Losing a language to repair the past

July 21, 2000

English is usurping Afrikaans in South African universities. But, as Jennifer Wallace reports, some academics are resisting the demise of a language of oppression

On top of the highest mountain in Paarl in the Western Cape, there is a curious monument. It does not, as one might expect, mark an ancient battle site or commemorate the dead. In fact, it is the Taal Monument, a shrine for the Afrikaans language, first erected in 1973.

The granite pillars, symbolising the various influences on Afrikaans - Dutch, Malay and some African languages - join together to form one tall column, which supposedly represents Afrikaans. The column has no pedestal and is open-ended, implying that the language will continue to grow, and it is positioned in a pool of water, to signify the fact that, just as a plant needs water, so the language needs to be nurtured.

When the monument was built, apartheid in South Africa was at its height. White, Afrikaans-speaking people held the white-collar jobs and ruled the country. Black, Xhosa or Zulu-speakers provided manual labour, were segregated in townships and were governed.

Afrikaans was one of the government's main tools for control. Indeed, it was the apartheid government's attempt to enforce Afrikaans as the sole teaching language in schools that provoked the Soweto uprising in 1976 when black activist Steve Biko was detained. When apartheid was disbanded and Nelson Mandela's government took over, one of the first things to bite the dust was the special status of Afrikaans. South Africa was to be a "rainbow nation", Mandela announced. There were to be 11 official languages. Language was no longer to be a means of exclusion.

But six years on, one group is talking increasingly about exclusion. Many Afrikaners, even liberal anti-apartheid ones, feel they are being marginalised. Bram de Vries, leading novelist and former head of Afrikaans at Cape Technikon in Cape Town, talks of the "new racism of the present government, getting as many black people as possible into high positions and pushing the other people out".

Much of the debate centres around the language of higher education. In the Cape, two of the three premier universities, the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape, have moved from using Afrikaans to teaching all subjects in English. The third, Stellenbosch, the Oxbridge of South Africa, is resisting change. Like the other major Afrikaans university, Potchefstroom, near Johannesburg, Stellenbosch is campaigning to continue using Afrikaans exclusively to teach undergraduates. "As soon as you have parallel language classes, the weaker language gets pushed out," says Hermann Gilliomee, professor of history at Stellenbosch. "Afrikaans as a public language may disappear in the next 20 years if it is not supported by a university or two."

The pressure to end Stellenbosch's Afrikaans status is motivated by ideological rather than practical reasons, Gilliomee believes. "All institutions should reflect the population," he explains. "But is that the national population or the regional one? The Western Cape Province is 60 per cent Afrikaans speaking."

Afrikaans, he says, is not just a white language. It is the first language of the majority of the coloured population in the Cape (South Africa distinguishes between whites, blacks and coloureds). In the past, coloureds generally attended the University of the Western Cape. Now that it is no longer teaching in Afrikaans, de Vries argues, many coloured people cannot enrol there and are being discriminated against.

But others disagree. Franklin Sonn, former head of the University of the Western Cape, who is coloured, says that white concern over discrimination against black people is "patronising". "We are perfectly capable of taking up the matter ourselves," he says, "but we don't want to because we understand the baggage of the apartheid past, which Afrikaans carries." English allows greater access, he believes.

Brian Fugaji, head of Cape Technikon, welcomes the changes. "There are more African students here now. Afrikaans-speaking students will be taught in English, which is their second language, and so will the African students. We are trying to be a little bit egalitarian."

He is sceptical about the campaign to preserve Afrikaans. "People who have power want to continue to have power and they want to wield that through the language."

But the threat to the Afrikaans language goes beyond universities. The language of the law courts will soon probably be English, even if, as de Vries says, victim, accused and judge are all Afrikaans speakers. A decision such as that has consequences, as Ebbe Dommisse, editor of Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger, observes: "If English becomes the language of the courts, then why should the legal faculty of Stellenbosch, a respected faculty, continue teaching in Afrikaans?" The language is also being eased out in the media. The South African Broadcasting Company is pouring all its resources into English-language programming, into the 8pm English news bulletin and into links with the BBC and CNN. But as SABC journalist Chris Louw notes: "They are not looking after their own people." Audience figures are higher for the less well resourced 7pm Afrikaans bulletin.

Indeed, according to Louw, this issue is not simply about the Afrikaans language. It raises questions about the position and role of Afrikaners in post-apartheid South Africa. Louw stirred up the debate by publishing an open letter to Willem de Klerk, brother of the former president, criticising him for allowing apartheid to happen and complaining that his "cheated" generation feels lost in the new South Africa. "We are anglicising the whole country, which means that people are expected to give up their own languages," Louw continues. "It is basically to the advantage of the top 10 per cent of the country. It is not to the advantage of the country as a whole."

Feeling under threat, Afrikaans speakers have formed a pressure group, the Group of 63, so called because there were originally 63 members. Its remit is to protect the interests of the Afrikaans-speaking community, to fight poverty and joblessness among Afrikaans speakers, to promote multilingualism and to investigate why so many Afrikaners are leaving South Africa.

Johann Rossouw, chairperson of the group, explains: "We think that the new constitution was a first important step towards the democratisation of South Africa, but that not enough is being done for minorities in South Africa. We now have the systematic rolling back of Afrikaans in higher education, little emphasis on mother-tongue education and a lack of sufficient job creation. This initiative is part of a process to empower all indigenous languages in South Africa against the background of the growing English monoculture of globalisation."

The group includes academics such as Gilliomee and Johan Degenaar, former opposition leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and radical poet Breyten Breytenbach, who was imprisoned under apartheid. Supporters of the group argue that it is not about white nostalgia, but a principled stand against what might be termed the McDonaldisation of the early 21st century. "It seems to be the pattern in Africa that post-colonial governments take over the colonial languages and then are unable to communicate with the general population," Dommisse says. "I regard Afrikaans as an indigenous language of South Africa."

"It is important to make everyone feel part of the democracy and not like recycled Englishmen," Louw says. The concept of the rainbow nation is in danger, he believes. Even Neville Alexander, who was once incarcerated on Robben Island and now chairs the government committee on language law, favours the multilingual approach.

"Afrikaners do not want to adopt English, the language of the colonisers," Gilliomee adds. "Afrikaans is like smaller languages all over the world. There are more non-white than white speakers of Afrikaans, so why should the language be punished?" But others argue that to suggest that Afrikaans is only a language and does not carry any political overtones or memories of apartheid is ridiculous. "It is too difficult to convince people that you are sincere and not using language as a political subterfuge in order to achieve political objectives," Sonn argues. "Afrikaans has to be sanitised before it can operate free from its political past. The language should just be left to take its own course and not made into an issue."

Andre Brink, prize-winning dissident novelist and a professor at the University of Cape Town, also distances himself from the Group of 63. "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole," he says. "There are some people on the committee for whom I have the greatest respect, but it is very suspect politically. You cannot divorce language from its surroundings, its politics. They have got to work out why they are preserving it."

Back in Paarl, they are not just preserving the language in a stone monument, they are stepping up live celebrations. In the Afrikaans Taal Museum, which complements the monument, there is an initiative to set up special exhibitions about key figures in Afrikaans culture. The first focused on the writer Jan Rabie, while the second examines the actor Marius Weyers.

"We are trying to show the history of Afrikaans, its variants and the influence of Malay people and Portuguese slaves, so that it is not just associated with whites," curator Liesel Rabie tells me. "Most of the entries in the visitors' book are madly in love with Afrikaans. Visitors write things such as 'Long live Afrikaans!'" Afrikaans Language Museum: www.museums.org.za/afrtaal/default.htm

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