How we have been stripped of our mother tongue


I have been invited to speak at a conference in March.
If I had one wish, these days, it would be that I could address the audience in my mother tongue, Afrikaans.
The problem is that I am unable to have a discussion on anything serious; on politics, economics, philosophy or any of the social or natural sciences for that matter in that language.
I am of the 1976 generation, a reference to those of us who had to leave school or the country in a hurry in that year after we protested against Afrikaans instruction in black schools.
It’s a long story.
I claim no great deeds … My grasp of and ability to speak the language is terribly poor.
I can speak only a very basic version.
Until they died four years ago, my parents were the only people with whom I spoke Afrikaans on every occasion, interspersed with English.
Beyond that, I spoke a version of Afrikaans to childhood friends in the coloured townships of Johannesburg, where I grew up for most of my life.
Deeper in the south-western townships of that city, we spoke a patois that included Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Sotho and Tswana words, and phrases that were graphic and expressive.
It is still my favourite way of speaking, but there are fewer and fewer people who can speak the patois.
It is sometimes called flytaal and sometimes tsotsi taal.
The formal Afrikaans, suiwer (pure) Afrikaans, is always a problem – at least for me it is.
After that break in 1976, my formal instruction and reading in Afrikaans stopped, abruptly.
I taught myself English, picked up a few languages in other parts of the world and moved on.
Why am I writing all this? Well, I really would love to give my contribution to the March conference in Afrikaans for two reasons.
The audience will be mainly Afrikaans and, well, I would like to make some kind of a statement.
I have been assured by the organisers that I could make my contribution in English, which kind of robs me of the opportunity to make the statement. The statement is this. Afrikaans is my mother tongue.
And while everyone in SA is concerned with their own cultural heritage, an important part of which is their mother tongue, some of us are robbed of the opportunity to speak the language.
We’re triple-whipped, actually.
The first whipping came when descendants of the French and Dutch Hugenots, Germans and other Europeans took the language first codified by slaves brought to the Cape from South-East Asia, and adopted it as the sole possession of (white) Afrikaners.
By one historical account, Afrikaans developed as the result of slaves trying to communicate with their mainly Dutch-speaking owners.
Evidence shows that Afrikaans was spoken in mosques in the Cape and that the first Afrikaans was written in Arabic script.
You get the sense that some Afrikaners will not like that very much.
Anyway, the second whipping came when the language was used, by the Afrikaners in the 20th century, as a form of power and control.
It became “the language of the oppressor”.
And you only need to have a conversation with some of them to see the way the language is deployed when they address a person of colour …
Remember, now, there was the first whipping when the language was reportedly appropriated from slave communities. The second whipping came when the language was used as an instrument of power and dominance.
It is, now, the language of the oppressor.
This brings us to the third whipping.
We may not speak the language, nor can it be preserved.
Let me say, in haste, that I don’t care for the ethno-nationalism of Afriforum, or the expedient claims that whites are now being marginalised and bullied.
That’s just people using spurious claims to (re)position themselves.
What does bother me is that there are people among us, black people, who would insist that we may not or should not speak or protect Afrikaans.
There are, to be sure, very many difficulties around the way the language was used as a means of power, dominance and control.
Very many of the people it has come to represent are not exactly the most open-minded.
But wilful destruction of another person’s cultural artefacts is just cruel, whether it’s the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, or the original language of the coloured people – for which they have remained tied to the whipping post for generations from Cape Town to Kimberly and across the country.
So, I am going to have to prepare my contribution to the March conference in English, but make damn sure that I say a few words in Afrikaans – even if it’s kombuis Afrikaans, or flytaal...

This article is reserved for HeraldLIVE subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all our content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Already registered on DispatchLIVE, BusinessLIVE, TimesLIVE or SowetanLIVE? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.