Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Afrikaans gets a boost from black ten-year old

Beeld last week (15 Aug) covered a fascinating story about a black kid who won a national debating competition in Afrikaans. The girl, Pretoria based Thuli Manunga (10), although her mother tongue is Xhosa, speaks Afrikaans like the best of them and is the winner of the junior division of the ATKV debating contest.

This story is emblematic of how the new South Africa is liberating Afrikaans.

Sure, I know there are those who perpetuate the myth that Afrikaans is under threat in Mzansi. They write to connections and well placed people in countries such as Belgium airing dire warnings that the future of “die taal” is at risk. You can also, for example, read the writings of people like Steve Hofmeyr who seek to feverishly defend Afrikaans culture and language against various forces, including an ANC government. The truth is different: under democracy, Afrikaans can shed its old burdensome associations and face the future with new confidence.

The way to protect your language is not to retreat into the laager, but to step out and take your place, in a vital way, in South African social and cultural life.

The advent of democracy – with its built-in formula of inclusivity and synthesis rather than conquest and retribution – frees Afrikaans of its baggage. We can acknowledge that this language, embroiled in unjust historical processes, was used as a tool to bark some of the meanest and nastiest instructions. We can ruefully reflect on how Afrikaans coined the word bliksem, a reference to cruel punishment meted out in a context of skewed power relations. But we can also simultaneously put that behind us. We can say, taking the present as the vantage point, that Afrikaans is categorically not the language of the oppressor. It is a proud constituent of Mzansi’s culture; it is entrenched and constitutionally recognized as one of South Africa’s languages. Afrikaans is part of the distinctiveness that we marshall as we seek to engage and advance our interests in a fiercely competitive global context.

It is true that Afrikaans faces a challenge; it is up against the dominance of English in the business arena and in many parts of the academic world. But this is a different problem (to a claim that Afrikaans is being singled out and specifically suppressed); instead, this is a concern facing all other official languages. Afrikaans taal stryders (language activists) should unite with others to examine ways in which to promote the use of the mother tongue in education as well as multiple language usage in policy debates, in the creative arts and as many spheres of life as possible.

Afrikaners can also get some perspective by recognizing how many African black people speak Afrikaans. For millions of people in the country, Afrikaans is the only or primary language second only to their home language. Thus, for example, Matthews Posa writes poetry in Afrikaans and well known figures such as Mosiuoa Lekota, Mannie Dipico and Sandile Dikeni are at ease when engaging with others using the medium of Afrikaans. And tsotsitaal, as its name suggests, is replete with Afrikaans words. Afrikaners should also take proper cognisance of the many South Africans of mixed heritage who speak Afrikaans as a home language, and who argue that coloured black Afrikaners played a key role in the emergence of the language. Leaders in this community have always noted that, in their book, Afrikaans was as much a language of “onderdrukking” (oppression) as a language of “bevryding” (liberation).

I say: it is time to further break down the laager of official ownership of and fearfulness around Afrikaans. Stop circling the wagons! Let the Afrikaans arts festivals increase the pace of opening up to people of different cultural backgrounds and halt the possible slippage into rallying points for conservatism, exclusivity and fearmongering. Let us use these and other platforms to harvest the lessons from the development of Afrikaans so we can assist those practitioners struggling to enhance the status of other marginalized indigenous languages. Afrikaans will be part of the Mzansi landscape for a long time to come, especially if Afrikaners eschew navel-gazing in favour of reaching out to fellow South Africans in a spirit of optimism and togetherness.

And if white Afrikaners do shed their blinkers and reach out, they will find that the Thuli Manungus of the world have long joined the process of sustaining and promoting “die taal”.


alleman said...

This post really depresses me, and shows to what extent people are deaf to what Afrikaans speakers are saying.
It is good that Thuli Manunga and the others you mention can speak Afrikaans well, but that is completely missing the point. It is not about whether Afrikaans will die out or not. When someone uses the phrase "die taal", I already know that "dying or not" is the proposition they will proceed to discuss and ridicule. And then they always seem to mention Afrikaans festivals and music.
The point is not about dying out or not - nobody alive today will live to see what ultimately happens to it.

The point is about its status today, and whether it being an official language has any meaning or not. Can an Afrikaans person go to a state institution and be served in Afrikaans?

The point is also that Afrikaans had a status as official language, and in the new SA, instead of promoting the other 9 languages to that same status, nothing whatever is happening for those languages while Afrikaans is actively and aggressively being removed from every official situation and being displaced by English.

In the academic sphere, Afrikaans had several universities, and is well-developed as a scientific language. Now we have no exclusively Afrikaans university left, and where Afrikaans is still being used along with English, we see students marching, shouting "away with afrikaans".

I can understand that there are constraints that make it difficult for all 11 languages to be official in a meaningful way, but in South Africa today more effort is going into singling out and specifically suppressing Afrikaans than is going into promoting the official and educational status of the other 9 languages.

Frank said...

Alleman, thanks for the comment. I agree with much of what you say. Afrikaans has indeed scored major achievements: its has been effectively developed as an academic and scientific language! Other South African languages (other than English) can learn from this. I also agree with your view regarding what is happening with (and "not happening" for) the other languages. I appreciate you responding, and prefer to read your comments as complementary to my blog entry. I see your comment as confirming some of my points (Afrikaans is not dying out)as well as deepening and refining the debate.

alleman said...

Frank. Your answer is so shifty - I think you will do well to consider a career in politics

frank said...

You may see it as shifty if I acknowledge some of your points. (A bit of cynicism, along with depression, makes blogging interesting, I guess). I prefer to call it debate, discussion and dialogue. I think it is important (rather than a cause for depression)that people are discussing, engaging and listening to each other. At the risk of getting you to restate your shifty accusation, I will restate that differences and divergent views, taken together, give a more complete picture of reality as it is experienced in Mzansi. While I am very interested in your way of seeing the challenges Afrikaans faces, I hope you can also hear aspects of my view that differ from yours. I will perhaps reword what I am saying in the blog post: I don't believe in the "panic" response. I am concerned when whites refer to what is happening to Afrikaans (and add it to other things that depress them about Mzansi) to explain to people abroad that a democratic government is oppressing whites. There are many other factors at play in the dominance of English, including globalisation. In addition, the issues of power relations in the language arena is not a simple "blacks" versus "whites" issue. In particular, many black people have a stake in Afrikaans and, in general, black people are as affected by the dominance of English.

alleman said...

I'm sorry to have used that word. But the problem is that in your haste to make reassuring sounds you failed to say which points you agreed with, and which ones not.
And that is how it seems it also is with the ANC government. Their doors are open. They talk and they also make reassuring sounds. But then they continue on their mission to completely Anglicise the country.