From Rebel To Oppressor, Demon To Survivor: 90 Years Of Afrikaans


“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.

Afrikaner Women & Children in British Concentration Camps During The Anglo Boer War

Afrikaner Women & Children in British Concentration Camps During The Anglo Boer War

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.

Cape Malays Dancers In The Streets Of District Six

Cape Malays Dancers In The Streets Of District Six

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


Exhibit B: A Racist Failure Or An Uncomfortable Truth


“…until you heal the wounds of the past, you will continue to bleed…”

— Iyanla Vanzant —

Exhibit B, is a haunting installation (performance art piece) that critiques the ‘human zoos’ and ethnographic exhibits committed during white colonial rule in German South West Africa, British ruled Southern Africa and in the Belgian and French Congos.

The director of Exhibit B, white South African artist Brett Bailey, sets out to confront the disturbing phenomenon where Africans were brutally objectified as scientific curiosities or merely locked up in cages for the amusement of wealthy Victorian Europeans. He described his work as “a human installation on imperialism in Africa and racism”.

Bailey translates this perverse spectacle into twelve tableaux, each featuring motionless ‘characters’ placed in settings that, rather than portraying “the native in his natural surrounds” as human zoos did, show the cruelty inflicted upon modern-day asylum seekers in the European Union in a not so subtle ‘secondary storyline.’

For instance, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman the so-called “Hottentot Venus” who was “discovered” by British ship’s doctor William Dunlop and exhibited for 5 years as a ‘freak’ in theatres and halls (because of her unusual physical features) in England and Europe and who, after her death in 1815, was dissected and her remains put on display, stands in Exhibit B expressionless on a turning plinth.

Brett Bailey - “Exhibit B”

Brett Bailey – “Exhibit B”

In another tableaux, modern-day black asylum-seekers are presented as “found objects”, although they stand before the audience as living and breathing human beings. Bailey serves his masterstroke at the end of the installation, when the pictures and the biographies of the ordinary black men and women who perform in Exhibit B are displayed… symbolically bringing them into the room along with the aching echo of their ancestors.

Exhibit B has already been shown in 12 cities, involving 150 local performers — participating ‘actors’ are all from the area or city where the installation is hosted. The installation has been seen by over 25,000 people with and overwhelmingly positive responses from participants, audiences and critics alike.

Peter Brook described Exhibit B as “an extraordinary achievement.”

The Belgium newspaper LE SOIR called it “terrible and magnificent… should run for several months so that all government ministers and scholars can attend.”

La Libre Belgique wrote: “How can one small exhibition about our colonial history hit harder than an entire year full of activities around the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence last year?”

The South African newspaper Mail & Guardian — one of the strongest voices against the Apartheid regime and once suspended in 1988 by one of Apartheid’s strongest proponents, then State President P. W. Botha — said: “That Bailey has managed to negotiate this problematic and highly sensitive arena with almost faultless judgment is deserving of extraordinary praise.”

Exhibit B was never supposed to be a comfortable, white-washed guilt-ridden portrayal of imperialism as it is taught in schools across Europe. Let’s be honest: how many school kids know anything about the impact and legacy of slavery? And even if they (we) read the most detailed facts of colonial history in a book, they’d (we’d) quickly forget about them. Whereas a thought-provoking and confrontational work of art, like the uncompromising Exhibit B, takes the hard-hitting, gut-wrenching truth and harpoons it straight through your entire being. It rips at your heart. It fucks with your head. It changes you… that’s if you are able to see (witness) it.

Brett Bailey - “Exhibit B”

Brett Bailey – “Exhibit B”

Unfortunately, Exhibit B’s five-day run at The Vaults in London was cancelled on Tuesday 23 September. After a vociferous campaign, Barbican officials decided to end an impasse with demonstrators, by cancelling the five-day run. The campaigners claimed to have obtained more than 20,000 signatures against what they called “institutionalised and complicit racism”, challenging Bailey’s right as a white South African to speak about racism in the way he does.

Leading the campaign against Exhibit B (#boycottthehumanzoo), activist and journalist Sara Myers, said: “I want my children to grow up in a world where the barbaric things that happened to their ancestors are a thing of the past. We have come a long way since the days of the grotesque human zoo – we should not be taking steps back now.”

Adding his voice, Simon Woolley, coordinator of Operation Black Vote, said: “This [Exhibit B] was a vanity project. Having people objectified in this humiliating way was always going to cause a fierce reaction.”

Among the strongest supporters of Exhibit B are the actors involved. Prior to Tuesday’s protest, in an effort to deflate the tension, the actors said in a statement: “We find this piece to be a powerful tool in the fight against racism. Individually, we chose to do this piece because art impacts people on a deeper emotional level that can spark change.

The exhibit does not allow for any member of the audience, white, black or otherwise, to disassociate themselves from a system that contains racism within it. We are proud to be black performers in this piece; to represent our history, our present and ourselves by playing the various characters taken from the record books.”

Still, the actors failed to pacify the angry protesters, who cried victory when Exhibit B got cancelled on the eve of its premiere on accounts of fear for the safety of the performers, staff and spectators.

Since then, many of the performers in Exhibit B lashed out at those who accused them of complicit racism. Actress Elexi Walker said: “It’s ridiculous to think I am being racist because I am involved in a piece that highlights the his tory of black people.” Chris Nekongo, another performer from Namibia, said: “In Namibia they are shocked to see that in a country like England this is happening. What happened in the past needs to be told in the present and the future.”

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Brett Bailey with a performer from Exhibit B © Pascal Gely

Clearly, the line must be drawn somewhere. Accusing someone of being racist has become all too easy these days… especially when there is a white man in the picture saying or doing something a black woman doesn’t like —  god forbid that white man is also South African. To then take it even further, accusing another black person of racism when he or she clearly is not, not only kills the messenger but it also burns the letter of good news he holds in his hand.

My grandfather always said: “Don’t allow your outrage to make an idiot of you.”

Institutionalised racism and complicit racism — if I understand the protesters argument — is in this case consenting Africans (black people) portraying an important (and often forgotten or ignored) part of their history through performance, art and storytelling — I’ll add to that: with the aim to educate, inform and stimulate a healthy debate and conversation…

And this should not be tolerated? In fact, it should be shut down. Silenced!

Using the same contorted argument, shouldn’t we then also ban films like Mississippi Burning, The Color Purple, 12 Years A Slave, Amistad, The Butler et al? While we’re at it, let’s burn books like The Book of Negro, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Beloved and The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing… Hell yeah, why don’t we write all black people completely out of history? Or would that be a bit too extreme? Racist perhaps?

Adding to that, to say that an artist (or any person) is not allowed to have an opinion in a debate about race because of the colour of his or her skin — as was implied towards Bailey by Myers and her troops in their petition — is the most blatant and flagrant example of racial mud-slinging if there ever was one.

This is something many black people don’t get (and get angry about when it is called out): Racism cuts both ways — it impacts both sides of the fence — which is why everybody has a right to sit at the table — black, brown, yellow, white. We all have a part to play and should be allowed to join in the conversation… I ask myself (and Myers with her flag-waving politics): Would there have been such a massive outcry and a protest to demonise Brett Bailey’s work if he wasn’t white… and South African?

Brett Bailey 's "Exhibit B"

Brett Bailey ‘s “Exhibit B”

Personally (especially as a white South African male who is used to being shamed for the Apartheid atrocities of my grandfather’s generation), I fail to see how Exhibit B can be misinterpreted: As a multi-layered commentary, the twelve ‘snapshots’ collectively confront colonial racism committed in Africa, the cold horror of Apartheid, European notions of racial supremacy and the plight of African immigrants and asylum seekers today.

It’s therefor not primarily just a work about colonial-era racial violence, abuse and exploitation but also (and possibly most importantly) an exposé of current racist and xenophobic policies in Europe — policies that have been shaped over centuries, starting long before the 19th century. The dehumanising stereotypes of otherness instilled in the consciousness of our ancestors have been transmitted subconsciously and insidiously through the ages… It’s a burden we all still carry today. Why sweep it under the carpet?

Exhibit B demands that we question these representations… and hopefully will make us gasp (especially us white folk) when we leave the installation and think: “Are these black performers not entertaining the audience here in the same way the did in Victorian human zoos?… Is it possible that in many ways nothing has changed?”

Exhibit B is about looking and being looked at. It’s about a mirror held up to our faces — black and white! It’s about embracing the past no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. It’s about enquiry, storytelling (truth-telling) and baring witness.

How is this a ‘bad’ thing?

By silencing this installation, it’s not just freedom of expression and free speech that takes a knock. Far more important and urgent voices are being drowned out too: Voices from the past lamenting the cold brutality of colonial slavery, voices in the present crying for help from where they are trapped in the grips of modern slavery and human trafficking (face it, most victims of these crimes are from race minorities), and voices from the future forewarning us that if we do not learn from the past by embracing it and take heed in the present nothing will change… tomorrow will not look any different from yesterday.

As far as I can see, there is no victory here because thanks to those blindsided protestors we are all still wearing our chains… be it of slavery or of a racist past… because we are still not allowed to talk about certain things.

Bret Bailey's "Exhibit B"

Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”

Credits. Images: No Copyright Owned – All from different online media sources Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes