefully in a few hours but today still.
Most can agree that “just now” is the least speedy of the units. The only redeeming quality of being told “just now” is that the person did not explicitly tell you no. They are aware of what you need from them and the possibility that you might want to meet and are taking time to consider their options. “Just now” says that something is possible and will eventually happen. When exactly that time will be, is anybody’s guess.
While these three ways of measuring or estimating time are popular among South Africans, their application often differs. What do “now” “now-now” and “just now” mean to you?