Afrikaners celebrate language they fear may vanish

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Apr 27 13:54:22 UTC 2005

>>From Reuters India.

 Afrikaners celebrate language they fear may vanish

                  Tue April 26, 2005 10:08 PM GMT+05:30

                  By Anton Ferreira

                  OUDTSHOORN, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa's
Afrikaans language is perhaps best known for the term "apartheid", but for
a new generation of Afrikaans-speakers the most important word in their
lexicon is "jol" -- to party.  Tens of thousands of Afrikaners flocked to
the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn for a recent week-long celebration of
their language at the Little Karoo National Arts Festival.

                  Now in its 11th year, the festival has become one of the
most important events in South Africa's cultural landscape, offering a
range of shows from rock music through theatre, art and public debate to
opera, all in Afrikaans.  Even the works of Shakespeare and Federico
Garcia Lorca have been translated into the language that gave the world
the phrase "slegs blankes" -- whites only.

                  Not that all Afrikaans speakers are white. The language
is also the mother tongue for the majority of South Africa's four
million-strong "Coloured", or mixed-race, community which is increasingly
staking its claim to the language.  But most of the festival-goers in
Oudtshoorn are white Afrikaners and -- despite copious consumption of beer
and braaivleis (barbecued meat) -- there was plenty of evidence that this
was an ethnic minority that fears for the survival of its language and its

                  From being the dominant force in South Africa for much
of the last century, imposing the system of oppressive racial segregation
known as apartheid (separateness), South Africa's roughly 2.5 million
Afrikaners have seen the tables turned.  Eleven years since the country's
first all-race elections, South Africa's Afrikaners now complain they are
denied jobs because of the colour of their skins, and some are locked in a
bitter struggle with the black-led government over the right to educate
their children in their mother tongue.

                  TALKING POLITICS

                  Afrikaans, derived from the Dutch of the first white
settlers and influenced by the Malay spoken by imported slaves, was for
decades promoted by the apartheid government as the main language of white
officialdom.  It sparked political outrage in 1976 when schoolchildren in
the black Johannesburg township of Soweto took to the streets to protest
against the forced teaching of Afrikaans in schools.  The government's
harsh response, which saw police shoot and kill one Soweto student,
spurred escalating urban unrest which eventually persuaded South Africa's
white rulers to abandon their monopoly on power.

                  Now recognised as one of South Africa's 11 official
languages, Afrikaans remains politically fraught.  Some Afrikaners
complain that it is being replaced by English in schools and universities
and on radio and television as part of a plot to eradicate it altogether
while indigenous languages such as Zulu and Xhosa benefit from government
programmes designed to encourage their use.  At the Little Karoo festival,
Afrikaners demonstrated a range of reactions to the new reality.

                  Author Rian Malan, whose memoir "My Traitor's Heart" is
one of the most widely read books about modern South Africa, made his
debut at the festival as a song-writer with an ironic take on the plight
of his people.  Audiences cheered "Renaissance", a song named for
President Thabo Mbeki's vision of economic prosperity in Africa, which
describes the trials of a white man looking for a job in a country where
it is official policy to promote opportunities for the "previously
disadvantaged", i.e. blacks.  "Afrikaans has become a lot more attractive
now that it is no longer the property of the NGK (Nederlandse
Gereformeerde Kerk, a conservative religious denomination) and the Nats
(the former ruling party during apartheid)," Malan told Reuters.

                  The waning influence of the straight-laced, conservative
Afrikaner old guard was apparent in the popularity of a rash of irreverent
Afrikaner rock bands.

                  SPEAKING OF HISTORY

                  Many Afrikaners feel they have much to apologise for,
given the misery that apartheid meant for the black majority, but are
trying to divorce the language from its links with apartheid architects
like the late prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.  "There are still two
factions (in Afrikaans),"  singer/author Koos Kombuis told a public
discussion at the festival. "One faction wants to go back to before the
Great Trek (the 17th century migration of Afrikaners into the South
African interior). That won't work. We are not alone in South Africa. We
must build bridges."

                  But right winger Dan Roodt, who heads an organisation
called the Pro-Afrikaans Activist Group, said in a radio interview from
the festival that the Mbeki government was waging a type of "ethnic
cleansing" against Afrikaans.  "We see it in the reduced role of Afrikaans
in education and in the changing of the names of our cities," he said,
referring to the scrapping of names like Pretoria and Pietersburg that
celebrated Afrikaner heroes.

                  But other Afrikaans-speakers argued that rethinking the
connection between Afrikaans, Afrikaners and Africa might prove the
language's salvation.  "Who came up with the bad idea that Afrikaans
belongs to white people?" Coloured writer E.K.M. Dido asked at a public
discussion.  "This living flowing, flexible language with all its facets
is mine, yours and all of ours ... don't try to oppress my language
because Afrikaans stands back for no language in the world," she said.

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