Gauteng MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi, who has mentioned a few times that he does not approve of Afrikaans-only schools, has recently been reinstated in his position.
The equation seems simple: Afrikaans has racist roots and excludes people, thus removing it will decrease racism and increase inclusion. Decolonisation has the goal of serving the people of Africa and undoing the harms of a colonial and racist past. So one can understand the motivation for wanting to throw out Afrikaans and be done with it.
If we look at research by those who specialise in language planning though, we see a different solution arise. Language planning involves the politics of language: It looks at the policies of language usage in settings such as universities and governments.
These researchers, such as Neville Alexander, have found that multilingualism is not just a nice ideal for the rainbow nation, but is essential if we want all South Africans to have the opportunity to flourish. It all starts with mother-tongue education in primary school. We can all innately feel that teaching a child to read or count will be the easiest if it happens in the language they understand best.
However, many parents opt to put their children into English schools from the get-go, because they know that the transition to an English-medium school will have to come sooner or later. This leaves many students without proper knowledge of the basics of mathematics and language that then affects them later in their education as well.
Many school teachers also tell of how their students prefer to take Afrikaans as their additional language, rather than their own home language or another African language that might be closer to their home language. The reason they opt for Afrikaans is that there are more resources available.
Afrikaans is also the only language that originated in South Africa and that is used as a medium in certain universities. This is of course because it was allocated a lot of funds from the apartheid government, and from before then and up until the present there are rich individuals who have contributed to help their language to develop.
Meanwhile, black South Africans had more pressing things on their mind, like survival and resistance against the apartheid government, to have the time and resources to develop their languages into academic languages. So what will our path forward be?
Many people say that Afrikaans is too far ahead, and is still giving advantages to its speakers via benefits such as mother tongue education, thus we should simply remove it. I disagree. I believe that if we use the available Afrikaans resources, we can repurpose it to help African languages. This idea was also brought forward by Alexander in his papers.
This has already started to happen. For example, by Afrikaans lexicographers helping set up advanced dictionaries for African languages. The Afrikaans community still has a lot of wealth that can be used to help propel African languages’ growth.
Some members of the Afrikaans community might feel that this responsibility should rather fall on the government, or that every language should fend for itself. This is a very selfish way to look at it and denies the historic oppression that Afrikaans had over far too many South Africans. We must also remember that while Afrikaans is mostly derived from Dutch, we very much owe our genesis to Africa and its languages as well.
What we as Afrikaans-speaking people need to understand is that if our language that originated in Africa wants to thrive, then other African languages need to thrive as well. And is it not ironic that English is viewed as the only language of decolonisation, even after England tried to colonise pretty much most of the world?
What has to happen with Afrikaans for proper decolonisation to take place? Afrikaans needs to stop being whitewashed.
According to Alexander, the standard dialect of Afrikaans is still the one that is being used primarily by white speakers, even though there are more coloured people that have Afrikaans as their home language. Once again, old race relations and political powers seep into our present-day Afrikaans.
The coloured community has, unfortunately, often been used as a political football by Afrikaans organisations who feel that adding some people of colour to Afrikaans events will make them seem inclusive and serve as a reaction against accusations of racism, while dialects such as Kaaps are seen as “appropriate only for certain situations”, or in an Adam Small poem.
There is presently work being done on a translation of the Bible into Kaaps and this might be the first step towards having it developed into an academic language as well.
We need to start viewing all South African languages as multiple resources at our disposal, rather than wanting to chase the European ideal of monolingualism. Kathleen Heugh has written extensively about the benefits of seeing languages as resources, and how they then promote social cohesion.
I agree with Lesufi that we shouldn’t have schools raising “kleinbasies”, but I do not believe that getting rid of Afrikaans education serves this goal, or that it will be to the benefit of South Africans.
I am grateful that I could attend school in my mother tongue. It gave me a strong foundation on which to build the rest of my education. I wish the same applied for other South African languages. DM