A vision for Afrikaans

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  1. Introductory remarks

I approach this vision for Afrikaans necessarily from my position as an Afrikaans literary scholar, and not primarily as a linguist who keeps a close eye on developments in the language from a more scientific viewpoint. At the same time, I realise that everyone who is serious about Afrikaans can make a contribution to offer thoughts about the road ahead for Afrikaans. My vision departs from the recent commotion about the language situation, and is necessarily a personal and, perhaps, ephemeral gauging of the challenges facing Afrikaans, and an attempt to identify potential growth points for the language. My arguments are informed by the following issues: the various energies present in the Afrikaans language community, the role of Afrikaans institutions, the variants of Afrikaans and, inevitably, the position of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in the university sector.

  1. Two complementary energies in the Afrikaans language community

In the Afrikaans-speaking community, there are currently at least two parallel energies that are making an imprint on the promotion of Afrikaans. On the one hand, there are those who are firmly focused on embracing an activist approach in their attempts to secure language rights for Afrikaans, not infrequently seeking recourse in legal action. The activities of the Gelyke Kanse initiative and Solidariteit come to mind as examples devoted to challenging the language policies of a number of universities in a court of law. On the other hand, there are initiatives focused on cultural projects doing invaluable work in promoting Afrikaans language and culture. The Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV), the Stigting vir die Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans (SBA) and the various arts festivals are examples of bodies that are resolutely engaged in developmental work. Sadly, these parallel energies or streams, ie the language rights movements and the groups doing promotional work in the areas of language and culture, rarely combine their efforts. Quite often, the language rights movements tend to adopt a shrill discourse that alienates many, whereas the language and culture organisations often remain stuck in a naïve conviction that it is sufficient simply to speak Afrikaans, and to remain oblivious to the power struggles that have dramatic implications for Afrikaans. It is important that all of these movements continue their much appreciated work, but, in my view, there is still the dearth of a winning formula that combines the promotion of cultural excellence with an imaginative campaign to secure language rights. The two energies operating in the interest of the maintenance and promotion of Afrikaans should start to take note of one another, so as to converge in a direction that will lead to real and meaningful results. Language activists could appropriate something of the charm and enthusiasm that characterises the constructive work of someone like Marlene le Roux from the SBA. Conversely, cultural organisations could make a more concerted effort to incorporate into their projects the thorough historical grounding of someone like Hermann Giliomee, or the legal discipline that infuses the work of Jan Heunis or Danie Rossouw.

Hermann Giliomee (photo: Naomi Bruwer)

  1. The value of Afrikaans institutions

With my remarks above, I am, in fact, already approaching an issue that, in my view, deserves closer attention in elaborating a future vision for Afrikaans. There may be some truth in the comment made by poet and translator Daniel Hugo at the Tuin van Digters festival in 2016, that the infrastructure of Afrikaans is currently caving in from the top. I suspect that he aimed his warning primarily at the situation at universities such as Stellenbosch, Pretoria, the Free State and UNISA. For many decades, these institutions formed part of the infrastructure that promoted Afrikaans in her more advanced functions. Yet, with the new partiality towards English in their language policies, 2016 became known in some circles as a crisis year for Afrikaans. Furthermore, the infrastructure of Afrikaans also includes the variety of institutions dedicated to the maintenance and promotion of Afrikaans. Among these are the Suider-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, the Afrikaanse Taalraad, the Afrikaans media, the great dictionary of Afrikaans (the WAT), faith communities and cultural organisations, such as the SBA, the ATKV, the FAK, the Vriende vir Afrikaans, etc. With the prevailing unstable political climate in South Africa, the “junk status” of the economy, corruption and mismanagement becoming increasingly rife and funding opportunities disappearing at an alarming rate, it is essential that the adverse effect on the well-being of Afrikaans should be countered by the strengthening and renewal of institutions that were established over many years to look after the interests of Afrikaans. The strengthening of these institutions dedicated to Afrikaans may also lead to improved cohesion in the broader South African society, and may contribute to greater stability and prosperity nationwide. As a student, I had the opportunity to participate in an educational visit for students to France. During this visit, my hosts dragged me along to a public lecture on “Les institutions de France”, which, at the time, did not make much sense to me; however, in our current climate, the penny is finally dropping for me. In turbulent times, it is important to look after the well-being of established institutions as a way to prevent rapid decline and demoralisation.

Photo: Liné Enslin

Marita van der Vyver and Bibi Slippers

Hence, Afrikaans institutions deserve greater support and nurturing, even in cases where institutions may come across as rather elderly and dusty. A heaped spoonful of sparkling vitality à la Bibi Slippers, HemelBesem or Marita van der Vyver could loosen up the stiff joints of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. The annual award ceremonies of the Akademie, which tend to be rather tedious and old-fashioned, could benefit from a thorough overhaul. Lessons can be learnt from the imaginative way that NB Publishers approach their award ceremonies. Masters of Ceremonies from different walks of life are tasked to lead the proceedings with energy and charm. The audience does not have to sit through a series of predictable commendations all uniformly presented on stage, but can look forward to the screening of filmed inserts replacing the usual format of the commendations. Of course, there are many other possibilities for bringing about renewal. What should be abundantly clear is that younger academics and cultural movers and shakers for Afrikaans are included in ways that challenge them and inspire a new enthusiasm. The best way to achieve this aim is to include them in the proceedings, and to combine youthful energy with the gravitas of well-established traditions and ongoing excellence.

  1. The power of language variety

Amy Jephta

The Afrikaans language community should continue to address persistent historical divisions that are still haunting the present. I feel inspired by the achievements of the ATKV, the Afrikaanse Taalraad, the SBA and, more recently, Afrikaans.com in recognising diversity, even if diversity may occasionally come across as a concept that is used willy-nilly, or harnessed to point fingers at interest groups dedicated to the attainment of clearly defined objectives. I look forward to the day when white and coloured speakers of Afrikaans naturally claim ownership of their language, and coloured speakers duly shun any attempt to denigrate the language varieties that they cherish as their own. I am excited by the many strong voices that are currently speaking up in Kaaps. Listening to Kaaps in a film such as Noem my skollie or in an excellent play like Kristalvlakte by Amy Jephta, one is struck by the absurdity of dismissing Kaaps as little more than a “jokey language”. Devotion, refinement and a strong intellectual orientation are abundantly present in these noteworthy works of art in Kaaps.

Everyone pleading for a stronger foothold for Kaaps deserves ample opportunity to do just that, and it will be to the benefit of us all if, with due interest and tangible support, we start to explore spaces for Kaaps to be heard and expressed in spaces where it has been excluded for far too long. Words such as kwaailappies (“awesome”), dala (“argue” or “do”) and haraam (“forbidden”) should be heard more frequently on radio and television. Although Kaaps should not be considered as the only language used by coloured South Africans in the different corners of South Africa and Namibia, the energy that animates the many imaginative initiatives around Kaaps is probably one of the most exciting developments in the language scene at the moment. It is important to take heed of the comments made by poet and teacher Shirmoney Rhode, that the children at her school are inclined to prefer English, as they feel inhibited, within the more formal context of the school grounds, to speak Kaaps freely. This opens the debate about the need for a fresh look at the standardisation of Afrikaans, to secure a meaningful place in standard Afrikaans for the largest variant of the language. Or, would this be seen as an opportunistic co-optation of Kaaps to ease Afrikaans out of a difficult phase in its existence? The contributions of experts such as Gerda Odendaal, Gerhard van Huyssteen and Michael le Cordeur may offer more solid pointers for the way ahead.

Shirmoney Rhode

I am strongly convinced that redress of historical injustice and division should proceed from Afrikaans, as a language of reconciliation and as a gateway to new opportunities. Outreach actions aimed at other language communities could take the form of the creation of an Afrikaans language centre, along the lines of the German Goethe Institute or the Alliance Française, in a city like Durban, where the already limited exposure to Afrikaans was restricted even further with the removal of Afrikaans as a subject on offer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Language courses and cultural events facilitating co-operation between artists and their peers from the various language communities in KwaZulu-Natal at such a centre could be a meaningful contribution to the process of reconciliation in this second most populous South African province. Afrikaans is relatively unknown in this province, and this highlights the need for combating misconceptions about the language and its speakers.

  1. Afrikaans as a language of instruction at universities

So soon after the season of retraction and loss bringing about the serious curtailment of Afrikaans at a number of former Afrikaans universities, it is challenging to formulate any visionary thoughts about this rather dismal situation. Legal action is still under way in some instances, but it seems as if the South African constitution, even in parts of the country where Afrikaans has a strong presence, had little to offer in securing meaningful equitable rights for Afrikaans as a language that had developed from the soil of Africa. Stellenbosch University, until recently the only remaining university using Afrikaans as a language of instruction in the Western Cape, where about fifty percent of the total population speak Afrikaans as a home language, has implemented a new language policy that favours English as a language of instruction. The only remaining possibilities for students who prefer Afrikaans are course outlines in Afrikaans, Afrikaans tutorials and the freedom to ask questions in Afrikaans and submit assignments and tests in Afrikaans. Afrikaans, which functioned for decades as an asset and as a language earmarked for constructive development, is increasingly viewed as troublesome, a stumbling block in the achievement of transformation objectives.

Publicly, Stellenbosch University is expressing its satisfaction with the implementation of the new language policy, but I am receiving complaints from students who sit in English lectures confronted by questions such as “Afrikaans students, are you still following?” Recalcitrant Afrikaans students should also be brought into the fold of the English language consensus. A consensus has been reached about the soothing expedience of the English language, at the cost of the intellectual acuity that Afrikaans could contribute towards academic debates. I am fully aware of the complexities surrounding this issue, and that universities even in the Netherlands are struggling nowadays to continue with teaching in Dutch, with the mounting pressure to internationalise with English as the preferred vehicle. Conversely, voters in Europe and elsewhere in the world are expressing their reservations about the desirability of unchecked internationalisation, and are becoming protective of their own interests and contexts. With the crisis in higher education in South Africa due to insufficient funding, it is doubtful whether international competitiveness will remain a feasible ideal. It is likely that local contexts will become more important for universities. Stellenbosch University cannot risk further alienation of the Afrikaans-speaking community, as it is conceivable that precisely this community in the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking Boland will have to do their part to support the university financially in a time of duress.

I have my doubts about whether English will ultimately prove to be adequate for the promotion of innovative research and academic excellence globally. English is often represented as the new Latin, but this refers back to a time in the Middle Ages when Latin was used universally as an academic language in Europe. Yet, as history demonstrates, development accelerated remarkably during the Renaissance, when local languages acquired new currency and importance. Latin could not live up to the demand for innovative thought and the creation of new knowledge. Hopefully, the global shift towards English in higher education will not lead to intellectual curtailment, stagnation or mediocrity. Fortunately, English is, unlike Latin, a living language with great suppleness and an impressive ability to accumulate interest.

At the recent Woordfees in Stellenbosch, there was an interesting interaction between a group of concerned Afrikaans-speaking students and former judge Albie Sachs, who tried to placate his audience regarding the diminishing status of Afrikaans in higher education. He lauded the achievements of the South African constitution, but concluded that speakers of Afrikaans should rather claim their right to continue education in Afrikaans by means of private initiatives. Although private initiatives are certainly valuable, it is also a reasonable expectation that the state should provide education in the language needs of lawful citizens.

At present, there is in many sectors a certain complacency about the vitality of the Afrikaans media, the flourishing Afrikaans book market and arts festivals providing space for the performance of quality productions in Afrikaans. I sincerely wish this situation does not continue, but if the higher functions of Afrikaans are further eroded, this curtailment is likely to have an adverse effect on the broader cultural field. To counter this threat, it may be wise to keep in mind the following as a guiding principle: If achievement and excellence become the mark of Afrikaans, it will not be overlooked. However, it is important that this excellence is shared with greater altruism than ever before with other South Africans for whom Afrikaans remains largely distant territory.

  1. A few last thoughts

The events of 2016 that involved Afrikaans seem to reaffirm that, as was demonstrated by the Soweto riots forty years ago, Afrikaans still functions as a seismograph of approaching turmoil in South African society. Whenever things are stirred up about Afrikaans, it is frequently an indication of even greater rumblings on the distant horizon. At universities, disenchantment with the position of Afrikaans as a language of instruction emerged as one of the opening shots in the larger #FeesMustFall campaign that paralysed some universities for many months, finally exposing deep-seated problems in the governing party. It may not be completely ludicrous to see Afrikaans as a coveted seismograph of social turmoil, and it is interesting that it so often becomes the focal point of turbulence. Somewhat indirectly, South Africans acknowledge the role of Afrikaans as a tuning fork within the broader society in cases where tensions are deflected to the language. It is, however, burdensome for the language to serve as the focal point of these diverse points of conflict.

I conclude with a last look at the elements that may strengthen the future prospects of Afrikaans. If the existing energies in language and culture movements were combined more effortlessly with a greater activist approach in doing promotional work in the field of culture and, at the same time, adding a more appealing and constructive sparkle to language activism, a lot would have been gained. I have also made a plea for the strengthening of Afrikaans institutions through innovative actions that would prepare them for a more prominent role in the Afrikaans-speaking community. I have also referred to the strong emergent forces in Kaaps that merit greater encouragement. Should Kaaps start knocking at the door of standard Afrikaans for more influence and representation, it would be a process that should be allowed to run its course. The sense of loss about the diminishing place of Afrikaans in higher education should make way for a new determination to do quality work in Afrikaans, not only to ensure that the language remains appealing for its speakers, but also, through achievement, to inspire speakers of other languages to reach out for opportunities in Afrikaans.

Afrikaans version: ’n Visie vir Afrikaans

Photo of Andries Visagie: Naomi Bruwer

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Oor twee verdere sake sou ek graag inligting wou ontvang. Wat het die Departement Afrikaans aan die Universiteit Stellenbosch alles in 2015 gedoen ter herdenking van die dood van Jan Marais 'n eeu tevore? Wat beoog hierdie departement om te doen ter bevordering van Afrikaans en die nagedagtenis van Jan Marais wanneer die US volgende jaar sy eeufees vier?

  • Nou ja, die oorweldigende indruk wat ek uit hierdie stuk kry, is dat die onderdrukking van ons pragtige tongval by staatsuniversiteite net tydelik van aard is.
    Ek herinner almal aan die feit dat daar reeds drie Afrikaanse privaat tersiêre instellings bestaan, naamlik Akademia (ONS TROTS!), Aros, en die APA.
    Miskien sal dit goed wees om die raad van Sachs, R ter harte te neem, en soos Solidariteit met die oprigting van privaat Afrikaanse instansies te begin in die Kaap. 'n Boer maak 'n plan, nie waar nie!
    Dit sal wonderlik wees.
    Afrikaans leef!

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