The soul of wit
2 September 2014 10:57 (South Africa)
Opinionista Styli Charalambous

Cooler than English?

  • Styli Charalambous
It was the one thing, alongside pot-bellied, moustachioed rugby players, that was most closely associated with apartheid oppression. And when South Africa was liberated in 1994, many predicted its unceremonious end. But like a phoenix with a bad haircut and handlebar moustache, Afrikaans is now rising from the ashes and breaking cultural boundaries. And, possibly for the first time, it’s cool to be an Afrikaans kid.

As a first-generation Greek boy in South Africa, I never fully grasped the magnitude of apartheid and the impact the culture of Afrikaans had on the country. To me, it was just another language. And all the pretty girls in my school were Afrikaans, so I ended up taking it as a first language for many years. I forged an appreciation for the language that is among the most colourful to curse in and in my short-lived stint in Meneer Gerber’s class, I gained an insight into the poetic and historically rich culture. But I was a teenager and this didn’t really count for much or get me any nookie, so it was quickly forgotten.

By my university days, I and the non-khaki wearing population of SA were predicting the end of Afrikaans. It blew my mind that in areas of South Africa, it was still considered a business language and that winelands-based institutions still refused to lecture in English. For so long a symbol of political oppression, even some Afrikaners were beginning to resign themselves to the potential end of their mother tongue. Who could blame them? There was a lot of shame associated with the political injustices perpetrated by the volk.

Not to mention the social injustices of dubbing SABC programmes into Afrikaans or unleashing the Coke-bottle-lensed Riaan Cruywagen on us, every news night. Bles Bridges in powder-blue suits and Tolla van der Merwe in too-tight-around-the-crotch khakis, were the pinnacle of Afrikaans culture. 

From history to pop culture it was seriously uncool to be Afrikaans.

Then something strange happened. It was as if Afrikaans played dead for while, so that we’d stop beating it with a stick. The outcry against sporting quotas and affirmative action slowly waned. As if it was accepting its fate. It hid from prying public eyes and soon veldskoen sales plummeted like Eugene Terreblanche from a pony.

But Afrikaans wasn’t dying, it was morphing. In its dark cave, a new generation of Afrikaner was stewing. An eclectic mix of language, new age culture and a shedding of guilt allowed the swelling of the new Afrikaner movement to gain momentum. With the chances of ever ruling this country again now gone, Afrikaners could concentrate on being a cultural rather than a political animal.

Artists have found substantial fame in the culture with many of SA’s platinum albums recorded by Afrikaans singers. Afrikaners were once again finding things to be proud about. And once the Blue Bulls starting winning everything in sight, the floodgates opened. Steve Hofmeyr CDs became the in-thing, downloads of Die Antwoord abounded and Kurt Darren singles became Jack Parow YouTube views. Afrikaans had moved with the times, and with 1,000,000 views and a Twitter endorsement from Fred Durst, it seems Afrikaans may even have moved ahead of the times. While Die Antwoord and "8 mile” Parow cannot be credited with starting the movement, they most definitely are riding the crest of its wave.

No, the credit for keeping the flame alive must go to stalwarts like Koos Kombuis and his merry band of anti-establishment Afrikaans musicians that didn’t sing from the National Party hymn sheet. Touring campuses during the apartheid-heavy 1980s, standing up to the government, the NG Kerk and conservative Broederbond wasn’t easy for Koos and the rest of the Voëlvry gang. But stand up they did and they managed to lay the foundation for Afrikaans to one day take the lead in popular culture.

And don’t for one minute discount the impact the Blue Bulls have had on popularising Afrikaans. Rugby is to Afrikaans what oxygen is to breathing. Without it, you’re pretty much stuffed. So it’s no surprise that I am writing this piece with the Blue Bulls as reigning Super14 and Currie Cup champions, unbeaten in this year’s Super14 and making up the bulk of the most successful Springbok team in history. Coming out is so much easier when you’re winning.

Undeniably, it’s good for the country that Afrikaans is no longer in hiding. We need to have a healthy and vibrant society where our cacophony of cultures is allowed freedom to express itself and grow. In a world where clones and pigeon-holed thinking are the order of the day, we need creative breakthroughs in a uniquely South African way.

Now that Afrikaans has managed to break free from the stigma of its past, English South Africans are quickly being left behind as the only group without a cultural backbone. Too far removed from their redcoat cousins, and belonging to a scattering of religious denominations, they will never experience the fortunate position of blaming their actions on their culture. The tables have turned, and while English will never be at risk of extinction, Afrikaans will always have the advantage of deeper cultural roots on which to base its progression and expressions.

Jack Parow, in his Belville kinda way points this out, in the hit single Cooler as ekke.

Jack Parow bra, ek’s n poes woes
Jy eet caviar en couscous
Ek drink Klipdrif, jy drink Peroni
Jy’t vriende in Swede, ek het vriende in Benoni
Ek koop al my klere by die local Pep Stores Save More
Jy koop al jou fokken klere by a store
Jy dra net fokken Polo shirts
Shame, jy luister na die Dirty Skirts

Is Afrikaans cooler than English? Might not be, just yet, but watch this space.

  • Styli Charalambous
styli photo

With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opionionistas.

After being expelled from the halls of finance houses for possessing an inkling of wit, this budding entrepreneur spends his days bird watching and writing subtle, yet moving social commentary pieces for South Africa’s bastion of journalism excellence (that’s The Daily Maverick, in case you were wondering).

Having escaped the Port Elizabeth mis-education system, Charalambous now resides in Joburg and can often be spotted quality-control testing the water in many of the city’s watering holes.

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