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23 May 2008

A couple of bloggers with an interest in language have asked about the the origin and meaning of the word “makwerekwere”. It is a slang word for foreigners, and especially illegal immigrants, which I used in a post about the anti-immigrant violence that has been taking place over the last couple of months. Both Languagehat and Far Outliers wanted to know which language it comes from, and I was unable to say.

As far as I know it is a piece of interlinguistic slang. It is modified according to the language of the speaker. A Zulu-speaker might say amakwerekwere, a Sotho-speaker might say makwerekwere and an English-speaker might drop the prefix altogether and say kwerekwere.

I haven’t seen a convincing account of its origin. One suggestion was that it was like the Greek varvari, from which the English word “barbarian” comes (and the name Barbara). It has been suggested that varvari represents the strange sounds of foreign languages to Greeks. The Dutch called the people they found in the Western Cape Hottentoten for a similar reason — it was how they described the languages with click consonants that the local people spoke. So, it is said, kwerekwere represents the sounds of a foreign language.

If that is so, it may have originated in Zulu, where the “r” sound is foreign, and “l” is used instead. My own speculation (and it is nothing more that speculation) is that it may be derived from kwelakwela, an old slang word for a Black Maria (which is an even older slang term for  a police van that carries arrested persons to the police station or jail). Kwelakwela is derived from the Zulu word khwela, meaning “climb”, and policemen used to say to people they had arrested (usually for infringing the pass laws) “Kwelakwela”, meaning “Get in! Get in!” Bus conductors also used to say it to passengers if the bus was running late, urging people to hurry up and board the bus.

Perhaps kwerekwere has developed from that usage signifying illegal aliens being rounded up and arrested before being deported.

Another possibility (and equally speculative) is that it could come from isikhwele, meaning sexual jealousy, and thus it could be related to the accusation that “foreigners steal our women”.

That, of course, leads to another thought. The xenophobia that we have seen over the last few months seems to be a male thing. Could that be because most foreigners are male?

If we go back a little more than a century, we can find similar distrust of foreigners by the government of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), and President Kruger, especially, seemed to distrust them. Back then they were called Uitlanders (outlanders) with a capital U, and that xenophobia led to the prolonged bout of white-on-white violence that historians now call the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Another theory I read about the origin of kwerekwere (I forget where) is that it is derived from korekore, a cultural and linguistic group in Zimbabwe.

A comment on the Languagehat posting suggeted that kwerekwere is pronounced “queer queer”, which is misleading. It is more like “query query”, but with the y replaced with the “e” sound in “bed”. But that led to an interesting discovery, for me, at any rate. When I tried to say “query query” fast, with the English “r” sound, I got all tongue-tied. If I used the rolled “r” used in African languages (as in the Herero werawera, meaning “shine”) it is possible to say it much more quickly. That suggests a possible Tswana origin. Tswana has lots of “r” sounds, unlike Zulu, where “r” is used mainly to deliberately indicate something as foreign, or Xhosa, where “r” is a voiced guttural, like the German.

Any other theories about the origin of makwerekwere out there?

34 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 May 2008 5:34 pm

    In Sesotho we use Makoerekoere to refer to non-southern African Africans. This is because we have no idea what they’re saying, and it sounds like “koere-koere-koere” to our ears. I left a longer reply at Language Hat’s place.

  2. 25 May 2008 4:51 am


    That is very interesting. Is it an old-established word? Has it found its way into any dictionaries? Or is it recent slang?

  3. 25 May 2008 8:33 pm

    It is an old word, and is mainstream Sesotho. Old for us is, of course, 50 years. I haven’t got a Sesotho dictionary but I’m quite it’s in one or a few of them.

  4. 25 May 2008 11:17 pm


    Well, that seems to establish the origin, then.

  5. 28 May 2008 8:54 pm

    Rethabile’s explanation for the term originating in a phonetic expression of incomprehensible language(s) (the “koere-koere”) is something I have had seTswana-speakers tell me as well.

    Hence the origin of makwerekwere is similar to that of barbarian which stems, supposedly, from the Greek incomprehension of foreign languages (sounding to their ears like “bar-bar”). Hence the barbarian becomes synonymous with the non-Greek and the makwerekwere with the non-South African.

  6. nasser permalink
    13 June 2010 9:08 pm

    I’ve been told that the word comes from one of the migratory birds that make the sound “Makwere-kwere” And that’s why its used to refer to people of the north.

    It has a sense of logic to it, but I don’t know how true it is.

    Interestingly, it does not refer to people of Botswana, but does to people of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

    • Sirme permalink
      7 February 2011 1:00 pm


      • nasser permalink
        31 May 2013 2:45 pm


  7. Dumi permalink
    26 June 2010 1:45 am

    This is very interesting because my grandmother,who died in 1983 and had never been anywhere else other than a place called Gwanda in Zimbabwe used to refer to Shona speaking people as kwerekweres. This is a term I have known since the 70’s and it only resurfaced again when I was in South Africa in the 90’s. A lot of Ndebele speaking people in Zim used that word until in the late 90’s.

  8. Sirme permalink
    7 February 2011 10:53 am

    The truth about the origin of the word. {Some years back when your typical sotho/tswana speaking Southern African, was exposed to people from other parts of Africa, they couldn’t understand their language. All they could hear was “kwere-kwere-kwere-kwere”. That’s when they decided to call the language, “sekwerekwere”, then the people who spoke the language were called, “Makwerekwere”.
    The word “Makwekwere was never intended to be offencive or derogatory”. That’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!!!!
    I rest.

    • Mosotho permalink
      17 July 2011 2:57 pm

      @Sirme, you are absolutely right. We basotho especially from Lesotho have been using that term to describe foreigners from accross the Limpopo because we do not understand their language. It has recently been used derogatively in South Africa, but that was never its original meaning.

  9. Nthathe Zola permalink
    8 November 2011 1:46 pm

    The Tswana and Sotho languages have a lot of r’s. One person once said South Africans were the first to be referred to as Makwerekwere when they were in coutries like Zambia and Tanzania.

  10. Shole Shole permalink
    31 May 2012 4:20 pm

    Makwerekwere is simply a corruption of Makorekore, a Bashoba subgroup from Zimbabwe

    • 4 December 2012 5:31 pm

      Dpot on, and the kore kore is the Shona name for Swainsons Francolin which makes the noise, and I think is their Totem. It has been used as a mildly perjorative term in zimbabwe for some time now. Basotho translation almost certainly from migrant labourers passing it on. Zimbabwean/Malawian Migrant labourers have been going to soutgh africa for over 100 years now.

      sorry Sirme you are just plain wrong on this one.

    • Deon permalink
      3 April 2014 12:10 pm

      I also know this origin of the word which isn’t slang and is as familiar to me and my family and friends used for ages in Zimbabwe. Refers to Migrant workers as an association with the bird.

  11. Ian Kwere permalink
    28 September 2012 2:51 pm

    I share a family last name of “Kwêre”, and is interested in the search of my real culture, for all I know, is that my ancestors(as told by elders) is originaly from Botswana also known as “Bakgalagadi” which is the common language and tradition we share and celebrate. I was born in Namibia so is my grandparents and their grandparents, but they have relatives who live in Botswana though… That makes me a descendent of the “Bakgalagadi” tribe of Botswana who migrated to Namibia.

    • Mukalamba permalink
      7 April 2014 2:06 am

      “Bakgalagadi” might be “people from the interior.”

      • Mukalamba permalink
        7 April 2014 2:18 am

        Thanks very much Deon (“Bird”); your response helps my research a great deal.

  12. Mukalamba permalink
    22 November 2013 12:50 pm

    Very interesting and funny at the same time, for the term, as I have discovered, applies most aptly to the Nguni peoples, who have been, from ancient times, been associated with migratory birds. Makorekore, therefore, simply describes other Africans as migrants in South Africa.

  13. Dr S Curl permalink
    16 April 2015 2:25 pm

    I speak Setswana, and I grew up referring to any anyone non-South African as makwerekwere. We also had different terms to distinguish between different makwerekwere. For example we had makgalagadi, maplantane, etc. The vocab is huge, and extends to local other African groups: There was makwapa and matebele. The english and the afrikaners were not spared. Your article therefore offends me Sir. You trying to steal our word and pass it to the Zulus. Just kidding:) Seriously though, that is what I went through as a motswana boy. That evaporated off when I got to tertiary(I could not discriminate between the ladies. I loved them all).

  14. BARRY McCartney permalink
    24 April 2015 5:50 pm

    I suggest all the above theories are incorrect.Shona-speakers in Zimbabwe frequently use the term “here” to signify a question. The Tswana called them derisively “makwerekwere” and now there are so many Shona in SAfrica, it is mistakenly used for “foreigner.

  15. tinyiko john mbalati permalink
    8 May 2015 8:56 am

    all the theories are correct depending of where you from, we will have this word for a very long time, if you don’t believe me asks President Obama he will tell you even whe he became the President of the most powerful nation the white American they still calls him black American or “nigger”

  16. letebele permalink
    25 June 2015 4:52 am

    Words sometimes cause consternation among people because they do not know where they come from.
    The same applies to the word Makwerekwere.
    Only two people in this blog have the right origins: Shole and Dumi
    Makwerekwere is a Sothoised term for the Shona word Macoerecoere or however it is spelled.
    they are a sub group of the Shona in Zim.
    So people should understand that originally it is not a term of derogation.
    It is derogation if it is applied indiscriminately because it refers only to one group of people from the Shona group. If you call a Nigerian a Kwerekwere it is inappropriate because it he is not from Zim. Although we understand the word is now generalised to refer to anybody who is a foreigner in RSA.

  17. 8 December 2016 10:52 am

    I am not completely sure of the meaning of the word but made a conclusion that it came about from the fact that most South African’s do not comprehend the language foreigners speak and it therefore sounds like “kwere kwere kwere” being repeated over and over again, as Sirme noted. However I would like to rule out the possibility that it is derived from the Zulu word “iskhwele”. “Iskhwele” does not mean sexual jealousy, it is just jealousy in its entirety. And the phenomenon of foreigners “stealing” South African women only started recently, where they are more accepted in South African society. Back then, they weren’t. They were shunned away from and would not gain a reputation from dating South African women because it was not common. And the word itself has been around as far as the oldest foreigner has been in South Africa

  18. 17 June 2017 6:12 am

    Word makwirikwiri is used by originally to refer to languages other than Nguni which use words with sounds of “kwi………ri”, a language which is difficult to comprehend. It includes languages like shona in Zimbabwe, Venda, Congolese languages, among others.

  19. dunja jonas permalink
    6 September 2019 3:41 pm

    Makwerkwere is a term which is used for African foreigners in South Africa, and it is supposed to point out the strange kind of pronounciation in a foreign language. The other Africans language sounds like ‘makwerekwere’.

  20. Khauhelo permalink
    23 July 2020 7:07 pm

    i was told as a child that we call east africans makwerekwere(i am sotho), because when they speak their language all you will hear is kwere kwere kwere


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