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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 6, No. 3, 21 February 2007

In this Issue:

Red Alert

The guilty are afraid: Language in a democratic South Africa

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

When we were about to finalise the drafting of our new Constitution in the Constitutional Assembly in 1996, one of the last outstanding clauses to be finalised was the education clause. The major dispute between the ANC and the National Party (supported by a whole range of other Afrikaner political and civil society organisations) was around medium of instruction and the question of single-medium schools.

I am re-connecting with this matter prompted in the main by both the ongoing debate about Bok van Blerk’s song ‘De la Rey’, as well as the response by the leader of the Freedom Front Plus, Dr Pieter Mulder to President Thabo Mbeki’s 2007 State of the Nation Address. Amongst other things, Dr Pieter Mulder said:

“They (Afrikaners) react to the ANC attack on Afrikaans schools. Afrikaans schools have long been mixed with brown and black children attending. The attack is therefore aimed at Afrikaans and not race. Where a school becomes a parallel medium school, it is only a short time before the school becomes a single medium English school. There are only two Afrikaans single medium schools left in Mpumalanga. The Minister personally intervened and forced one, Ermelo Hoerskool, to become parallel medium. Does the government have any idea what the reaction in the Afrikaans community is to this?

“South Africa is a difficult country to govern. With the right nation-building recipe (which ensures a place in the sun for everyone), South Africa will become an example to Europe as to how differences should be handled. The Afrikaner will go the distance, but not on one-sided ANC preconditions”.

For purposes of this column I am less concerned about the issue of the song ‘De la Rey’. On the question of this song, I generally agree with the recent remarks by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Cde Pallo Jordan.  I want to take up the language issue.

Our Constitution, which the SACP fought for and was part of its drafting, makes provision for the equal treatment of all our languages, and further commits itself to the provision of resources for the development of all these languages, especially the indigenous languages.

I am rather disappointed that Dr Pieter Mulder seems (and some sections of especially the white Afrikaner community) to have not progressed at all on his thinking about these matters. Reading his response to the President, I was hearing the same arguments made in 1996. Of particular concern to me is what I regard as a very unproductive and narrow white Afrikaner response and approach to the language question in South Africa.

I strongly disagree with Dr Mulder that the ANC has been one-sided or placed ‘one-sided pre-conditions’ in the manner it has been dealing with the language question. It is the ANC that led the struggle for the equal recognition of all our languages, and continues to be the leading force in this regard. The ANC has always understood that language is one of the most critical dimensions of the national question, especially its nation-building component.

Dr Mulder, also needs to be reminded that if there are sections of our population who might still be harbouring negative attitudes towards the Afrikaans language, it is not the ANC that is to be blamed. The main culprit is the apartheid regime and its establishment, of which Dr Mulder was a part. In fact, it is due to the ANC’s leadership on the language question that Afrikaans has largely been liberated from its apartheid shackles.

I need not remind Dr Mulder that much as we have made a lot of progress since 1976 (and in fact since 1948 and before), but the scars of 1976 (and all that happened before and after that) have not completely healed, and certainly not forgotten. It was the apartheid regime which sought to impose Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools that provided the immediate spark to the 1976 student uprisings. This basically caused a lot of damage to the image of the Afrikaans language amongst the African communities in our country. I was personally very much part of the struggles at the time.

At that time I was a first year student at the University of Zululand near Empangeni. I remember vividly Wednesday 16 June 1976. Led by the South African Students Organisation (SASO) we, as students, responded to the brutality of the apartheid regime towards the students in Soweto by embarking on protest action in the early hours of Friday 18 June 1976. In the wake of these protests the entire University administration building was razed to the ground by fire. I lost my original copy of my matric certificate in that blaze, and the university was closed down for the rest of that year. There I was, with no original matric certificate, and on top of that, I lost a whole year of university studies. Why? Just because of Afrikaans, damn Afrikaans, the ‘language of the oppressor’, I answered back to myself then.

What aggravated our anger on that Friday 18 June 1976 was that coincidentally an Afrikaans test was due to be written on the very same day, ‘Praktiese Afrikaans’ as it was called.

However the attitude of the overwhelming majority of South Africans towards the Afrikaans language did not start nor end with June 1976. Growing up even in a place like Pietermaritzburg – the ‘last outpost of British colonialism’ - we associated the Afrikaans language with assault on our persons and dignity as black South Africans. We associated the Afrikaans language with insults endlessly thrown at black people, mistreatment and torture by the apartheid police, and generally the very hostile attitude of many white Afrikaner civil servants towards black people trying to access the very minimal and poor apartheid government services, from the Post Office to local ‘Bantu Administration’ offices. In short, I hated the Afrikaans language, and 1976 provided me with the very first opportunity to express this hatred for the language!

I am telling this story for two reasons. Firstly, could it be that the narrow approach being taken by the Freedom Front Plus towards the question of language in South Africa is as a result of the fact that ‘the guilty are afraid’; that those on whom Afrikaans was forcibly imposed would react in the same manner? Secondly, I am talking about part of my own experiences with the language not in order to re-open old wounds, but to say to Dr Mulder, with my joining of the ANC underground (and later the SACP) a decade later from 1976, and having ‘discovered’ Marxism in 1981, whilst a student at the now University of KwaZulu-Natal, assisted me greatly in starting a long ‘individual’ journey of reconciliation with Afrikaans as a language. And also to say that the majority of South Africans have also indeed reconciled with the language. In addition, this majority also understands the fact that Afrikaans is also spoken, as a first language, by a large section of a previously oppressed section of the black community in the Western Cape. Marxism, especially the Marxism-Leninism of the SACP, also taught (and liberated) me that it was not Afrikaans that was the fundamental problem in South Africa, stupid! It was the imperatives of class exploitation in a patriarchal, ‘colonialism of a special type’ society.

I studied Afrikaans as a language at school up to matric, and passed it, yet today I cannot speak the language. I wish I can speak it, as Afrikaans is indeed a beautiful language! I now truly believe that it is a language that must be protected and promoted as a South African language.

But how must this be done?

It is on this question that I have the most serious problems with Dr Mulder’s approach, and indeed with that of some sections of the white Afrikaner community. Much as the Freedom Front and others always try to throw in the ‘Brown Afrikaners’ in trying to advance their argument, there is no practical demonstration of serious concern about the Coloured Afrikaans speakers, but more about defending white Afrikaner privileges. We are yet to see a concerted campaign by white Afrikaners to improve, amongst other things, the situation of the Coloured schools in the Northern and Western Cape, for instance. Instead it is the ANC-led government in both provinces that is in the forefront of this task, especially in working class areas. The lesson that Dr Mulder needs to learn is that it is suicidal to use language to advance the interests of a white minority. It is such an approach that poses the biggest danger to Afrikaans as a language, not the so-called one-sidedness of the ANC.

I agree with Dr Mulder that English poses the most serious threat to Afrikaans, but the ANC is not to blame for this. English is a threat to all our other South African languages, even more so to the deliberately underdeveloped and under-resourced indigenous languages of South Africa, thanks to the ‘imperialism’ of Afrikaans under apartheid. As a matter of fact the indigenous African languages are much more under threat from the imperialism of English than Afrikaans, which by and large, as the General Secretary of SADTU, Cde Thulas Nxesi correctly observes, still remains the ‘second language of power in South Africa’, after English.

For a combination of sometimes very contradictory imperatives, English is the prime ‘imperial’ language in our country. This is as a result of our own colonial past, that English is also the language of the imperial centre, the United States, sitting uneasily with the reality that English has become the language of communication across the racial and ethnic divide in our country, and a language of accessing jobs and other opportunities. This however does not mean that we should simply succumb to these realities and not critically engage government’s language policies, both at school level and beyond, especially policies to develop all our languages.

Therefore the answer to this threat is not for sections of the Afrikaners to fight from a corner, speaking only for white Afrikaners. The challenge is for Afrikaners to throw in their lot with the majority of the South African people to promote and develop all South African languages. The language problem in South Africa is not an ‘Afrikaans language problem’ or an Afrikaner problem but is a broader South African problem that needs to be tackled as such.

Afrikaans as a language will not survive as a language if it only seeks to fight for its sole exclusive survival. A fight that must be waged in South Africa is that of the promotion of all her languages, especially the indigenous South African languages – the languages of the majority!

This also means that, much as we respect Dr Mulder’s legitimate fight for the survival of the Afrikaans language, he must also spend similar energies campaigning for every (white) Afrikaner to at least speak one African indigenous language. The future of Afrikaans is inextricably linked to that of all our languages. It is only this holistic, inclusive and non-racial approach that will guarantee the survival and development of all our languages. A narrow, parochial white Afrikaner approach to the language question can only lead to the destruction of the very Afrikaans language Dr Mulder seeks to protect. Ironically such (laager) mentality will do even more damage than the apartheid regime’s disastrous route towards destroying all of our languages – Afrikaans included! Similarly, what might appear as defiant and brave in singing of ‘De la Rey’ at Loftus Versfeld can only serve to isolate Afrikaners from the rest of South African society. The danger of boxing from a corner is that you can easily get knocked out!

How about an idea and challenge for Dr Mulder? Let us approach the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge (FAK), Die Afrikaanse Taal Museum en Monument, and other related organisations to embark on partnerships with initiatives trying to promote African indigenous languages, and for these Afrikaans organisations to share some of their resources and decades of experience in building the Afrikaans language? Wouldn’t this be a better way to contribute towards protecting and developing all our languages?

The SACP, as pioneers of non-racial politics in our country, is ready to engage Dr Mulder, the Freedom Front, and indeed the entire spectrum of Afrikaans speaking communities on these and other related questions.

Laat ons praat! Asikhulume!