[imagesource: Daily Maverick]
On the eve of South Africa’s full transition to democracy, a language deal was reached between the incumbent National Party and the would-be ruling party, the ANC.
The nine African languages which had previously been relegated to the apartheid Bantustan system were granted official status alongside English and Afrikaans.
Language plays a crucial role in how cultures are constructed, their histories preserved, and identities within those cultures are formed.
This is part of the reason why when protests erupted at historically Afrikaans universities in 2016, calling for English as the primary language for tuition and universities like Stellenbosch complied, they were met with a three-year period of language policy litigation spearheaded by Afrikaans advocacy groups like AfriForum.
This litigation would ultimately amount to a ruling from the Constitutional Court in favour of English as the primary medium of tuition in South African universities, and in particular, at Stellenbosch University.
The controversy surrounding the language debates, alongside the rise of groups like AfriForum, caught the attention of the BBC, which recently asked the question: “is Afrikaans in danger of dying out?”.
As Afrikaans’s societal and political prestige fades from its prominent position in the days of apartheid (“separateness”), South Africa has begun to ask itself what role its controversial and third-most-commonly-spoken tongue should play in the country’s emerging future. Can Afrikaans ever truly shake the legacy of its deeply divisive past and just become ‘one of the 11’ in the eyes of South Africa’s majority?
The debate rages predominantly around its use and the so-called “purity” of Afrikaans. The language is increasingly mixed with English, something which many see the attempts to address this as pushing an “elitist form of the language” which often renders it inaccessible to a majority of its speakers.
Afrikaans’s origins are complex and highly disputed. Its highest mutual intelligibility is with Dutch, yet it owes its departure from the language of the Netherlands to the influence of slaves brought forcibly to South Africa from South East Asia to work for Dutch-speaking white landowners in the Cape Colony.
Numerically, the descendants of these slaves – who self-identify as “Coloured” – remain the majority of Afrikaans speakers, yet Jamil Khan, a PhD critical diversity studies candidate at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says “culturally we are the minority”.
Standardised Afrikaans, such as that which formed the basis of tuition at Afrikaans medium universities, doesn’t much resemble the language spoken by the coloured community. Khan says “culturally we are the minority”.
The white variety is commonly referred to as “suiwer” or “pure”, contrasting it with the Coloured variety which is known as “kombuis” or “kitchen” Afrikaans. When Coloured South Africans like Jamil Khan go to school, they are educated in the white variety of the language, and taught to believe that it is somehow a better, more prestigious version of the language they grew up speaking at home.
Articles in the Afrikaans broadsheet newspaper Die Rapport written in coloured Afrikaans could be seen as evidence that the situation could be improving, but Ronelda Kamfer, a prominent coloured Afrikaans poet, whose husband frequently writes these articles, also notes that Afrikaans has an “apartheid legacy problem”.
Most black South Africans do not speak Afrikaans, although many learn it at school. For older generations, the language still symbolises the brutality of apartheid regime and a time they would rather forget. For the so-called “born-free” generation that has grown up since the advent of democracy in 1994, there may be signs that the language is beginning to lose its baggage.
It’s also interesting to note that while most black South Africans don’t speak the language, an estimated six out of 10 Afrikaans speakers in South Africa are black.
How white Afrikaans speakers view the future of their language varies across the board. Many are optimistic about the future of the language. Some see places like Orania as strongholds for preserving Afrikaans and the culture it represents, while others hope to transform it so that it sits comfortably alongside other languages in a diverse and democratic South Africa.
Perhaps the kicker here is how language intertwines with culture. Cultures need to adapt and grow as socio-political landscapes change. A language is not the sole property of one group of people.
When certain people will go as far as to incorporate the old South African flag into protests, as advocates for the language, they realign it and its white speakers with a brutal and totalitarian regime.
The elimination of the stark distinction between Suiwer and Kombuis Afrikaans would go a long way toward keeping the language alive.
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