Mother tongue: The Bo-Kaap and Cape Malay influenced the development of Afrikaans in SA, says the writer. Picture: Sisonke Mlamla
The Afrikaans language has gained traction in South Africa as the language of exclusion where black students and pupils are denied access to education. It is more known as the language of the oppressor which during the hard-core apartheid years of 1976 led to the uprisings in Soweto.

More recently, in the 2018 court case involving the Overvaal High School governing body and the Gauteng Department of Education (Hoërskool Overvaal v Panyaza Lesufi), the district director in the department refers to the Afrikaans language as, “a tool of segregation and discrimination during apartheid which 90% of South Africans bemoan, a language whose legacy is sorrow and tears to the majority of whom it was not their mother tongue”.

And yet, when we observe the national statistics, we find Afrikaans as the third-largest mother-tongue language in South Africa with Zulu being the largest and Xhosa in second place.

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English finds itself in the sixth place of the 11 official South African languages.

When we look at the census statistics of 2011 we see that the Afrikaans language speakers comprise of 50% coloured speakers, 40% white, 9% African and 1% Indian speakers. 

That means that in 2011, 602 000 African South Africans named Afrikaans as their mother tongue. As to Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor, it is certainly true that Afrikaans has been forced down the throats of the majority of South Africans.

This was part of the apartheid ideology of dominance, which also related to the dominance of their language. However, said Constitutional Court Judge Johan Froneman in his minority judgment in the University of the Free State case: “White Afrikaans speakers are becoming a minority of Afrikaans language users and there is now greater awareness of those Afrikaans speakers whose role in the origin and history of the language has been shamefully marginalised.”

This relates to the influence on Afrikaans by the Khoi people, the slaves, the broader South African society and not only white Afrikaner influences. 

Although, in the overbearing dominance of the apartheid state this is the space appropriated by the state and its institutions.

No, said Judge Froneman, “it is vital that their (the marginalised Afrikaans speakers) voices be heard about the future of Afrikaans and how that future will affect them”.

Here lies the challenge of Afrikaans, to present its inclusive and transformative face to a broader South Africa. 

Some white Afrikaans speakers according to Judge Froneman, have long chosen to walk an inclusive route that is not based on racial or other prejudice.

He then refers to white Afrikaans speakers who find it a painful, but also a liberating experience.

“We learn of our denial of our fellow Afrikaans speakers’ role in the origin of Afrikaans and our shameful disregard of their human dignity. But at the same time we also learn something new that makes us proud of the language: it was also part of the liberation Struggle.”

This is not to force Afrikaans on to the liberation Struggle, it’s just a fact. When I told a young radio host recently how we fought apartheid in Afrikaans in the Western Cape, his response was: “That must the quote of the evening! Could you explain that please?” It just emphasises the fact that we need to share our diverse experiences in our country much more.

The courageous fight of the Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad against the apartheid state, its unearthing of apartheid secrets during the states of emergency in Afrikaans needs a firmer place in our Struggle history. 

The vicious responses to Max du Preez, Jacques Pauw and Vrye Weekblad journalists by the apartheid state, where the courts were used to close it down, is part of the proud resistance history of Afrikaans.

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At the Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation we hosted two seminal seminars this year, one on African Afrikaans speakers, with three African journalists sharing their experiences, insights and passions for the Afrikaans language. The other concerned the Bo-Kaap and the influence of Cape Malay on the development of Afrikaans.

Here we were taken into the heart of Afrikaans coming from the east, from Java, India, Madagascar. We understand the stereotypes that have developed around the Afrikaans language.

Yet, while these stereotypes about the language, as well as the fears around the language’s continued existence continue to abound in present-day South Africa, Afrikaans as a language is alive and well in South Africa.

People speak it, live it and enjoy it. In fact, last year, with approximately 50 000 matriculants sitting for the Afrikaans mother-tongue matriculation examination, approximately 120 000 matriculants wrote Afrikaans as non-mother-tongue speakers. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

* Dr Danny Titus is the executive head: corporate relations at the ATKV. He is also a part-time commissioner at the SA Human Rights Commission.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus