Defend Truth


I will touch you on your language: rescuing Afrikaans from the right wing


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

One can safely bet that since 1994 more books have been published in Afrikaans than any other indigenous language. Meanwhile Afrikaans music enjoys healthy support, regular music and arts festivals are well attended and there’s even a dedicated Afrikaans pay TV channel. So why do some right-wing Afrikaans speakers feel so threatened and why are they so damn angry?

Casper de Vries has had a long and illustrious career in South Africa. He’s one of the country’s comedy greats, an artist who, since the early 1980s, when it wasn’t safe to do so, spoke out fearlessly as a white, Afrikaans-speaking South African.

De Vries was an early pioneer of Afrikaans cabaret and satire. His career blossomed quickly after he graduated from the University Of Stellenbosch when he performed his first highly subversive cabaret Hello Suid Afrika in 1986. At the time I worked as an arts journalist for the Cape Times and immediately recognised the power of Casper’s subversive genius. Like Pieter-Dirk Uys, Casper found a way of making the insanity of Apartheid (and those who dreamed it up) visible, mocking it and employing laughter as a powerful pesticide and political tool.

Through the years Casper cultivated a massive following, creating a gallery of characters who became instantly recognisable and who are today part of the architecture of South Africa’s comedy landscape. When Casper De Vries did a show, you had to book a year in advance to secure a ticket.

As his popularity grew, so too did the relentless and vicious public reactions from right wing language activists who lay claim to Afrikaans. De Vries, whom they often refer to as a “skepsel” or “creature”, came under increasing attack.

If you speak an indigenous South African language or English you might not be aware or even interested in the dark currents that swirl around Afrikaans and who is allowed to speak it and how they should do so. There is no example of any other language in the country that has turned so violently and publicly on speakers of a mother tongue.

I speak Afrikaans fluently, thanks to Christian National education. As a result I have, over the years, been enriched by the thoughts, music, novels, writings and poetry produced by an illustrious crop of progressive Afrikaans speakers in this country. There are too many to list here but some include Ingrid Jonker, Antjie Krog, Marlene Van Niekerk, Karel Schoeman, Etienne van Heerden , Andre Brink, Adam Small, Breyten Breytenbach, A.H.M. Scholtz, Max du Preez,  E.K.M. Dido, Koos Kombuis, Johannes Kerkorrel, Karen Zoid, Elzabe Zietsman, Amanda Strydom and many others.

There were and are many Afrikaners who contributed to the struggle for justice in South Africa, most notably Bram Fisher, Beyers Naude and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert. These are all Afrikaans speakers who situate, or situated, themselves in wider South African society. They have escaped the Laager and have never looked back.

I had been aware of the particular viciousness of the public attacks on progressive Afrikaans speakers from right wing language activists but until last week had never had the displeasure of being at the receiving end of threats of physical violence for simply speaking Afrikaans in a public space.

Casper currently hosts the Casper Show on CliffCentral, the online “unradio” station. He had invited me as a guest and we spent about two hours talking kak, in Afrikaans. We covered a wide range of topics from Afrikaans pornography to Afrikaans music. We even played a Steve “Die Stem” Hofmeyr song backwards, which improved it considerably.

A few days later a particularly nasty post under the pseudonym Skoppensboer (Jack of Clubs) and titled “Is jy actually Afrikaans?” was published on the reactionary Dan Roodt’s website Praag. My crime? That I had dared to speak “creole” Afrikaans instead of Algemeen Beskaafde (civilised) or Standard Afrikaans. There is a great Afrikaans saying, “kak spat” (shit splatters), and by repeating some of the vitriol and infantile insults in the piece one risks spreading the verbal sewage. But I wear it as a badge of honour that I have been threatened and attacked. I have now joined the ranks of many wonderful Afrikaans speakers I know.

The fact that Skoppensboer called for a “cleansing” of all those who speak “creole” Afrikaans – including myself, Casper, Professor Jonathan Jansen and many others, and that he/she suggested that all “creole” Afrikaans speakers should be “fought with violence” and “wiped out” is reason enough to lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. But I won’t be doing that. Providing reactionary narcissists with any more oxygen will only serve to contaminate the general political atmosphere.

While Hofmeyr and Sunette Bridges (a songstress of flimsy talent) hog headlines making sensational claims about a “white genocide” and that Afrikaans is being “murdered”, as Hofmeyr did in Klerksdorp this week in yet another attempt at attracting attention by singing Die Stem (watch the YouTube clip here if you can bear it) the considerable contribution made by Afrikaners who relish the democratic freedoms of contemporary South Africa is undermined.

The ongoing politics of victimhood by the likes of Hofmeyr and Roodt has grown tiresome and pathetic. If there is anyone who is going to “kill” Afrikaans, a language of such subtle beauty, then it is Roodt and Hofmeyr themselves. If there is anyone who will drive young Afrikaans speakers away from the language it is these silly men. If there is anyone perpetuating stereotypes then it is they.

Their sensational and histrionic behavior dominates local discourse while the work of so many talented Afrikaans academics, artists, actors, designers, comedians, writers and thinkers and their commitment to transformation goes unnoticed in the mainstream media.

Dan, Steve, Afrikaans is not yours to own. It never was. DM