Defend Truth


SA needs to destigmatise Afrikaans, not condemn it in perpetuity as the language of apartheid


Ryan Smith is Democratic Alliance federal leader John Steenhuisen’s chief of staff.

Neither the Nazis nor the Nats created the German and Afrikaans languages, they merely appropriated them as linguistic vessels for their warped ideologies. The problem is that long after these regimes fell, their language of operation, and those who speak it, are seemingly destined to carry the collective guilt of the atrocities committed through their words.

The Diary of Anne Frank, now universally praised as a talented young writer’s harrowing account of Jewish suffering under Nazi Germany, is also an unlikely resource for post-apartheid South Africa and its relationship with the Afrikaans language. In one passage, Anne makes reference to the house rules while in hiding: “Use of language: It is necessary to speak softly at all times. Only the language of civilised people may be spoken, thus no German.”

This stinging rebuke of the German language may seem unjust, but at the time German was the language of the Nazis and was sentenced to widespread public denigration as a result. And just as the Nazis repurposed and refined the German language to serve Hitler’s nationalist agenda, so the apartheid government promoted Afrikaans as the superior language of what it deemed to be the superior race – whites.

Yet we forget that neither the Nazis nor the Nats created the German and Afrikaans languages, they merely appropriated them as linguistic vessels for their warped ideologies. The problem is that long after these regimes fell, their language of operation, and those who speak it, are seemingly destined to carry the collective guilt of the atrocities committed through their words.

Post-Nazi Germany is an incredibly introspective nation even 75 years after the Nazis’ demise, but the German language has long since shaken off its label of uncivilised. With Germany’s rapid development as a peaceful, democratic nation, so German has morphed into a global language of commerce, diplomacy and cutting-edge technology. Germans are proud of their linguistic heritage, and schools such as the Goethe-Institut now promote and teach German in countries across the world to millions of prospective and eager students. What lessons can post-apartheid South Africa learn from this? The answer is rather complex for two main reasons.

First, far less time has passed since the fall of apartheid than the fall of Nazi Germany, and South Africa is still a deeply wounded nation. Second, and perhaps most importantly, unlike German, Afrikaans is not the sole official language of its nation, but one of 11. As a result, the Afrikaans language and those who speak it are on the receiving end of the stigma of apartheid, fuelled by living memory of what the National Party committed in the name of white Afrikanerdom.

And so the language’s default identity is that of racial conservatism, oppression and social elitism. Almost 30 years since apartheid’s fall, South Africans still struggle to separate the Afrikaans language from the horrors of apartheid, and this stigmatism continues to thwart nation building and reconciliation in democratic South Africa. We see this in the current debate surrounding Stellenbosch University’s revised language policy.

The rector, Professor Wim de Villiers, has embarked on a controversial change to the university’s language policy which aims to gradually phase out Afrikaans on campus. The argument is that English is the de facto language of global academia, and that there is a decline in the use of Afrikaans in an academic setting. But it raises the question: is the use of Afrikaans naturally in decline, or is a decline being perpetuated by a policy that seeks to eradicate the language altogether?

I met students from Stellenbosch University a few weeks ago and heard worrying accounts of university residences banning the use of Afrikaans beyond lecture theatres. A culture of intimidation and fear has set in where Afrikaans is disallowed in hallways, on park benches and even in shared bathrooms. It is evident that the university’s language policy has transcended lingual restriction and is now an open persecution of the Afrikaans language in one of the bastions of Afrikaans academic excellence.

The discussion surrounding this troubling language policy has brought to light the underlying stigma associated with Afrikaans, and now threatens to eradicate the language altogether. But stating this case has made many South Africans uneasy.

Article 29 of the Constitution states:

“Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single-medium institutions, taking into account the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.”

This part of the Constitution is perhaps where the debate around Afrikaans is most misunderstood. If we assume that Afrikaans is a white language, and one that was singularly developed and promoted by the apartheid government, many people would argue that it no longer requires any form of protection and that English should rightly replace it in traditionally Afrikaans universities. This view would victimise the Afrikaans language and those who speak it as an embodiment of apartheid stigma.

But herein lies the problem: Afrikaans is not a creation of apartheid, and the language is not responsible for what apartheid committed. This way of thought, paradoxically, works against what our Constitution has set out to achieve with regards to language rights in South Africa.

If Article 29 states the obligation to take into account the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices, then Afrikaans is the perfect vessel to do so. As the third-most-spoken home language in South Africa, and with close to 50% of the population of the Western Cape speaking it as a first language, Afrikaans makes up a large chunk of our country’s linguistic identity.

But more importantly, these statistics prove that Afrikaans is by no means a white language when the vast majority of home-language speakers are coloured. How are we promoting redress by systematically eradicating the first language of an entire demographic that suffered at the hands of apartheid?

What those in favour of Stellenbosch University’s revised language policy are essentially saying is that coloured South Africans were denied access to education under apartheid because they were not white, and will continue to be denied access to education in post-apartheid South Africa because they’re too Afrikaans. Ironically, this logic only serves to divide, alienate and oppress our nation in much the same way as the apartheid government.

If the use of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University is the success story of an official language outside of English, South Africa needs to use this as a case study to enact our Constitution and promote and develop each and every one of our nine other official languages elsewhere. If we don’t protect Afrikaans now, how are we ever going to protect isiZulu, SeTswana or TshiVenda in future?

But the real victims of Afrikaans stigma are most certainly its white speakers. I am as English as they come, but when I moved to Cape Town seven years ago I was surrounded by Afrikaans in almost every setting. As I made white Afrikaans friends, peers and colleagues, I became aware of something I had previously been oblivious to.

Young, white Afrikaans South Africans live and breathe the stigma that surrounds their language. Afrikaans pride can too easily be misconstrued with the dangers of nationalism, white Afrikaans speakers are often stereotyped as racist and conservative, and the use of Afrikaans is often perceived as a form of racial power play. Much like modern Germans often feel overshadowed by their country’s past, so white Afrikaners are forced to grapple with the stigma of their language daily, carrying the guilt of actions committed long before their birth.

We continue to unfairly stigmatise our fellow South Africans based purely on the language they speak, a language that predates apartheid. This dangerous social ill only emboldens those who seek to divide us.

Political parties such as the Freedom Front Plus claim to be the sole custodians of the Afrikaans language and culture, further entrenching the stereotype of Afrikaans conservatism and alienating liberal white Afrikaners from the multicultural South African identity.

And coloured nationalist movements such as the Cape Coloured Congress appropriate Afrikaans to entrench their own politics of identity with slogans like “Ons mense”. Ultimately, the more we stigmatise Afrikaans, the more we incentivise its deregulation, and the more we divide South Africans along racial, cultural and linguistic lines. Stigmatising and delegitimising Afrikaans is sending South Africans backwards, and it is doing so at warp speed. We need to sit up and take note of this as a matter of urgency.

Anneliese Schütz, a German translator of a 1950s version of Anne Frank’s diary, was criticised for compromising her faithfulness to the original text by softening German culpability and blurring any hostile references to the German language in her work. This criticism is where South Africans can learn an important lesson: we cannot erase or blur the past out of shame and guilt, just as we cannot blame a language for the actions carried out in its use.

Afrikaans is a South African language, developed and refined by Malay slaves and the native Khoi as much as the Dutch settlers. It is a language of academia, art, poetry and prose. It is a vital part of our identity whether black or white.

American poet John Ciardi said: “Tell me how much a nation knows about its own language, and I will tell you how much that nation knows about its own identity.” If we continue to stigmatise Afrikaans and delegitimise its use, we risk erasing a part of our own identity as a nation.

And if Afrikaans falls, which of the other nine South African languages will fall next? DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    An excellent, thought-provoking article, Ryan.

    Most Afrikaans speaking people when having a technical conversation would use the English loan-words, but engineers educated at Stellenbosch actually knew and used the proper Afrikaans technical terms. Now they want to phase out Afrikaans at Stellies?

  • Johan Buys says:

    this amazes me: if you walk through my town (heartland of Afrikaans with a monument to it) you encounter more Afrikaans people that are colored and black than white.

    I am Afrikaans but I am sick and tired of how a language (a means of communication) was hijacked to be a culture / political thing.

  • Anton van Niekerk says:

    The idea that you have to be white to be an Afrikaner is absurd and the US is playing right into the hands of the racists who promote this idea. I live in the Western Cape and hardly ever hear English outside of Cape Town.

  • Andrew Wright says:

    “Ironically, this logic only serves to divide, alienate and oppress our nation in much the same way as the apartheid government.”

    The dominant logic behind most of the ANCs policies – almost all explicity anti-white & coloured & Indian.

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