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”.