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Tsotsi (plural tsotsis) is a slang word referring to a young, lay-about or gangster, usually young and often referring to black or coloured individuals, though it is also found as a scathing reference to white layabouts or criminals.

(See also the Afrikaans word skollie)

Origins of the term

The tsotsi culture developed in urban townships and especially black “locations” (ghettoes), in response to the economic dilemma of the times, and originally derived its “style” from the American movie culture of the 1930’s and 40’s. As Loren Kruger (1999: 87) says, the tsotsis “[t]o a degree … embodied a sort of outlaw glamour, displayed in their expensive American clothes and cars”. Among their many activities they apparently also demanded protection money from entertainers, on occasion kidnapped favourite artistes (like Miriam Makeba) to enhance their own image, or killed those who performed for rival gangs (e.g. Solomon “Zuluboy” Cele).

During the period of the resistance struggle, the gangs often found themselves in a quandary, part of the armed struggle through their access to arms and manpower, yet tempted to exploit the situation for their own enrichment. However, the gangs became increasingly more violent and rivalry blossomed as the stringent apartheid policing was relaxed and the models gradually became the glamerous but violent American and Afro-American gangster films of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

The rackets and gangster rivalry surfaced publically and brutally after 1994 as the new constitution opened up a wide range of economic opportunities and democratic privileges to everyone, including numerous safeguards for accused criminals. A key marker of the gangs is also the multiglot street lingo they use, commonly referred to as tsotsitaal.

Tsotsis in literature, theatre and film

Besides a number of works with the title "Tsotsi" (e.g. the novel by Athol Fugard and its two spin-offs (an Oscar winning film and a local musical) - see below), a number of other works have dealt with the phenomenon, or feature characters who are considered "tsotsis".

Dramatic works (stage, TV and film) include No-Good Friday (1959), Sophiatown (1986), Mapantsula (1988), Suip! (1993), The Suit (1994/2016), . .

Tsotsi the novel by Athol Fugard

The novel tells the powerful story of a hardened township criminal whose life changes forever after a bungled mugging leaves him caring for a stranger's baby.

Tsotsi (published 1980, ),


Tsotsi the film

Tsotsi is a filmed adaptation of the novel Tsotsi by Athol Fugard, a South African/UK co-production, written and directed by Gavin Hood, produced by Peter Fudakowski and released in 2005. Set in an Alexandra slum, in Johannesburg, it tells the story of a young tsotsi who steals a car only to discover a baby in the back seat.

The film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.



Tsotsi the Musical

A musical version based on the novel and the film.

See Tsotsi the Musical


An Afrikaans term literally meaning "tsotsi language".

Tsotsitaal as a linguistic phenomenon

A generic term referring to the urban patois or street language developed in the multicultural and polyglottal milieu of the urban (largely black) ghettoes or townships. Used by gangsters or "tsotsis", as well as by younger urban dwellers across the country. Its grammatical base is Afrikaans, its vocabulary a mix of American slang and the variety of South African languages. It is a highly flexible and constantly changing language, with a large number of regional variants.

Other names found for various versions (from other root forms in some cases, but generally with the same insider function), include Flaaitaal or Flytaal, Iscamtho or Isicamtho,



Tsotsitaal in theatre, TV and film

Increasingly aspects of this language - in its many variations - may be found as an element in stage texts and other creative writing from the 1970’s onwards.

Among the many theatrical works, TV productions and films, written in or containing tsotsitaal (or approximations thereof), are Sophiatown (1986), Mapantsula (1988), Suip! (1993), The Suit (1994/2016), . .

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