“A riot is the language of the unheard.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr. —
Today, my mother tongue, Afrikaans, celebrates 90 years as an official language. Suffice to say it is one of the youngest languages in the world… and one of the most vibrant, beautiful and poetic.
Looking back at its history, there can be no doubt that it has always been (and still is) at the helm of political and social change in South Africa — sometimes serving as a tool of transformation and sometimes standing in the frontline of cultural conflicts.
The linguist Paul Roberge suggested the earliest ‘truly Afrikaans’ texts are doggerel verse from 1795. Afrikaans found its roots in Malagasys (Cape Malays) culture as well as the Khoi, San, and Bantu peoples (native tribes to Southern Africa) who lived in the Cape Colony. It was spoken as a stripped down version and gradual divergence from European Dutch dialects and because of its humble origin, imperial Europeans referred to it as a “kitchen language” or peasant language — spoken only in the homes of native tribes, slaves and servants.
The workers and slaves (under Dutch rule in the Western Cape), who contributed to the development of Afrikaans, were African creole people and in the early 18th century they were the first to call themselves Afrikaner (from Africa). So, historically, Afrikaners were not Caucasian, making it rather extraordinary that, a few hundred years later, Afrikaans played a key role in establishing the Apartheid government and fuelling racism in South Africa.
Around 1815, Afrikaans began to replace Malay as the language of instruction in Muslim schools in South Africa, written with the Arabic alphabet, and the first Arabic Afrikaans Islamic instruction book was published in 1877.
Only much later, in the second half of the 19th century, did the Boers (Caucasians descendants from Holland and France) adopt the attribution Afrikaner as well as the language. The Boers used Afrikaans as a form of resistance against British rule — who took over from the Dutch in the Cape Colony. This “new” language offered an opportunity of a new identity and independence from British colonialism.
Striving for their freedom, the Boers left the Cape Colony in the 19th century and settled in the Orange Free State and Transvaal to escape British rule and extract themselves from the constant border wars between the British imperial government and the local tribes on the eastern frontier. This exodus is known as The Great Trek, in which the Boers took their families and trekked into the unknown with nothing more than a few cattle, chicken and other livestock, an ox waggon and whatever little provisions and possessions they could take with them.
Afrikaans became the Boer’s language of choice and among the Boers English was referred to as the language of “the oppressor”, and it was considered a betrayal to speak English if you were an Afrikaner. Their language and new identity was something the Boers vehemently protected and the freedom to speak their own language was something they were prepared to die for.
Animosity toward the English language persisted well into the 20th century. Even in my own family, being brought up in a conservative Christian Afrikaner household during the 1970s and 80s, I was forbidden to “mix” my language — replacing Afrikaans words with English ones — or even to read English comic books.
The First and Second Anglo Boer Wars further strengthened the position of Afrikaans and in 1925 it was finally recognised as a language in its own right.
The first Afrikaans feature film Sarie Marais, tackled the atrocities of how the Boers suffered in British concentration camps during the Anglo Boer Wars. Sarie Marais was released in 1931 along with the film Moedertjie, which dealt with events in 1914, when large numbers of young Afrikaners migrated from rural areas to towns and cities (abandoning the Afrikaner farming culture) in search of a better life. The films were also the first ever shown in South Africa that had sound and even though they were only 30 minutes long, they were still considered “full feature length”.
The first official Afrikaans translation of the entire Bible was published in 1933. This monumental work was a landmark accomplishment and established Afrikaans as “’n suiwer en oordentlike taal” (a pure and proper language) not only for religious purposes but it also firmly cemented the Afrikaner’s religion — puritan Calvinism — as a cornerstone of the Afrikaans identity and culture.
It’s worthwhile to note that some verses in the 1933 translation were carefully rewritten (by means of ‘selective’ interpretation) to justify the Afrikaner’s superior attitude towards other races… they viewed themselves as “chosen people by God”. Later these verses were used to rationalise and defend Apartheid. And so, a language once spoken by servants and slaves — considered a language of rebellion — gradually transformed into being the language of the oppressor.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, after South Africa gained independence from British rule, over 60,000 inhabitants of District Six — a neighbourhood situated on the foot of Table Mountain — were forcibly removed from their homes by the Apartheid government. District Six was a relatively cosmopolitan and interracial neighbourhood, with a large population of Cape Malays (Muslims) — the very people who spoke Afrikaans when it was a mere “kitchen language” a few hundred years ago. The neighbourhood was also inhabited by a substantial amount of black Xhosa residents and a smaller number of whites, and Asians. The majority of District Six’s inhabitants spoke Afrikaans.
The Apartheid government gave four primary reasons for the removals. One of which stated that in accordance with Apartheid philosophy, interracial interaction bred conflict, necessitating the separation of the races. They deemed District Six a slum, fit only for clearance, not rehabilitation. However, shortly afterwards, the government declared District Six a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act, with forcible removals of other races and demolition of buildings starting in 1968… the entire neighbourhood was taken to the ground with bulldozers, leaving only a handful of churches and Mosques standing.
It was not until 2003, 37 years after its entire community was destroyed, that the redevelopment of District Six started.
In 1976, African secondary school pupils in the Soweto Township began a rebellion in response to the Apartheid government’s decision that Afrikaans be used as the language of instruction for half the subjects taught in non-White schools (with English continuing for the other half). During these tumultuous times, Africans refused to speak Afrikaans, because of how they were discriminated against by the Afrikaner under the stringent Apartheid laws.
The African community’s opposition to Afrikaans and preference for continuing English instruction was so severe that the Apartheid government was forced to rescind the policy one month after the uprising: 96% of Black schools chose English (over Afrikaans) as the language of instruction… and so the seed was planted setting in motion the slow process of transformation leading to the first free, non-racial, democratic elections in South Africa, in 1994.
In the new democracy, under the new South African Constitution of 1996, Afrikaans kept its status as an official language, and currently has equal status to English and nine other ethnic languages. The new policy means that the use of Afrikaans is now often reduced in favour of English, or to accommodate the other official languages.
Today, Afrikaans is spoken by 4,740,000 people as a first language and by 10,300,000 as a second or a third language in South Africa. Sadly, the number of Afrikaans speaking people is decreasing. Yet, it still remains a language that keeps transforming itself — finding new ways of expressing itself in the ever-changing political landscape of South Africa… and along with its own transformation the people who speak it, transform as well.
An urban dialect (or pidgin), called Fanagalo, incorporates three of the official languages in South Africa: Zulu, Afrikaans and English. Fanagalo is mainly spoken as a second language in the gold, diamond, coal and copper mining industries in South Africa and to a lesser extent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Considering how national pride was drummed into me as a child, my grandfather — a man who played a pivotal role in establishing the Afrikaans school curriculum — will probably turn in his grave if he knew that I’m making a living as a writer in Britain, writing in what he considered to be the “language of the oppressor”. (Let alone the fact that I’m writing this article about Afrikaans in English!)
However, I have no illusions about my mother tongue and I also carry no shame about its history. Like the language, I now stand with my feet firmly in the present. For me, in its essence, it will always be humble and earthy “kitchen language”. It’s the language that links me with my past. It keeps me grounded and reminds me that sometimes it’s necessary to change and adapt to your changing environment. It connects me to the people I love the most and when I hear it unexpectedly in the streets of London, I instantly feel comforted. With its simple, direct words and poetic turn of phrase it best captures everything about me, in a way no other language can.
Afrikaans once was a rebel and it turned into an oppressor. Throughout its short existence it was either demonized or embraced and as a result one thing is certain: It knows how to survive and accommodate change… just like the all the people who speak and have spoken it.
Having travelled all over the world, I can safely say: If you want to really understand the people and cultural nuances of a particular country, learn to speak their language… it will tell you everything about them you want to know… and much more.
A case in point, when the British design magazine Wallpaper described Afrikaans as “one of the world’s ugliest languages” in an article in 2005, the South African billionaire Johann Rupert (son of business tycoon Anton Rupert and chairman of the diamond luxury goods company Richemont Group), permanently withdrew all advertising from the magazine for brands such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Montblanc and Alfred Dunhill from the magazine. The author of the article, Bronwyn Davies, was an English-speaking South African.
Mors met my taal en jy mors met my land, my mense en met my siel.
Text: FR Lubbe