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Afrikaans as a language is both beautiful and innocent — until it became an instrument of oppression


Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic who loathes unhygienic conditions, be they political or otherwise. He writes in his personal hygienic capacity.

Language is in and of itself innocent. But systemically, the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction at black schools in 1976 was to be a key component of the apartheid architecture.

Language is at the core of every society and culture. This has been the case for millennia. Without language, there is no communication. It is unimaginable how social relations and day-to-day interactions would occur without language. Without language, there would be no meaningful cohesion or development in any society.

At the same time language has since the dawn of history been a source of tension, conflict, and even war.

Afrikaans has loomed large in South Africa’s history since the colonial days and entrenched itself, especially during the apartheid era. For example, to be enrolled in school, the colonised had to be christened, adopt Christian names and other practices effectively resulting in the deculturation of the colonised.

It is through the deculturisation process that, for example, Rolihlahla Mandela became “Nelson” in order for him to be admitted to school; an experience endured by millions of fellow citizens over the years. The depth of the impact of the overall colonial experience still manifests itself today.

Let’s not forget that British imperial rule did the same by seeking to erase Afrikaans in schools and other formal institutions thus injecting this language infringement into the potpourri that fuelled the South African War (Anglo-Boer War).

Ironically, having lost the lesson from their own history, the architects of apartheid imposed Afrikaans as a language of instruction in black schools leading to the deadly student uprisings of 1976. “Bantu” education was pivoted on language as the spearpoint for exclusion. Afrikaans became mandatory in most official spaces, including in private conversations.

The tensions and debates over language still continue today as evidenced most recently by Ismail Largadien and Marianne Thamm’s offerings in Daily Maverick. The latter essentially is a celebration of Afrikaans and its usage by a wide variety of people in literature and speech, many of whom were/are progressives. Largadien’s piece covers a broader landscape featuring language conflicts in various countries over time, the extinction of some, though arguably somewhat muted in comparison to Charlize Theron’s cataclysmic pronouncement of the extinction of Afrikaans.

It is Lagardien’s analysis that exemplifies the underlying problem in the debate. But before I engage the problem, allow me to make a slight but relevant digression.

I did my junior high school at Sozama Secondary School in Mhluzi township in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. In 1961-62 I served as chair of the Student Christian Movement (that was before my critical faculties were awoken to the duplicity of the colonial project and its palliative accompaniments).

Moses Mnisi was the secretary and in 1961 we were delegated to attend the national SCM conference in Roodepoort. We boarded the train at the Middelburg station and headed for Park Station in Johannesburg where we would take another train to Roodepoort.

After boarding the second train at Park Station, we made the mistake of getting off one station before the designated destination. We were told by other travellers milling on the platform that the next train to Roodepoort was scheduled for the following day. This was confirmed by the ticket office. The thought of spending the balance of the day and the night in the bare train station waiting room was unbearable. In those days thinking about finding a comfortable public accommodation for blacks was to be delusional. So we decided to walk to the nearest highway, hitchhike to Park Station and make another try.

The distance we had to travel seemed like an endless 15km, and the path we followed crossed a huge maize farm. The sun was scorching. Tired and thirsty, we saw a shimmering image caused by heat waves in the distance. As we approached, the image turned into a burly farmer in the customary khaki uniform. “Aren’t we lucky”, we muttered under our breath. But we knew from past experience and lore that addressing him in English would be a non-starter, if not an act of provocation.

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“Goeie dag Meneer. Hoe vêr is die hoof pad na Johannesburg van hier af?” I ventured. He did not respond. So I repeated the question. He responded by saying “Ek is nie ‘n Bantoe predikant” (I am not a Bantu/African minister). He paused for a moment in anticipation of an obsequious response. Clearly he wanted to be addressed as “baas”. Well, he was not going to get that satisfaction from us. Without further ado, we decided to proceed in the direction we were on.

Recently I phoned an old classmate from the Sozama school days to fact-check certain details with him. Although he was not Moses, he remembered the Roodepoort story from the report we presented to the SCM branch after the trip and told me he had a similar experience in the 1990s when after he respectfully asked for information from what turned out to be a white supremacist, the response was “Ek is nie ‘n k….r predikant.”

The point is, language is in and of itself innocent. But it can also be used to compel someone in need to use the language of the coloniser in order to solicit civil engagement, an understanding derived from prior experience and lore. What he wanted was to elicit submission which would affirm his control. This represents what would commonly be called day-to-day microaggression.

Systemically, the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction at black schools in 1976 was to be a key component of the apartheid architecture. [In fact, the process started earlier through a selective imposition of Afrikaans instruction in selected subjects. In the case of Mhluzi Secondary School, for example, Landbou (Agriculture), Sosiale Studies (Social Studies), and Geskiedenis (History) were introduced before the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974.]

Grand apartheid had started with compulsory instruction in the vernacular, not for the noble reasons we now know of the virtues of instruction in the mother tongue. The reasons were mischievous and included exclusion from meaningful economic participation thus laying a firm foundation of enduring inequality.

The Ismail Lagardien piece has prompted this rejoinder. Lagardien’s analysis is, as always, insightful and eloquent. He offers examples of several countries where language was a source of tension or conflict. While the characterisation of language problems facing South Africa contemporaneously bounded by the “politics of revenge”, on the one hand, and “ethno-nationalism of a particular kind”, on the other, may be largely true, there is, however, a crucial oversight that is a cause of misunderstanding the phenomenon.

Additionally, the assertion that the “politics of revenge” or “ethno-nationalism… seems to be on a mission to erase Afrikaans — at least in educational institutions” is bereft of historical and experiential observations, and frankly, overwrought.

I hold no brief for Panyaza Lesufi and the other disparate political assortments mentioned in the article. But what is inexplicably missing in Lagardien’s argument is that at the core of the criticism of Afrikaans is its use as a tool to prevent the admission of black students (and other non-Afrikaans speaking learners) to historically Afrikaans-medium schools.

That tenacious resistance to voluntarily open the doors of these schools is a reminder of the intentional denial to equal education opportunities; left uninterrupted, it contributes consequentially to the persistence of debilitating inequalities.

Afrikaans has a peculiar relationship with those who were colonised. Knowledge of the oppressive role of the Afrikaans language is deeply embedded in their collective memory or psyche. But many among those who were born in urban townships who are critical of the deleterious role of Afrikaans speak a variety of patois (e.g. tsotsi taal, kasie lingo, kaapse taal), heavily peppered with Afrikaans words and idioms.

The criticism should therefore not be regarded as hatred for Afrikaans per se, otherwise, they would banish it from their patois variants. Rather, it is an objection to its continued use as a discriminatory device in education institutions often in conjunction with socioeconomic admission barriers.

Therefore, in and of itself, Afrikaans, like any other language, is both beautiful and innocent. But those in power during especially the apartheid era used it as an instrument of oppression, discrimination, domination at the systemic level. At the personal level it was (still is) an in-your-face, demeaning and intimidating mechanism to keep “others” at bay. DM


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