We are the Afrikaans language's worst enemies

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Max du Preez

One country, one language, I heard the Cosas activists chant during a march in Stellenbosch two weeks ago.

The language these angry young people were talking about, is the language of the British Empire that had colonised South Africa and many other African states and had systematically brutalised indigenous people for centuries.

The young people’s target, the language they hate and want to get rid of, is an indigenous language, the third biggest spoken in South Africa. Most of the speakers of this language are the descendants of the First Peoples, classified “coloured” by apartheid.

What should we call this phenomenon that elevates a language brought here by a colonial power higher than all South Africa’s indigenous languages? Ignorance? An inferiority complex? Opportunism?

During the discourse of protest at universities and among the black middle class the last few months Afrikaans is being equated blindly with racism, white privilege, a symbol of apartheid and a longing for the past.

If one can actually attach political and moral values to languages, what would that say about German, French, Portuguese and English?

Alas, it isn’t this simple.

We have to investigate why the Afrikaans language is resented by so many and whether these reasons are still valid today.

We white Afrikaners have over generations claimed this beautiful language as our own and made it a symbol of exclusive Afrikaner nationalism.

We made it a language of the white baas, the pious dominee and the rough policeman; we dressed it in an apartheid jacket and gave it jackboots and a sjambok.

We forced the language down the throats of children of other cultures.

We looked down our noses at those who spoke a different variant of Afrikaans than us.

Unlike most other dominant groups in history, we fortunately did not hang on to power when we were under pressure and 25 years ago we negotiated an open democracy in exchange for guarantees for our individual rights and freedoms.

It was a good thing we did and we got a lot of credit for it. For a short while we were back in the bosom of the broader community and Afrikaans was regarded as an African language and a national asset.

So what had changed? Why is Afrikaans the black sheep of our indigenous languages once again, why does it elicit such strong emotions?

I think it is because too many of us white Afrikaners thought we deserved praise for our “sacrifice”, our letting go of power and that we could simply continue with our privileged lives as if there were no yesterday.

We didn’t understand that 1994 was just the opening of a door and the beginning of a journey we had to make to live down our past.

We did not open up our institutions like churches, schools and universities and invite others to share in the fruits of our success.

We became possessive about Afrikaans again as if it were our property rather than sharing it and marketing it as a communal language of the African soil.

We started using the language as a tool of exclusion once again.

We started withdrawing into a laager, and before long we were playing victim again.

Here is an example of the kind of behaviour that had sent the completely wrong message to our compatriots.

In recent years we successfully developed several big cultural festivals where Afrikaans was celebrated. And then we allowed these festivals to be abused to take symbols of the ugly apartheid past out of the cupboard and polish it in public among great cheer.

It happened again at the Aardklop Festival in Potchefstroom last week when Steve Hofmeyr sang the apartheid anthem, Die Stem.

It isn’t against the law. It’s just stupid, reactionary and offensive.

We are our own and the Afrikaans language’s greatest enemies.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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