“And the question is this: how do we create the permanent, transformative conditions to ensure access and success for all the historically marginalised speakers of Afrikaans, without falling into dogma, outdated theories and arcane linguistic theories and knowledge?”
In the decades to come, it will be seen, heard, read and used as a “language” of teaching and learning in schools, universities, industry and communities in the same way as standard Afrikaans.
With Kaaps widely practised in the Western Cape and elsewhere, speakers of Kaaps do not enjoy the full benefits of their South African citizenship. Yet, many are trying to change the way we talk and write about and research Kaaps as a potential future standard “language”. Until this point, we have reaped the rewards of the transformative efforts of academics, novelists, poets and Kaaps language activists mapping out what it will take to unify the writing system of Kaaps, where to direct funding to advance the education and curriculum for a stronger inclusion of Kaaps, how to transform the codification of Kaaps, and how to develop the local economy to the greatest benefit and upliftment of the mainly working-class speakers of Kaaps in South Africa. But you won’t see any of these efforts and advancements in the general debate about Afrikaans at universities, least so in the latest debate about the use, status and position of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University (SU).
The moment I saw the news feed pop onto my social media pages, I murmured to myself: “Again, Afrikaans. Again, SU. It’s like flogging a dead horse.” And, indeed, for a long time it has been. Any debate of Afrikaans at SU is immediately at best exclusionary, and at worst unhelpful to the magnificent future of Afrikaans. You didn’t need just the #FeesMustFall movement to provide that additional evidence. For years, at least in my field of linguistics, I have come to learn that no (socio)linguist at SU worth their scientific salt will touch the debate with a ten-foot pole. Many leading experts in their fields – especially language, identity, society and multilingualism in South Africa and across the world – either self-censor or privately bemoan the restrictions placed on their ability to teach and do research, given the oftentimes acerbic nature of debates surrounding Afrikaans.
As a first language speaker of Kaaps, I have followed, listened to and read with great enthusiasm, for years, the many flare-ups on Afrikaans at SU – it’s like my annoying gout: it comes and goes and often requires strong medicine before it subsides. But it never goes away. I am often left with great disappointment as the usual and regular soap box pseudo-linguists and armchair critics provide overblown criticism of the status and position of Afrikaans at SU, bemoaning the future loss of Afrikaans as a language of power, with some having the temerity to suggest that all Afrikaans speakers are about to be wiped off the proverbial dialect map. And, while others rush to state multilingual facts wrapped up in Afrikaans monolingual, nostalgic fictions, others still permanently scream like Gargantua from A4 paper that Afrikaans is dying out. Nothing could be further from the truth.
On the face of it, the debate and protests around the university’s language policy – in theory and in practice – have, this time around, inspired only a small group of students, likely co-opted by a fed-up elite, which says a lot. But it has nevertheless dragged out into the open political parties desperate for votes, interest groups ignoring constitutional precedent, a flurry of open letters from worried hearts and minds, carefully thought out data-driven pieces by leading academics, deadpan reactionary ripostes, clever verbiage from language activists calling themselves language activists without a history of serious language activism, and heartbreaking details from students bemoaning the fact that once again an elite group has hijacked the narrative around the future of Afrikaans, and asking for empathy.
But almost all of the stances on the status and position of Afrikaans ask the wrong questions, or advance positions that are factually incorrect and scientifically wrong, of course from a linguistic language contact and change perspective. In fact, almost none of them, especially the highly emotional narratives, ever fit the empirical evidence that supports the fact that alongside English, Afrikaans (after apartheid) has seen a consistent growth in literature and practice at an exponential pace. This, of course, is in part due to the explosive growth of Kaaps.
If it wasn’t clear before, then it definitely is now: public debates about Afrikaans have never really been concerned with how we should plan, empower and increase the access and success of historically marginalised and racialised varieties of Afrikaans in institutions of power such as Stellenbosch University. In the case of Kaaps, there has always been the mistaken notion that Kaaps is covered under the constitutional rights of Afrikaans as an official language; yet, in recent decades, there has been an explicit acknowledgment of Kaaps and Kaaps speakers as constituting one of the largest communities of Afrikaans speakers in the Western Cape and elsewhere. Increasingly, we see in public and private Afrikaans practices that there is the frequent production of everyday Kaaps texts on online social media platforms and in offline interactions. Kaaps is finding an increasing presence in higher education degree programmes (see, for example, the Rhodes University MA creative writing programme) and academic research and conference paper topics. And the frequent output of novels, novellas and works of poetry provides further evidence that Kaaps is not coextensive with Afrikaans, but distinct from it.
We now know that it is a fact that Kaaps has been the biggest loser in the standardisation process of Afrikaans, and we also know that this came as a consequence of colonialism first, and then the total racism of apartheid. No one would deny today that Kaaps was used by the indentured indigenous and enslaved populations at the Cape during colonialism. Or that it borrowed from a mix of Khoe languages, colonial trade languages and Arabic; or that it is a locally inflected form of Dutch, Kaaps-Hollands, but influenced by English, too. What would be denied is that this diversity was erased through the standardisation of Afrikaans, which, as a result, further marginalised for decades a large and diverse community of speakers.
Think about it: you’d be forgiven today, for example, if you didn’t know that the Kaaps greeting word aweh was lexico-grammatically manipulated from its verb use in Old Javanese (a language spoken in Batavia), but that it is also a Khoe language word – and is still used in Indonesia today! Interesting, nuh? I think so, too.
“Reinventing Afrikaans in this sense would mean embracing our vulnerability in Afrikaans and confronting an enduring language fact: that in our not so new democracy, although an old idea of Afrikaans – as a language that inflicts symbolic and material pain – is dying out, a new and exciting idea of the Afrikaans speaker is emerging across the racial spectrum. This is a speaker invested in the ontological refashioning of their Afrikaans and its future.”
Today, Kaaps speakers, academics, educators, students, musicians, journalists, writers and activists invested in the advancement of Kaaps are succeeding not only in the recognition of the way speakers of Kaaps speak, read and write, but also in how they exercise their agency and voice as part of their linguistic citizenship. At the same time, the breadth of literary works, as well as the increasing linguistic scholarship demonstrating the scientific literacy and authenticity of Kaaps, indicate that the empowerment of Kaaps and the restoration of dignity and humanity in Kaaps as a language is nigh.
Perhaps of all the speakers of Afrikaans, Kaaps speakers have suffered the harshest racial, economic and symbolic oppression and suppression from the days of apartheid. There has never been a truth and reconciliation workshop for speakers of Kaaps which involves more than two people either rapping or comrade(ing) for Kaaps. Not one iota of progressive and transformative reparation has been gestured, save for the inclusion of fewer than 100 words in the HAT! We’ll take that, of course, even if it is still just neoliberal lip service wrapped up as nonracial transformation; and, of course, there are the Adam Small awards and prizes.
Not to belabour the point, though, speakers of Kaaps have always been the forerunners of transforming the nonracial politics of Afrikaans. And today, we are seeing a steady norming of the symbolic and material recognition of Kaaps as a medium for knowledge transfer in some sectors of the economy. We also see a steady current of calls supported by knowledge brokers and catalysts at basic and higher education levels to revisit the way historically marginalised languages such as Kaaps are empowered in South Africa. There are calls to recast Kaaps as a “language” for teaching and learning in schools and universities, not only to provide a vision to Kaaps speakers of what is to come in terms of how Kaaps will be empowered in institutions as a language of power, but also to bring Kaaps into the centre of knowledge creation and processes of intellectualisation and institutionalisation. These transformative recommendations cannot be ignored.
But, given all of this, the debate at SU leads us to a confronting question to consider not only the future of Afrikaans, but also my omkrap and kopkrap suggestion here, that Kaaps is the future of Afrikaans in our multilingual South Africa. And the question is this: how do we create the permanent, transformative conditions to ensure access and success for all the historically marginalised speakers of Afrikaans, without falling into dogma, outdated theories and arcane linguistic theories and knowledge?
To begin to answer this question, we must realise that we don’t need a new nostalgic-like language movement, because frankly the Constitution of South Africa takes care of us all, whether you are monolingual (which is rare), bilingual or multilingual. There is no volk, rooi gevaar or swart gevaar, no monopolies of linguistic knowledge or inherent existential threat or pressure on our Selves if we practise Afrikaans every day. We live in a multilingual society, and, as such, we need to embrace and invest fully in the empowerment of the diversity of Afrikaans. We’re in this together and need to chart the future of Afrikaans together.
Now, okay, some will say that the train we’re on is not heading in the right direction and that the light we see at the end of the tunnel is another train coming. I get it. You like riding the train of history.
But if we’ve learnt anything from the growth, recognition, inclusion and material infrastructure of Kaaps, you’ll notice that this growing “language” is providing the clearest signposts that if we change tracks, the bright, nonracial-linguistic future of Afrikaans will be secured. And one immediate way to do so is to advance various interventions of reinventions.
If we open up the institutional spaces to empower speakers of Kaaps and, indeed, any other historically marginalised and racialised variety of Afrikaans, we could in earnest confront the future of Afrikaans. This would be a step in the right direction, and it would unburden the talks and debates about the future of Afrikaans, which are often occupied with archaic and provincial ideas about language contact and change in a multilingual South Africa. Essentially, if we reimagine our efforts and focus them on the empowerment of all historically marginalised speakers of Afrikaans, beginning with Kaaps as a workable model, of course, we begin the difficult work of reinventing Afrikaans. This will be the work of exposing our vulnerability and loving other ways of speaking Afrikaans without sneering, scaremongering and snarling.
We need to invest the symbolic energy into a new way of being in Afrikaans. Speakers of Kaaps have long given indicators from their uncouth, downtrodden places of being, of what it takes to establish relationalities across races. While many, poor as they are, live together with other poor whites and blacks, at the end of the day they share in their vulnerability and souls, and all through varieties of Afrikaans. Today, they negotiate their relationality through multilingualism, but with Kaaps and other varieties of Afrikaans as the point of departure. Reinventing Afrikaans in this sense would mean embracing our vulnerability in Afrikaans and confronting an enduring language fact: that in our not so new democracy, although an old idea of Afrikaans – as a language that inflicts symbolic and material pain – is dying out, a new and exciting idea of the Afrikaans speaker is emerging across the racial spectrum. This is a speaker invested in the ontological refashioning of their Afrikaans and its future.
And if you listen and read carefully, you’ll notice that this across-the-racial-spectrum speaker of Afrikaans is nonracial. They are paving the way for other Afrikaans speakers and other multilingual speakers not just jointly to cultivate new relationships in Afrikaans, but to embrace a language with a once injurious past. They also show us that the way we will end up speaking Afrikaans will empower us all. But it will take the few and many of us to push the reinvention of Afrikaans to its logical end.
To do so successfully, starts with Kaaps.