Into the mind of the defeated: Motivations behind the language struggle at Stellenbosch University

  • 2

This article was originally published in Afrikaans:

Die mentaliteit van die verslaandes

The impetus to write this article is not from feeling a need to react or serve a riposte to fellow Matie student Elina Kamanga, whose thesis detailing hidden structural racism at Stellenbosch University (SU) was the subject of an M&G article on 23 January 2020.

The lingering social effects of segregation and racial discrimination are still causing pain and alienation at many of our country’s former whites-only institutions. However, the article also seemed to allude to the idea that the mere presence of Afrikaans and Afrikaansness at Stellenbosch indicated racism, as if human conversation and academic discourse in the language is undesirable. I aim to inform readers that the underlying reasons for Afrikaans-language activism at the university do not stem from supremacist attitudes or exist for the sake of belligerent exclusion, but are essentially a struggle against a remnant colonial Englishness, a struggle which is similar to the struggle against exclusive whiteness in former whites-only spaces.

An unsettling dialogue

Shortly after Christmas, I am relaxing on the beach with some Afrikaans-speaking family members. Someone has been reading the morning paper, which contains a report that the Association of Lawyers for Afrikaans (Vereniging van Regslui vir Afrikaans, or VRA) has successfully agitated to maintain Afrikaans as a choice of language in which candidate attorneys can write their professional examinations.

“Did you see Frederik? They won that fight. It’s wonderful!”

I nodded happily from under my sunroof (a copy of Afrikaans novelist André Brink’s A dry white season).

“It’s a good thing that the VRA and those types of organisations are doing something for Afrikaans, otherwise no one will – even if some sceptical people shoot those organisations down,” said someone, while shifting to a more comfortable spot.

Then, one my fellow sun seekers, also a future lawyer, grumbled something that made me sit up with shocked attention. She said something like: “Ag, these people who are so hard up for Afrikaans professional examinations can also sommer be shot down.”

Did I hear properly?

“Excuse me?” I asked with a slight glare, before continuing. “Isn’t that very drastic? I mean, there is surely nothing inherently inferior about Afrikaans that it should not be allowed to be used as an examination medium?”

She turned over. “Oh, man, the courts are all English, anyway, so why bother?”

I sat up and frowned.

“That’s not the point. Nothing about Afrikaans is inherently inferior compared with English. The reason for English-language domination in this country is because of a history of colonialism by the Brits. It’s our decolonial duty in South Africa to move ahead by finding our human dignity within our own indigenous knowledge and languages. To be new and different. To heal from a colonial past.”

Then, another beach companion, also Afrikaans but for years a Canadian expat, said: “So what? That history of conquest shows us who is the strongest and who had to survive. So, that’s why we stick to an English West.”

“Why do you keep fighting?”

A few weeks before, a friend pressed me about my fighting attitude when it comes to Afrikaans-language rights, multilingualism and the language debate at Stellenbosch University. Why shout against the thunder, she asked. Why are you steaming ahead, while most Afrikaans speakers are just silent about these things? Why don’t you keep your rants about protesting for the weekend braais or kitchen conversations?

To understand properly why I cannot be silent, we must investigate the deeper constituent parts of the abovementioned dialogue on the beach.

After the conversation with my kin, I realised that there is something much deeper to their established standpoints on their own Afrikaansness than the cold logic of English’s dominant status in our society. Even if you as a reader take the same position – that English is globally dominant and, therefore, the only option to gain public prestige, a successful career and financial stability – you still fail to answer the deeper question of why Englishness and its concurrent British-American cultural norms are occupying the throne.

In short, you cannot logically argue that something is currently the case because you believe that it ought to be so, or that it would have been so in any case.

The historical moment in which we find ourselves is one where the English language and Englishness dominates society, but this state of affairs did not suddenly fall down from the heavens. On the contrary, a very specific imperialist agenda in the 19th century led to a string of British colonial successes in southern Africa, all the way from modern Zambia, through Botswana, down to the Cape. All over these regions, English-speaking rulers enforced their British norms and the English language as hegemony. A specific set of cultural convictions was therefore forced upon other people in a specific socio-historical context.

Success in the colonial society, according to decolonial thinker Frantz Fanon, is dependent upon surrender to and cooperation with the colonial ruler. The phenomenon of “askaris”, “joiners” and “garden boys” appeared in a system where the colonial overlords presented opportunities to the colonised to buy into the colonial hierarchy, by offering their labour and loyalty in exchange for material welfare and ordained social power. This phenomenon can be seen in the history of the Khoi-Khoin in the early and later Cape Colony, as well as in the case of the Igbo people of British colonial Nigeria, as explained by Chinua Achebe in his celebrated novel, Things fall apart (1958).

The arrival of colonial Englishness is a story of war, servitude, prejudice and discrimination, favouritism and even slavery. And, despite the Union Jack’s departure from the flagpoles of the Union Buildings, the remnant of the British colonial era continued over into apartheid and modern South Africa. This phenomenon, termed coloniality, survives in the language and culture which we sheepishly follow as the default option for success, even in the postcolony.

Nothing about the historical happenstance of British colonialism was inherently determined. A certain group of people, a few centuries ago, simply played their geopolitical cards in such a way that they could bring about their colonial wishes, in a time when supremacist attitudes and discrimination were not officially condemned and formally countered by a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I believe that our value-driven constitutional dispensation does not require only the overturning of the dominance of whiteness and Englishness as forms of structural baasskap.

I believe it asks for something more radical: that we foster equality and human dignity in such a way that we seek to reject and counter the domination of one group by another, so that there is space for everyone in the public realm. My native Afrikaans language, therefore, deserves a chance of academic and public development that stretches further than the braai or the kitchen door, whether it be in the arts, literature, education or the law.

That is why I will not be silent.

Cultural cringe and surrender

How do we explain my Canadian friend’s view that we must accept the consequences of the “history of conquest”?

I explained the concept of success in a colonial society, but why do people in the postcolony still choose to stick to colonial standards and expectations?

To understand this attitude of surrender and subservience, we must not only interrogate why Englishness is a synonym for success for so many people. We must understand something deeper, which I term the “mentality of the defeated” – a feeling of subservience to a victor, and subsequent inaction, even in the face of oppression and supremacism.

The eccentric 19th century thinker Friedrich Nietzsche argued that Western Christian civilisation incorporates a “slave mentality”. Christianity’s cultural roots have their origins in slavery; the theological promise of heavenly salvation despite poverty, persecution and oppression evolved into the universally known Western Christian values, including placidity, compassion, friendliness, forgiveness and obedience.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these fundamental values of the West. On the contrary, people have been shaping these values to fit their evolving cultural contexts over the ages, for the sake of relevance.

The Achilles heel of the slave mentality is that it’s so focused on the concept of salvation after death, that the trend has arisen to call for the turning of one’s other cheek always and uncritically. Revolutionary action against injustice is accordingly discouraged.

This means that Caesar always gets what Caesar wants, even if this involves large-scale oppression of civil and political rights. The slave mentality was an asset for the Catholic Church during the Reformation period, since it helped justify abuse of power by clergymen, such as the indulgence letter system, by which a person could “buy” his way out of earthly sins by payment of money to the church. Its disapproval of earthly revolution explains the French church’s opposition to French citizens’ revolutionary action in the name of equality, liberty and fraternity.

This mentality of defeat and surrender also reminds me of a judicial phenomenon in the European Dark Ages: the duel, or the “trial by combat”. This procedure was premised upon the belief that justice will be done once the duel is won. The result of the duel, therefore, shows that the winning duellist was right from the start. If the winner is the accused, his victory illustrates his innocence.

The loser must bend the knee, and, in the context of duels between the champions of two opposing armies, honour demands that the losing group or polity must immediately surrender to the winner and his people. This honour culture has been recorded in ancient European history as early as Homer’s Iliad (the story of the Trojan War, which took place in c 1300 BCE).

In honour cultures, the loser must accept that their language, culture and independence are surrendered and subjected as inferior to those of the winner, and so the process of domination ensues. A strong social operator driving this process is what sociologists call “cultural cringe” or “shame”: that intense feeling of embarrassment and disassociation that some feel when their cultural identity is exhibited in a public space.

Cultural shame, honour culture and the mentality of the defeated form a deep undercurrent in South Africa. The Afrikaner community has been beset by colonialist Alfred Milner’s anglicisation policies after the Boer War, and fuelled by an unproductive feeling of surrender and embarrassment since the days of the pariah state. Historical pain, due to injustice, prejudice, racism and violence as inflicted by the white minority government, still grips the hearts and minds of South Africa’s black communities.

In Ireland, I noticed how native Irish people cringed or stood around awkwardly when I articulated a few sentences in their indigenous and endangered Gaelic language. Eight hundred years of English oppression is still evident in the Irish postcolony.

You see cultural shame in how many an Afrikaans youth cringes and says with shame, “I’m not a fan of Afrikaans music,” when an Afrikaans song plays over the radio.

You see it in your Afrikaans friends’ apartheid shame when they immediately shoot down Afrikaans-language legal-professional examinations as undesirable, even if constitutional language rights are at play.

You see it in how people regard globally dominant Englishness as the sole measure of success, and how they obediently bow in subjection before that hegemony.

You see it in the Stellenbosch University’s student leadership and vice-chancery’s apparent fear to resist the full-scale anglicisation of our promising multilingual future.

Can the mentality of the defeated be overcome?

The burden of this mentality is not a healthy state of being for any community struggling with historical trauma.

We will never be able to give meaning to our transformative constitutional values of human dignity and equality within a multicultural society, if we stand bound by a sense of inferiority about ourselves, compared with the superiority complex of global Englishness.

The Anglo-Western espousal of unrestrained free markets and enforced, insensitive globalisation has impoverished and divided communities through the exploitation of labour and the fraudulent behaviour that caused the 2008 financial crisis. Individual demands were disproportionately advanced over the welfare of communities.

We must acknowledge that there is nothing inherently superior about global and Western Englishness. We can break away from the brutal honour culture which demands that we subject ourselves like the defeated victims of a deserved historical punishment.

We can liberate our minds without having to be anti-English, anti-white and anti-Western; after all, we have various communities (especially Indian, coloured and white) whose mother language is English. There is nothing inferior about these communities simply because they happen to be born into structural English-language privilege.

If you are white and Afrikaans, feelings of shame and defeat will never help build a new, dynamic and nonracial future for the Afrikaans language. Rather, use your historical privileges to invest in our poverty-stricken communities. Lay claim to your constitutional language rights, and support those who fight for language rights on your behalf.

All that I ask for, as an Afrikaans speaker – and I would imagine that other African-language speakers demand the same – is language equity and the proactive recognition and development of our dearly held language and cultural humanity, now and in the future: a safe, brave and empowering space under the South African sun.

  • 2


  • Avatar
    Theodorus du Plessis

    Dankie vir hierdie sobere relaas.
    Mag diesulkes wat beskaamd Englishness omarm tog maar terugkeer. Ons sal julle vergewe!

  • Reageer

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