Okes, it's not that 'hahd': actors who've butchered South African accents

Even Hollywood's best struggle to imitate Mzansi speak. Here are some of the worst on-screen offenders

26 November 2017 - 00:00 By Tymon Smith
Daniel Radcliffe's South African accent in 'Escape from Pretoria' is not the worst we've heard.
Daniel Radcliffe's South African accent in 'Escape from Pretoria' is not the worst we've heard.
Image: Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images

Escape from Pretoria, the thrilling true-life tale of anti-apartheid activist Tim Jenkin's daring jailbreak, hits TV screens this month. With it comes yet another opportunity for us to deride foreign actors’ attempt to get to grips with the old South African accent, eksent, arksent.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Jenkin and while he tries his best, like many others before him, the Harry Potter star doesn’t quite get it “raaight" — he's clearly in need of a better language spell.

Radcliffe's attempt is far from the worst South African accent in the film, however. That particular honour goes to his co-star, Ian Hart, whose horrible heavy-handedness in attempting to capture the particular Jewish South African diphthongs of struggle hero Denis Goldberg means he sounds nothing like him — or any other real person you’ll encounter this side of Musina.  

WATCH | The trailer for 'Escape from Pretoria'

This has been a bête noir of local audiences for decades and while the easiest solution is obviously to hire South African actors, if that's not going to happen then better vocal coaches are a must because, although we don't think it's really that "hahd", it turns out that for many there's something elusive about the way some of us sound.

As Scottish actor David Tennant says in a clip from British panel show Room 101, the South African accent is for many actors their "Waterloo". Just as they feel they're successfully rolling their r's and flattening their vowels, it seems to morph into some sort of horrid Aussie-Brit-Kiwi mishmash that makes them sound as if they're either speaking in tongues or victims of a horrid speech impediment.

Of course, there is a YouTube tutorial (see below) to help you get it right. Presented by a nice, polite-sounding English actor, the video includes useful instructions like "rolling your r's but not too much; hitting your consonants hard but not too hard, and flattening your vowels but not like a New Zealander".

The advice, though, turns out to be pretty useless, going by the instructor's final demonstration in which he sounds like he's a Scot with a deep-fried Mars Bar burning a hole in his tongue.

WATCH | How to speak with a South African accent

A more useful tool may be an interview clip (see below) in which our own Sharlto Copley, who has always been asked to do a version of the accent rather than just use his own, helps his geeky interviewer to mimic his Seffrican accent in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire, where he has to say things like "you're a sixy laidy ja".

WATCH | Sharlto Copley on pulling off a South African accent

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE TERRIBLE

Even though he was playing a white Zimbabwean, we've given Leonardo DiCaprio honorary status for his performance in Blood Diamond mostly because of his spot-on use of the word doos.

Matt Damon in Invictus flattens the vowels and mumbles along enough to just about pass as South African but not nearly enough to sound like the man he plays, Francois Pienaar.

Mark Strong lays it on a little thick but reasonably faithfully in his End Game performance as former spy chief Niel Barnard. Denzel Washington gets a brave-attempt pass for his Steve Biko in Cry Freedom but Forest Whitaker's horrible approximation of sounds-from-God-knows-where in Zulu doesn't get anywhere close to a pass.

Matt Damon flattened his vowels and mumbled along enough to just about pass as South African when he played Francois Pienaar in 'Invictus'.
Matt Damon flattened his vowels and mumbled along enough to just about pass as South African when he played Francois Pienaar in 'Invictus'.
Image: Screengrab/YouTube/watchculturetainment

Let's not forget all the actors from Dennis Haysbert to Clarke Peters, Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba and even our own Tumisho Masha who have done irreparable damage to our beloved Madiba's distinctive voice onscreen.

Patsy Kensit may have been a blonde head-turning bombshell but the hell that she and Lethal Weapon 2 co-stars Joss Ackland and Derrick O'Connor put local ears through should be declared a crime against humanity.

Finally, and this in the context of a crowded field of contenders, the worst and most blatant "I couldn't give a shit to even try" example is that of prima donna method man Val Kilmer, whose nominally South African artist persona in The Saint barely sounds like a human being, let alone one from any particular place, and whose "South African" label should be removed for the sake of national pride.

I mean seriously, Val, if you're a South African then boet, I'm Betmen.

KAK-DOMETER: ACTORS WHO'VE BUTCHERED THE SA ACCENT

Val Kilmer as a South African artist in 'The Saint'
Val Kilmer as a South African artist in 'The Saint'
Image: Supplied

REALLY KAK

  • Val Kilmer's South African artist in The Saint (1997)
  • All the foreign actors in The Bang Bang Club (2010)
  • Whoopi Goldberg's Mary Masembuko in Sarafina! (1992)
  • John Thaw's Jimmy Kruger in Cry Freedom (1987)

KINDA KAK

  • Tim Robbins's Colonel Nic de Vos in Catch a Fire (2006)
  • Juliette Binoche's Anna Malan in In My Country (2004)
  • Kevin Kline's Donald Woods in Cry Freedom (1987)

NOT SO KAK

  • Marlon Brando's Ian Mackenzie in A Dry White Season (1989)
  • Iman's Sarah in The Human Factor (1979)
  • Mark Strong's Niel Barnard in Endgame (2009)

'Escape from Pretoria' will next screen on TNT (DStv Channel 137) on July 8 at 16h37 and at regular intervals throughout July and August.