The celebration of Youth Month in South Africa is centred around a historic event sparked in part by the revolt against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in South African schools. Little, however, gets mentioned about the cultural significance of the language, its role in South Africa’s founding history, and the complexities of its role in racial, cultural, and social identity for a large portion of the population which uses it as a first language. These were the ponderings of sociology scholar Warren McGregor in his argument that contrary to popular and often divisive narratives, the history of Afrikaans is…
The celebration of Youth Month in South Africa is centred around a historic event sparked in part by the revolt against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in South African schools.
Little, however, gets mentioned about the cultural significance of the language, its role in South Africa’s founding history, and the complexities of its role in racial, cultural, and social identity for a large portion of the population which uses it as a first language. These were the ponderings of sociology scholar Warren McGregor in his argument that contrary to popular and often divisive narratives, the history of Afrikaans is deeply entrenched in the history of black South Africans.
Its roots can be traced back to Indonesian slaves who, together with their Dutch masters in the 1700s, sought to create a means of communication. The influence of slaves on the development of Afrikaans can still be seen in many words which are phonetically identical to Malay and Khoi words.
Even more severely understated, he opines, are the complex class politics between different people who today refer to themselves as Afrikaner.
From it’s significance in the cultural and political identity of Dutch descendant farmers, to its development in the communities of those descended from Cape-Malay slaves and indigenous tribes, Afrikaans is a tapestry of South Africa’s very formation as a multi-racial nation.
Though tainted with a history that represents the overcoming of oppression for all groups who speak it as a first language, for South Africa’s black majority it became the language of oppression, more so than that of English, despite the colonial histories of both languages.
This apparent paradox, says Jesmane Boggenpoel, author of the book My Blood Divides and Unites, exists because the English language was considered an international language which had more practical functions while at the time of the 16 June Soweto uprising, the imposition of Afrikaans as primary medium of instruction was seen as an attempt to further colonise and oppress black people.
McGregor notes that around the time of the youth uprising in 1976, groups across the colour and tribal lines laid by Apartheid organised, discussed and planned in their masses for a revolt against numerous points of oppression – a movement which eventually culminated in the revolt against Afrikaans in schools.
The fact that coloured people often attended Afrikaans-only schools and spoke the language as a mother tongue, did not preclude them from seeing the injustice of enforcing the language upon those for whom it was not native. Youth in coloured communities fought alongside black South Africans at the time.
In doing the research for her book, which was partially about exploring her identity, Boggenpoel relays how she came to understand that her slave ancestors were contributors to what is today referred to as Afrikaner culture, and the language itself
“Indeed, some historians argue that slaves drove the development of the language as they attempted to communicate with slave owners, most of whom spoke Dutch. The slaves also had a major influence on South African cuisine, introducing new cooking methods, recipes such as curry, bobotie, and koeksisters,” she points out. To demonstrate this point further, she points out that the Indonesian word for banana was “pisang“, from which the Afrikaans word for banana, “piesang” was derived.
Of equal cultural significance to the development of Afrikaans and Afrikaner culture were the enslaved Khoekhoe and San people, who were indigenous to South Africa. According to the Slave Lodge, these two groups were preferred as slaves by stock farmers or pastoralists, for example trekboers.
The significance of the language becomes even clearer when looking at its use across the country. Outside of major urban areas, Afrikaans was far more widely spoken among coloured and even black South Africans, not to mention those who work on commercial farms.
According to Statistics South Africa’s 2019 General Household Survey (GHS), Afrikaans is still the third-most spoken language in the country, after only isiZulu and isiXhosa.
The survey found that just over one quarter (25,3%) of individuals spoke isiZulu at home, 14,8% spoke isiXhosa, and 12,2% spoke Afrikaans. English only managed to come in at sixth place, and was spoken by 8,1% of individuals at home. English is, however, the second-most commonly spoken language outside the household (16,6%) after isiZulu.
More than three quarters (77,4%) of coloured people spoke Afrikaans at home, which is significantly more than the three-fifths (61,2%) of white South Africans using it as their home language.
In the ongoing project of reconciliation it was important, McGregor concluded, that the story of Afrikaans not be painted as only shameful and racist, that it not only be painted as the story of white farmers, but as a reminder that rather than a blemish on South Africa’s history to be erased, it should be used as a tool to discuss, heal, and celebrate the country’s history and the shared identity of all South Africans.
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