African Languages Conference 2014: An organiser's perspective

  • 5

First things first: Which South African languages are considered to be African languages? How is this determined?

All South African languages are African because they evolved in Africa. On the face of it, Afrikaans appears to be spoken mostly by white people. We consider it African because it is spoken only in Africa. It borrowed heavily from the Dutch language, but the two languages are still different. Afrikaans is widely understood by many in South Africa and Namibia.

Whose brainchild was the conference? Which persons or institutions were the driving force behind it and what led to the inception of this overdue meeting of minds?

Amabhubesi is an events, training and conferencing company. Our core business is organising training, workshops and conferences. This event is just one of the many which we organise and run.

In the overview of the conference you state that its goal is “to encourage academics, scholars and practitioners representing an exciting diversity, of cultures, languages and religion to meet and exchange ideas and views in a forum encouraging respectful debate”. What would you say are currently the most urgent topics in the African languages debate(s)?

We can say that indigenous African languages are under threat as many Africans have been exposed to globalisation. Some Africans prefer their children to learn English and Afrikaans to the detriment of their mother tongues. There are cases where African children attending such schools are never taught in their mother tongue. In fact, some Zulu children can hardly speak Zulu the way it is spoken in KZN. The other challenge is that some learners attend school and learn in a language which they are not familiar with. They should be taught in their home language if they are to succeed. You find that minority-language pupils like Vendas attend a school where iSipedi is more dominant. At that school the Sipedi teacher teaches English language in Sipedi. And yet these will be Venda speakers.

It’s also stated that part of the reason that studying in indigenous languages at most institutions of learning isn’t an option is due to “colonial legacy and the conception that views indigenous languages as inferior to European languages”. Could factors such as an exponentially globalising society and the use of online technology as a tool in the contemporary learning process also be brought into this equation?

Yes, that is correct. African languages as highlighted above are in trouble because of globalisation and the notion that white things are superior!

The 2013 census (as reported by News 24 and Daily Maverick) found that white speakers of Afrikaans were in the minority, with only 40% of informal/home language Afrikaans speakers being white . The Daily Maverick article states: “[T]he more interesting finding, however, is the degree to which English is dominating the South African education system.” Would this make Afrikaans 1) a predominantly non-white indigenous language and 2) one of these supposed “inferiorities”?

This is not easy to answer. What is true for me is that Afrikaans is still a dominant player in terms of language in South Africa. Most South Africans, black or white, use it in one form or another. It is used in many slang expressions in townships – words like “lekker”, “voetsek” and “straata”.

Is online technology a threat to the use and development of African languages? Could technological advances also be used to benefit African languages, and if so, how?

It depends on how one views it. One may argue that African languages may be under siege because they are spoken mostly in traditional strongholds like remote rural areas where there are no computers and there is lack of internet access. If online tech is used on African languages and there is no proper consultation then it could be a problem for the conservative sections of Africans. Be that as it may, online technology may actually help boost African languages by improving communications to people speaking the same languages but living in different geographical regions by using the internet, social media and the like. Regrettably, African languages will have to undergo some transformation during the process as there will be an increase in borrowed words as new terms are invented. Provided the technology is implemented appropriately, online technology should boost African languages. For example, an old knowledgeable Zulu man living in the Drakensberg is able to be interviewed via Skype by an anthropologist in Germany while the two are thousands of kilometres apart.

What is the current stance, both from a government viewpoint and from that of the education industry, regarding multilingualism in the South African education system?

This can be answered at the conference as we seek to assemble stakeholders. Actually, you will note that one of the topics is multilingualism. And that is why we would like to see you come and attend this important event.

In a nutshell, what is the status of indigenous languages at university level in South Africa and how does this differ from 1) the greater African and 2) international norm.

Indigenous languages play second fiddle at universities. They are used only by the students who speak them as a home language informally. It is only in selected departments like linguistics or departments of African languages that they are taught. All other lecturers are delivered in English and Afrikaans. There are claims that point to the fact that even when students learn Zulu they actually learn in English! This sounds unscientific, though. Tanzania is probably the only African country which tried to use Swahili in all university courses, but the problem arose when international exchanges needed to be done between Tanzanian institutions and overseas establishments.

When taking into account the census statistics cited earlier, shouldn’t Afrikaans be viewed as a predominantly non-white indigenous language, and therefore also playing “second fiddle at universities”?

Strictly speaking, Afrikaans cannot be viewed as non-white language, unfortunately. At most we can say it is pure indigenous. Afrikaners are a minority in the country. Most of them are white. I understand the fears that Afrikaners have. Yes, you are right, Afrikaans is in trouble. Some institutions, like the then RAU and Stellenbosch, are no longer exclusively teaching in Afrikaans. They have changed as English is taking over. Like black African languages, Afrikaans is being downtrodden. But this can be traced to the days when black people hated Afrikaans in the ’70s when it was made compulsory in schools.

What excites you about this conference?

Well, we want to find out what the academics and the participants are going to say. Hopefully we can chart the way forward and then have a follow-up similar event next year.

Whom would you encourage to attend the conference?

We are looking primarily at academics, national heritage organisations, cultural groupings, the media and anyone who has an interest in rejuvenating African languages.


Teken in op LitNet se gratis weeklikse nuusbrief. | Sign up for LitNet's free weekly newsletter.

  • 5


  • I can appreciate the way the interviewer kept pointing out the fact that Afrikaans does not in fact belong to whites, but is mostly spoken by people of colour. What is interesting (and sad) is how hard the interviewees resist the facts with statements such as "Strictly speaking, Afrikaans cannot be viewed as non-white language, unfortunately. At most we can say it is pure indigenous". No evidence given for this statement, whatsoever. Why? Because the stats say otherwise.The interviewers do the familiar Apartheid-shuffle, but do not acknowledge that the latest census has pointed out that Afrikaans is actually growing among speakers of colour, which begs the question: Do people on the ground still cling to Afrikaans' apartheid image as tightly as Mr. Gerdus Senekal and Pasi Mubaiwa?

    The sad fact is that minority languages are doomed if they cannot stand together. By trying to keep Afrikaans out of their precious Club Indigenous, they alienate the one language that has the best record in resisting English's hegemonic grip on South Africa. Afrikaans is by far the most powerful minority language in Africa, spoken by mostly non-whites (only mention this because race is such an important darling in South Africa. One might even say something's goodness is measured by the absence of whites, when it comes to South Africa).

    Ironically, Senekal and Mubaiwa seems to want support for their cause, but at the same time slam the door in the face of those they are appealing to. If they truly care about other languages in South Africa, as I do, they will not let their political baggage obstruct their current chances of success.

  • Gerdus Senekal

    Dear Eben

    Thanks for your response. Your letter leaves my unclear as to why you feel I "cling to Afrikaans' apartheid image". In my mind the census statistics say exactly the opposite - hence the inclusion thereof.

    As a language graduate I fully appreciate how dynamic language is, and am quite aware of the fact that it is not something that does, should or can belong to any given group. Fortunately this dynamic nature ensures that despite whatever "cause" or "political baggage" may be involved, Afrikaans will survive, and even thrive (as it is doing) as long as there are speakers thereof. 



  • I appreciate Eben’s opinion. This is just but a debate. We say that Afrikaans is indigenous to Africa because it evolved in Africa. Actually Afrikaans has a bigger impact than what people may think. Afrikaans has influenced languages within Southern Africa. Words like voetsek, doek, rok, suiker (they are localized in terms of spellings but they are derived from Afrikaans) are commonly used in the region (especially in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe). But like I said this is a debatable topic. 

  • Beste Gerdus,  Beste Pasi

    In antwoord op onderstaande knip en plak uit bostaande artikel."What excites you about this conference? Well, we want to find out what the academics and the participants are going to say. Hopefully we can chart the way forward and then have a follow-up similar event next year."

    Niks wat ek in bostaande lees maak my opgewonde oor hierdie konferensie nie. Na aanleiding van wat ek in Engels lees (en slegs Engels kan vind om dit in te lees, besef ek dat u - en u mede-organiseerders in die mode strik  van "ENGLISH ONLY" getrap vir 'n  konferense wat kastig handel oor veeltaligheid.

    Bostaande advertensie bring dit by my tuis dat u nie u redenasie en/of kommunikasie, asook taalkeuse  vir u advertensie oor die konferensie (wat blykbaar oor veeltaligheid handel)  goed deurgedink het nie. Hier volg enkele vrae wat u vir uself kan vra.

    1. Is Engels werklik in murg en been 'n Suid-Afrikaanse taal? (Is English truly in all respects a South African language?)
    2.  Is Engels nie eerder 'n wêreldtaal as 'n Suid-Arikaanse taal nie? (Is  Enlish not more of a world language than a South African language? )
    3. Het Engels ontwikkel in Suid-Afrika? Of was dit reeds ontwikkeld toe dit in hierdie land aangeland het?
     (Did English evolve in South Africa? Or was it already developed when it arrived in this country?)
    4. Is Engels nie die jongste byvoeging tot tale in Suid-Afrika nie en die taal met die kleinste geskiedenis van Suid-Afrikaanse ontwikkeling nie? (Is  English not the most recent addition to languages in use in South Africa and the language with the smallest history of South African development?) 
    Vergelyk met die volgende knip en plak uit bostaande artikel.  (Compare with the following cut and paste from article above.)  "All South African languages are African because they evolved in Africa."
    4. Waarom gebruik u dan uitsluitlik Engels om te adverteer vir 'n konferensie wat blykbaar ten doel het om veeltaligheid te bevorder? ( Why do you then use only English to advertise a conference about multi-lingualism?)

    "Actually, you will note that one of the topics is multilingualism. And that is why we would like to see you come and attend this important event."

    Nee. U sal my nie by die gebeurtenis sien nie, want met belaglike reklame soos bostaande dink ek dat ek my tyd sou mors om dit by te woon.

    You are advised to go and think again and not to rush into advertising conferences when your thinking is not logical and therefore convincing. I find the thinking behind this advertisement and the copy used in it  a sad state of affairs. You should actually  practice what you preach. Refer the Nelson Mandela quotation that you not only used, but also misused.


    Henk Seymore

  • Gerdus Senekal

    Beste Henk

    Ek weet jy het iets in die lyn van 'n bemarkingsagtergrond. Hoe stel jy voor dat mens 'n konferensie oor meertaligheid in enigiets anders as 'n lingua franca "adverteer"? Sou mens 10+ onderhoude doen? En 10+ advertensies onderwerp, met 10+ stukke kopie?

    Hoe sou die konferensie self plaasvind? Sou daar 10+ vertalers wees? Of sou al die deelnemers 'n praktiese besluit neem om 'n taal te gebruik wat almal kan verstaan, en waardeur gesprek en kommunikasie dus kan plaasvind? 

    Ongelukkig is die fout wat baie "taalpuriste" maak, as ek hierdie bordjie om jou nek mag hang, dat daar verwag word dat hulle taal dié belangrikste taal is en dat om in enige ander taal te kommunikeer 'n kompromie daarstel. Dit is nie die geval nie. Tale is dinamies, en mens leer meer oor jouself en jou eie taal deur ook ander te leer ken en gebruik. 



    NS. Jy sal daarop let dat Nelson Mandela, wie se aanhaling jy miskien eerder "misbruik", nooit daarop aangedring het om (slegs) Xhosa te praat nie; dit is juis omdat hy bereid was om in die tale van ander mense se harte (Afrikaans, Engels, Zoeloe en dies meer) te praat dat hy hulle so kon raak.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.