STANDING TALL: The Taalmonument, overlooking Paarl, was erected in 1975 to commemorate the semi-centenary of Afrikaans as an official language.

Afrikaans as an official language of the country approaches 100 years of age: It received the governmental stamp of approval (as “official”) in 1925. In advance of this historical landmark, my writing today focuses aspects of the story of Afrikaans – including remembrance of the pioneer Afrikaans poet Sidney Vernon Petersen – SV as he was popularly known.

Our writing, of course, remains ensconced in the mould of cultural diversity – the latter entailing a moving between different behaviours, to mutual enrichment. (I have been fortunate growing up in this atmosphere of open spiritual exchange.)

For us, the cultural areas involved are those of the languages stipulated in our constitution – English, Afrikaans and Xhosa being the trinity of expression pertinent to us in the Western Cape. Today I relate some of my Afrikaans experience to English readers, but also to Afrikaans readers (who may be re-informed by this recounting).

A report on “Afrikaans at 90” could, of course, be given variously: Formally, with technical detail – a statement of personages involved; of dates and issues around the language, and responses to them; and so on. Or it could be given quite personally, and be a warmer, more human narrative. I am taking the latter route, thus remaining within the bounds of true story-telling.

The authoritative dictionary of Afrikaans (Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal, WAT) defines “Afrikaans” as the “language of the Afrikaner, which has developed mainly from Dutch” (die taal van die Afrikaner, wat in hoofsaak uit Nederlands ontwikkel het). Over time, one of the questions around the language has been (rather naïvely): Who are the Afrikaners? The vast majority of Afrikaans-speakers are coloured (at the moment approaching 3 500 000 persons out of a total of approximately 6 900 000 people – coloured, black, white, Indian and others). Are coloured people Afrikaners? This query has led to a great deal of foolish acrimony in political circles: Apartheid, indeed, has twisted the minds of many, and greatly wasted our brief time in life.

I proceed to bring readers far more uplifting tidings from the world of Afrikaans. Every language, of course, has its dark side – which we cannot just ignore and turn a blind eye to.

Just previous to entering UCT as a student, I was at school with the Christian Brothers in Athlone on the Cape Flats, the subjects favouring me (!) being Afrikaans and Physical Science – and clandestinely (with no reference to the school curriculum) I took to Philosophy. It was a good time for me, in spite of (or perhaps because of) my penchant for lonesomeness. I persuaded our school principal to arrange a meeting for me with the poet SV Petersen (who was then headmaster of a high school in Athlone). So I met Petersen, a man twenty and more years my senior. In his work, he identified himself as a “child of Cain”, in line with the title of one of his books, Die kinders van Kain. Petersen treasured individuality (in Kierkegaard’s sense), characterising himself as an enkeling and a stil kind (silent child). Furthermore he wrote with fine sensibility about the comings and goings of the people of District Six (in his short novel As die Son Ondergaan – “When the sun sets”).

On the surface, SV appeared stern and somewhat morose. In truth, he was a friendly person, his only obsession being Afrikaans and its poetry – and, of course, his uncompromising individuality. In later years he would often visit me in Athlone where, as director of an NGO, I busied myself in community work.

I shared this with Petersen: Scripture persuaded us both that God was a highly skilled linguist, taking in all the world’s languages, also our official ones (including English and Afrikaans). After all:

In the beginning was the Word

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God

(John 1: 1)

It was always pleasant for me to sit down and talk with Petersen. His insistence on individuality did not contradict sociality. He brought cognisance of and a respect for this value to the Afrikaans world. I am confident that, through his effort, its moral significance has been well-impressed on our Afrikaans environment. Petersen’s Afrikaans included all our people: South Africa, indeed, “belongs to all who live in it” – hence the language, in the wake of Petersen’s work, cannot be considered simplistically as the “language of the oppressor” or of Apartheid, in the same way that English has never been (only) the language of colonialism, but also the language of Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wordsworth, Dylan Thomas…

Petersen’s work has, sadly and for shadowy reasons, often been glossed and passed over in certain Afrikaans quarters. My view is that he has written some of the finest poetry of Afrikaans and of South African literature (in fact of literature in the wide world). He was never awarded the Hertzog Prize, though his poetry is probably of a higher calibre than that of some Nobel Prize winners. As far as the latter is concerned, he joins Van Wyk Louw, thus finding himself in good company: Louw’s poetry undoubtedly is of an alloy equal to that of any Nobel laureate. (So much for prizes!)

Petersen’s sense of paradox and irony was superb. He was, for instance, greatly mindful and caring about “the many” (the so-called “man in the street”), but derided the lack of integrity that too often exists in this Lebensraum. I translate, freely, his beautifully satirical Die vele:

They live, always in debt,

till Friday night, and tight,

with scant foresight,

until the month’s end.

Hell-bent on being well-dressed,

they treat each other

to sympathy at very best.

On Sundays they are vocal in the church,

but on Mondays lurch

to common reckless swearing

when they’re back at work.

They grow ill at times, but rise again

– ultimately all in vain.

As behoves their estate

they rear children by the droves,

careless of what becomes of them.

The long years come, the long years go,

they squander God’s commandments so:

At last they “go on pension”,

piously at peace with God and man.

Petersen was born in Riversdal on the Garden Route June 22, 1914 and died October 30, 1987. I attended the funeral of this “quiet child”. He was a contemporary of my father’s – they were at school together in Cape Town on the edge of District Six. When my father died in 1986, he looked in at the memorial service. In character, he sat down quietly, not nodding a greeting to anyone, and after the event offered a lift to Joseph, a friendly local seeker of alms (one of “the many”), then left quietly as he had come.

A further thought on the “weather” that Afrikaans brings and has brought for us. When Van Wyk Louw died in 1970 I wrote a short “obituary” for the philosopher-poet, published in the Afrikaans press. Thinking and reading back into that past: My thoughts were well-formed then, though still in need of mature literary style. Also, in spite of my appreciation of Louw’s genius, I admit his lapses: Even he could not divorce himself entirely from unpleasant jargon such as “bantoe” and “naturel” – the time-warp trapped even him.

In a letter of appreciation to me, dated July 1961 (from the University of the Witwatersrand, where he found himself at the time), he confirms his abhorrence of Apartheid, and asks the intellectual question: What can our kind of person do about this evil, except write against it and speak against it, where and whenever we can?

Some considered Louw’s position to be “sinful”! Verwoerd (the man was a paragon of efficient inefficiency!) questioned Louw’s Afrikanership – himself having being born in Holland! Van Wyk, of course, allowed for Verwoerd’s Dutchness as one point of access to universality, but the arrogant petty politician addressed Louw harshly (with no understanding whatsoever) when Louw raised the pertinently profound question: What is Peoplehood? (Wat is ’n volk?) – in his drama Die pluimsaad waai ver (“Plumeseed is blown far”). One does not ask what is a volk, he pontificated Louw, one simply praises the volk and its greatness.

This closes the circle of our theme. A “people”, Louw concluded (totally against the grain of Verwoerd’s thinking), derives “from dust” and are of all sorts, “employers and employees, train-drivers, fitters and turners, motorists, front-page girls, an anonymous mass – each with an own nature and name…” There are “the good, the bad, the timid and the brave, none holy before God, all sinners – yet no brave one is always brave, no scared one always scared…” And “all are sifted and thrashed by life, and tested in the furnace…”

Not only is Louw’s poetry immaculate, but his wisdom is shaped by sheer thought. His “definition” of peoplehood holds for any congregation of persons in the world. And there can be no such thing as a “rainbow nation” (this is nonsensical prattle). The “nation” is always rather grey – a far more modest thing than brightly-coloured reality. We fool ourselves to have such lofty ideas about ourselves. And only to the extent that we realise this, can true cultural exchange take place.

The image of a road traffic circle helps us to appreciate the beauty of human cross-cultural existence with mutual tolerance and respect, and the promotion of each other’s life. When arriving at a circle, one takes care to yield to vehicles coming in from another angle, let them through, and only then moves on – and others do likewise. If one does not follow this decency, you may cause a serious crash.

In conclusion: I feel safe to report that “Afrikaans at 90” has by and large learnt all I have suggested here, and now communes handsomely with English (and our other languages) that, in turn, no longer need think of Afrikaans, in the poet Leipoldt’s words, as a strange secretary bird “with long, long legs and odd-looking spikes behind the ears, strutting stockily who knows where”.

Still, I am cautious about the literary stature of the language in the forseeable future.

An older generation is passing, and a younger coterie of writers are not cheering us with truly important work – at least not in poetry and drama: Yes, there is a considerable body of academically-learned, clever writing, but almost nothing deeply felt, deeply lived, deeply moving. And a most disturbing phenomenon is the emergence of a type of vile-worded “literature”, an oeuvre of vulgarity, which threatens the fibre of dignity that a language simply must have and hold on to.

For myself, living in Afrikaans and English as I do – experiencing life in and through both – everything is a mooiste, mooiste maand (Leipoldt’s description) – a world of

lush lucerne,

green leaves,

blue flowers

and red aloes,

with the smell

of sweet keurbos

all around

– a world that meets that of our Eastern Cape’s red-blooming aloes and Wordsworth’s English daffodils

that float on high o’er vales and hills,

fluttering and dancing in the breeze:

In such a jocund company

a poet cannot but be gay.