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“Geniet die lang naweek,” my friend wished me on WhatsApp as we awoke on that glorious Thursday morning, with Easter stretching long and languid before us like a crescent beach in an unspoilt corner of the Eastern Cape.
“Lekker vakansie hou.”
I couldn’t help raising my eyebrows at the Afrikaans phraseology – not least because this particular friend has lived in Australia for the 11 years.
Not only that, but his genealogy is as solidly English as a team of Morris dancers and a Yorkshire pudding. Until that moment, I had never known him to speak Afrikaans as long as I’d known him.
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This was not just the sound of Afrikaans, I realised. This was the guttural rhythm of pure nostalgia.
The incongruous bilingualism is not a unique tendency. It carries echoes of homesickness, sentimental remembrance, and also the decaying remains of a slowly dying vocabulary.
I see it in outraged Afrikaans curse words from African emigres, now in Los Angles. The injection of Xhosa vernac into tweets from the diaspora. A South African in Scotland who starts every tweet with “Yassis!”
I’ve done it myself, lathering on layers of white-trash Eastern Cape street slang when I bumped into an old friend in Hawaii, on the opposite side of the planet from home…
The late Bra Hugh Masekela, in his autobiography Still Grazing, tells how during exile in New York, he would sit on a park bench for hours, conversing with himself in South African vernac.
If language is an expression of ourselves, I imagine speaking our home language when we’re away – even just fragments of it – evokes the self we used to be; a self we may have left behind. Or perhaps it summons a part of ourselves from deep within, stirs it to life.
Asserting these deep parts of our identity is not only done through language. It might surface in a predilection for Ouma Rusks, tomato sauce chips and snowy braais in a Rotterdam backyard. Tragically, it might be expressed by white South African emigrants as a casual racism that was common here until about the 1990s.
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Once, I found myself in London when a Springbok rugby test was taking place. I donned a Bok jersey and went to watch the game at the Walkabout in Reading. You know what it was like? Sad!
I knew nobody in the pub – most were half-curious locals, Aussies and New Zealanders. The beer was Stella Artois, and there were even a few Bok players whose names I didn’t recognise. Also, we lost that game. To New Zealand, in Cape Town.
The whole experience made me question my identity. If I didn’t know the Springbok team, who was I even?
That was a temporary sojourn, but it taught me a lesson. I have never again taken my South Africanness for granted.
Who knows how life may unfold – perhaps I may one day leave our gorgeous, mad, chaotic, rich, vibrant and creative country. Perhaps my South African identity will remain intact, even while my expression of it gradually fossilises within me.
But as long as that is not the case, and I have access to the fresh, vital, raw and ever-evolving South African culture that springs from our mouths, our hi-fi speakers, our inner cities, our braaivleis stands and our massive, loving African hearts, I will drink it into myself like one of those enormous one-litre Castle quarts.
Being “proudly” South African is one thing. Perhaps I’m proud of it, on a good day, when the news doesn’t bring me to tears. But by and large, I am gratefully South African. I appreciate it. I have been lucky to be born here – into privilege, no less. Even if that privilege prevents me from experiencing much of the South Africanness I purport to love.
But I have also been fortunate to access many kaleidoscope aspects of our brilliantly bright and rich, unique, but ever recombined combinations of overlapping cultures.
Let’s work to make things better here, in our imperfect country, but let’s also appreciate what we have. Let’s experience and learn it, daily, educating ourselves. Let’s live our South Africanness – let us welcome the world into it.
Because one day, we may longer be inside it. One day, there may only be a little piece of it within us. A tiny chunk of half-remembered Mzansiness that we must polish jealously every now and then to keep it shining. Like a handful of trusty Afrikaans words on a lazy Easter morning.