Afrikaans is not the enemy; losing diversity is

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To argue that it is not the task of a university to ensure the continuation of a language’s creative possibilities and usage is nonsense, writes Breyten Breytenbach 

If Afrikaans as a language of communication, administration and education is branded a heresy here and shrinks, it will eventually lead to the inevitable demise of a precious and varied instrument of awakening.

It will bring about the delegitimisation of Afrikaans, marginalise the people whose mother tongue it is and rob them of a heritage – and therefore of the possibility to develop their potential to everyone’s benefit.

We must remove the masks and cease the heinous South African practice and art of double talk and double think.

If we do not have clarity about who we are and where we want to go, we will be forced into unacceptable and embarrassing compromises that will leave everyone dissatisfied.

The whining about language is the tip of the iceberg. This discussion is symptomatic of a more serious situation: that there is no clarity about the vital interaction among all the levels of South African society in this country, where everyone belongs, and all are responsible for a future that must be shared.

The ruling party has failed miserably in its mission to make something positive for all the citizens out of the construct “South Africa” that should have been built on justice and human dignity. The perception was created and promoted that it is about an anti-colonial or anti-neocolonial process.

And we are told that “fixing” this means that everything of value to the people, everything that is an example of excellence, must be destroyed to create space for justice.

Attention is diverted from the first and most fundamental and most existential interaction an institution of higher education should have with its environment – its ability to nurture. It is unclear what a university should comply with on this continent.

The politically ambitious believe – perhaps with good intentions, perhaps cynically, certainly short-sightedly – that they can be new Africans, citizens of the world, by denying and giving up the local with a collective push towards equalisation through the lowest common denominator.

In the process, they deny the nature of our hybridisation.

Students are led to believe that Afrikaans is the obstacle and bigger problems will disappear with the adoption of a general alienation, accompanied by a misrepresentation of the nature and challenges of the fight.

Students are kept away from a revealing confrontation with real equality and transformational potential through multilingualism.

True, the students stand (or dance) in front of established interests and enclaves of privilege. They are the ones who should chase – out of the salons where they are drowning in corruption – the leadership corps of incompetent cadres who hijacked the country and misled the people in the name of liberation.

Ideally, they will also be able to resist the commodification of institutions of education and research. And all this in a confused world where we slowly discover there are no clear ideological options coming out of the devastation, on a planet being destroyed by the greed of the powerful and the blind survival instinct of refugees.

To argue it is not the task of a university to ensure the continuation of a language’s creative possibilities and usage is nonsense.

One yearns for the establishment of a university here in the heartland where so much acculturation has taken place and the remaking of coexistence is still possible, where, despite the uncertainties, but also with the possibilities it offers, a revolutionary and perhaps even Utopian humanism can be formed.

Why not? What prevents you, apart from your anxious self-punishment on the one hand and an ill-considered populism on the other?

The hiccup is the unquestioned assumption that English will be the “language of record” – after all, the other languages are additives – and in this way the majority of South Africans of all backgrounds are alienated in the same way from the use and development of their mother tongues as a medium of instruction.

Aren’t we all equal here? Yes, but some are more equal than others.

What we lack is the fearlessness of moral imagination. It’s clear that the limited space that is given to Afrikaans is becoming smaller by the day – because the mobilisation of cultural hostility against Afrikaans is the easiest way to divert the attention of a frustrated population from the real causes of their backlog, because it is more mobilising (and a catharsis of self-destruction) to pour over the cliff in a snorting herd to the second-class status of supposed world citizenship than to think one’s way through the difficult road to the complexities and rich varieties of South African society.

The real danger is the growing abyss between rich and poor, between the privileged on one hand – including the deployed caterpillars and grasshoppers – and the less fortunate on the other – including, still, coloured people and a growing majority of white people.

Precisely for this reason we must continue to prove that university spaces exist as resourceful and nourishing parts of the greater whole.

Universities where Afrikaans is used, and where there is therefore a realisation of the value of multilingualism and the existence of the living means of communication that we experience as “language” – where it is regarded as usable and as a portal to the deeper realisation of a shared humanity – are not ghettos or sanctuaries for the previously privileged.

“It is undone for the Afrikaner to be the overdog,” our dear Professor Sampie Terreblanche apparently once said. Indeed, Afrikaans needs no protected status or exceptional pampering.

Only the space in which it can continue to make an essential contribution to the country’s development; only the dispensation of common sense that can ensure it is not maliciously painted black like the proverbial pig in the story of a search for dignity and justice.

And it is important for us to say it loud and clear. Non-participation in national debates cannot be prescribed as the price to be paid by minorities for conditional acceptance as fellow citizens.

That nonsense is a dead cow dug from the trench by pious whites to be milked for the venom of division and moral blackmail. Common sense tells us, and the Constitution guarantees it: we are all citizens with the same rights.

We are not provisional or separately developed or silenced temporary citizens with suspended or wasteful citizenship; not those who are ashamed or claim that language is just a bizarre fetish and a small sacrifice to bring to the altar of reconciliation.

. Breytenbach is an artist and writer. This is an edited and translated version of a talk he delivered to the university’s convocation last week

Are public universities offering courses in Afrikaans doing anything wrong?

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