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Taal | Language > Taaldebat | Language Debate > Essays & Referate | Essays & Papers

Is Afrikaans an anti-colonial victory language or an oppressors’ language?


FM Lucky Mathebula - 2009-11-06

South African history is in a process of being rewritten, being given new appendices and/or in a continuous state of redefining itself. The process is unfortunately muddied by the various historical contributions of the country’s nationals, especially in terms of defining who the victors are in the broad anti-colonial struggle. The contestation for this position has, and fortunately, escaped the wrath of being a political mobilisation rallying point notwithstanding its spasmodic appearance in side-show discourses often led by the politically naive and uninformed.

Despite the Nelson Mandela sponsored reconciliation path as evidenced in the CODESA negotiations and the 1994 government of national unity arrangements, the often underplayed reason for the maturing political “toenaderings” among South Africans is that of an unwritten anti-colonial pact between the dominant “white tribe” of South Africa and the post 1994-political elite. It is not a coincidence that the primary reference points for South Africa’s political history are the National Party and the African National Congress, which were birthed just a year apart and both with an intention to “decolonise” South Africa.

The ANC’s key rallying point at a time of its formation was in the main an anti-colonial agenda that had to be sponsored by the co-operation of all tribes in South Africa. The National Party’s movement was equally premised on the need to decolonise South Africa and establish a sovereign country, in the then terms, a republic. These political aspirations triggered two streams of anti-colonial liberation struggle that were completed in their own right and merit at different times. In the political history of certain sections of the South African community the 1961 declaration of South Africa as a republic represents a political milestone in the “volksbou” project, notwithstanding the absence of a satisfactory answer to who the “volk” was.

While the post-1961 republic was celebrated as a milestone, the in-lag liberation struggle was intensified with an armed struggle being launched as well as a form of colonialism being lionised in definition terms. The 1961 anti-colonial breakthrough almost bankrupted the moral high ground of the ANC- and PAC-led anti-colonial struggles. The rescue package included a concerted effort by the continuing liberation movement to define apartheid as a colonialism of a special type, where the colonised and coloniser were sharing geographical borders. This anti-colonial struggle was pursued whilst the 1961 anti-colonial victors were consolidating the new South African state within an “independent context”.

Critical in the consolidation was the drive to decolonise South Africa and its sovereignty mindset. The key driver of the decolonisation process was the entrenchment through legislation and other means the cultural dominance of Afrikanerdom in all aspects of South African life. In pure anti-colonial terms the assignment was meticulously executed in the sense that by 1971 Afrikaans had grown to become a language of science and commerce. This elevation of Afrikaans created space for mother-tongue instruction at all levels of educational experience, and as a consequence a mindset was established in both ethic and culture terms. The competitiveness of South Africa on the global stage suddenly had as a conduit the Afrikaans language, albeit to the exclusion of “non-Afrikaans-choosing” South Africans, and particularly Africans according to today's definition of black people.

In his memoir Ngugi declares that the instruction of a nation in a second language creates in that nation strangers to national culture. It is in this context that the accessing of information for science and commercial application is bound to carry with it the often not so pronounced superiority and inferiority nuances inherent in the transporting language. The first form of cultural and thus all other defeats is to subjugate language and by extension obliterate through literature and art the traditional orientation of the colonised. The Afrikaans “assignment” succeeded in removing itself from this vulnerability; it is in fact surprising to note that, in the main, Afrikaner literature celebrates the South African environment and landscape with indigenous passion.

It is in this context that South Africans should have an honest dialogue on whether Afrikaans is an anti-colonial victory language or a language of the oppressor. The inquest should interrogate to what extent BJ Vorster's 1976 arrogance damaged society’s potential to embrace with no reservation Afrikaans as a language of science and commerce. We should also interrogate to what extent the Anton Rupert vision of defining “coloureds” as Afrikaners contributed to the growing influence of the “coloured” community in the science and technology field because they can access such in their “default mother tongue”.

The tension around dual-medium schools and universities should be contextualised within this prism. The inability of the majority to embrace Afrikaans as a language of science will, if unchecked, continue to produce leaders that perpetually believe solutions to this country’s problems lie outside our borders. This is simply because solutions written in Afrikaans are overlooked.