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THE WAY WE LIVED.   2.  Afrikaans, language of the oppressors?  Language of the fallen? [5min read]

<– Photo of the plaque at the Hecter Petersen Memorial in Soweto. [taken 2016]

Wednesday 16th June, 1976, is seared in the memories of many. The photo of the dead body of thirteen-year-old Soweto student, Hector Petersen flashed around the world.  For this, The World newspaper was banned. Demonstrations spread around the country and children accounted for a quarter of over six hundred deaths. It was only appreciated in retrospect that these events heralded the collapse of the oppressive racist regime. The level of youthful anger, vigour and fearlessness left parents gasping in their wake as the students took on heavily armed police with their sticks and stones. The police, in turn, were ruthless in their efforts to crush them.

There is never just one reason for things to happen.  It needed enough anger, hatred and a sense of desperation and recklessness for the youngsters to take on the state.  Over the decades, there had been sporadic adult outbreaks, but they fizzled out and leaders were imprisoned, disappeared or they went into exile. In the 70’s, six reporters of The World disappeared after their arrests by police.

The ANC had a decades’ long track record of fruitless negotiations with many governments. Passive resistance of the 1940‘s merged into the defiance campaign of the 1950’s followed by military activity in the 1960’s.  The ANC was the major organisation to chose a military solution to the worsening rights situation in South Africa.   Farther erosions of Black rights continued.  People were forced to move to Bantustan Homelands.  They became foreigners in their own country.These areas were overcrowded and had some of the worst agricultural land in the country. Many who had grown up in the city, were forced to live in an alien environment. The lot of indigenous person was to provide menial, compliant labour. If not needed, they had to return to desolate Homelands.

Children were aware of these events that unfolded in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  An arrogant,  all-powerful government was not to be deterred from one of its objectives – the imposition of the use of the Afrikaans language in African schools.  Afrikaans was to replace English as the medium of instruction for most subjects taught at African schools.

The official system of “Christian National Education” sought to retain racial purity, and to keep Blacks inferior, to provide unskilled labour as determined by the Job Reservation Act.

Overcrowded Black schools had less than basic facilities, and most of their teachers were unqualified.  The State ignored all criticism. They were so far removed from reality, that the dogma of racial purity blinded them to the crippling economic effects of their policies.

Many Whites thought of Africans as smiling, happy, contented people.  Smiling, maybe; happy and contented, most decidedly not.

“Troublemakers are stirring things up unnecessarily. They are all communists,” The Suppression of Communism Act sought to stifle criticism. As a consequence, my father, like many others, was banned, and went into exile. Others were imprisoned or killed.

When I reflect on the momentous events of the 1970’s and 1980’s, it’s still strange, that a language dispute at schools was the powerful catalyst for such dramatic, historical change.  The Paris student riots of 1968 intrigued me as it threatened to topple an established western democracy; it rapidly fizzled out, probably because the underlying fundamentals of discontent lacked the intensity compared with the student-driven revolution that led to majority  rule in South Africa in 1994.

Many regarded Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor, but its roots were more Black than they were White.   The hybridisation of Dutch started with people of “mixed origin.” They comprised  Asian political exiles, run-away and freed slaves and the offspring of local tribes, settlers, and sailors.  Many were illiterate, and the admixture of Dutch, Malay, and the Khoi languages with a bit of Portuguese and English was the lingua franca of people of colour.  It was a creolisation of the language of the Dutch colonisers who looked down disdainfully on this diluted and polluted language created in the new Cape colony.  It’s been referred to as bastardised Dutch by its detractors.

The first texts written in Afrikaans were by educated Muslims using the Arabic alphabet. Imagine that!

Eventually, the use of this form of adulterated Dutch spread to the White population groups, some of whom broke away from the English who had taken control of the Cape Colony.  They undertook the Great Trek into the interior of South Africa, taking “their” language with them.  They  even called themselves “Afrikaners” in the process.

They usurped the language of the oppressed, standardised the rules, words, and grammar.  Eventually, the Afrikaner academics took over the language and made it their own.  A language created from the bottom up became politicised and was then driven from the top down.  Many new words failed to gain acceptance in daily parlance.  Words like “huurmotor” and “vonkprop” could not replace “taxi” and “spark plug.”

“Boer”, literally a farmer, became a despised term used by Blacks to describe Afrikaans-speaking White South Africans.  Maybe its similarity to “boor”, a peasant with poor social skills, is why I like the word!  The patois of those in servitude would, over two centuries, become the despised language of the oppressors of the South African majority. Uniquely, the Afrikaners even created a monument to the language.  Opened in Paarl in1975, it sits on a hill about an hour from Cape Town. I have never visited the place as it would be too redolent of the wrongs of the apartheid era.

The ruling elite expropriated the language of the Coloureds in the same way they had stolen the land, cattle, gold, diamonds, and women of the people they conquered. In a sense, it is ironical that the language of White, supremacist dogma would provide the powder keg of its final destruction by its imposition of the language debacle at indigenous African schools.

Before democracy in the country, freedom fighters long debated whether Afrikaans belonged on the dustheap of South African history.  Part of the new anthem is sung in  Afrikaans which remains an official language in the democratic South Africa of the twenty-first century.  If nothing else, swearing sounds a whole lot better in Afrikaans than it does in English!


Should Afrikaans be on the dustheap of history?

Does swearing sound better in Afrikaans?  Best example?

[Posted 4.10.17]


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