Open South Africa for local languages

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Hans Pienaar (photo: Versindaba)

I am all for transformation. Starting tomorrow. No, starting today. Which is why I believe Stellenbosch University should remain Afrikaans.

I didn’t watch the #luister video posted on YouTube. I didn’t have to. I know all too well about the anger and frustration experienced by black people in Stellenbosch.

I know what it is to take a black friend into a bar and see hairs bristling on the necks of white, Afrikaans patrons. Every time I go to Stellenbosch I am disappointed by an incident of naked racism straight from the old times.

I believe the fact that a plaque honouring HF Verwoerd was only recently removed from Stellenbosch University is a crime against humanity. Clearly Stellenbosch and the university still have a long way to go to eradicate the vestiges of apartheid.

But I also didn’t watch #luister because, as a journalist, I could not take its model seriously, especially when one of the makers declared they were foregoing "this texting thing" for social media. Writing in the print media, one suspects, would have entailed getting some balance, also posting accounts about the many ordinary encounters people have in Stellenbosch where race simply doesn’t count.

Far better insight can be gained from the debate on LitNet, the Afrikaans literary website run from Stellenbosch. Participants pull no punches on the racism, also not the open antiwhite sentiments expressed by Open Stellenbosch members. Elsewhere, foreign students say they regard the Afrikaans they picked up as a tremendous bonus, and it is an inconvenient fact that Afrikaans opens up doors, not only in SA, but also in the Benelux countries, which are consistently rated more advanced than English-speaking ones.

Certainly, as a piece of activism #luister has been wildly successful, and has created a model for the future. Instead of ineffectual Facebook petitions one should gather two dozen or so angry people, have them make statements for YouTube; cast this into a racial framework; allude to Afrikaans as a symbol of privilege and you will have the ear of Parliament — new parties and flopping branches of old ones.

Hopefully we can do the same with the nuclear debate (Afrikaners ran Pelindaba, you know), or fracking or saving the rhino (Afrikaner hunters, hey).

Looking beyond the video, though, the demands that Open Stellenbosch blares out are not only wildly emotional and impractical, they are also taking the transformation debate into completely the wrong direction when they call for Stellenbosch’s full Anglicisation.

What is it we want from transformation? Surely it has to be placed in the context of our crises here and now, as recently demonstrated by the figure that 66% of South African children grow up in fatherless homes. And surely one question should dominate the conversation: why is the key to lifting us out of the poverty underlying this calamity — education — in such a mess?

Many analyses have been written, but there consistently seems to be an avoidance of the one deep deficiency staring us in the face: language. Most teaching is being done in an English that much too often is utterly inadequate, by too many untrained teachers who have a disdain for their own languages.

THE ruling classes keep on analysing SA in terms of dated and pseudomarxist class concepts, but I see a neat division between the suburban elite, of mixed race, from the rest who are overwhelmingly black and live in apartheid townships and former homelands. It is a deep, near insurmountable division established through a very simple mechanism: competency in English.

That English is less exclusive than Afrikaans is a fallacy. Read why in the book, Exclusionary Empire, edited by Cambridge professor Jack P Greene. I got it at a sale at Exclusive Books, which built its brand on this exclusionary engine at the heart of English culture, which relentlessly marginalises books in local languages.

What happens at Exclusive Books is a microcosm of the South African economy, built around a hierarchy with at its apex those with the greatest command of English.

According to Greene’s book, the British empire’s colonial exclusions were often justified by the outsiders’ inability to adhere to a set of libertarian principles that we would today call human rights. A rights-based politics is the most democratic and also the most efficient, but it can be used to exclude those who place a higher value on tradition, sociocultural safety nets and the pleasures of ethnocentric life.

The Anglo-American empire began peaking from the 18th century, during which local peoples and cultures were systematically exterminated or subjugated into slave labour. In the 20th century, the Anglocentric military-industrial complex used the hard labour of wartime civilians to help build a multinational corporate empire that later exported its hard labour jobs to the special economic zones of the Far East.

In the 21st century, the knowledge economy is overwhelmingly Anglocentric. The robotising global IT industry is sucking in technicians and others, based in technology-driven disciplines, who speak English. And that is why calls to Anglicise institutions, in SA and elsewhere, can be read as entrenching the global status quo — and so as deeply reactionary, even jingoistic.

Anglicising our education will only boost the stream of South Africans of all races leaving for better options overseas. The good English provided by apartheid took nearly a million Afrikaners and their skills out of SA, not their Afrikaans.

How to escape this, is far from clear. The other side of the coin is that command of the global lingua franca is mandatory, and English in itself is enriching in so many ways. But scores of citizens will agree Minister of Higher Education’s spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana is on the right track that we need to "aggressively" develop local vernaculars. And even more right that this will be a tortuous process. However, no one in the ruling elite seems to have any clue, or any plan, on how to go about this.

There are people who do know how to promote local vernaculars: Afrikaners. Developing Afrikaans came with much sweat and tears, culminating in its acceptance as a proper language only in 1925.

HOW do we get Afrikaners on board the transformation train? Simple: bribe them. Not with monetary guarantees, but with cultural guarantees. Make a deal that you would allow the universities of Potchefstroom and Stellenbosch to stay Afrikaans in exchange for setting up institutions dedicated to building the linguistic infrastructure needed for local African languages to thrive educationally, using Afrikaans as the model. Give them a little more money and then demand that they spend 10% of their total budgets on this.

Such institutions would help produce teachers to run schools in local languages where pupils are taught mathematics and all the other subjects in their mother tongue. I am willing to bet that hundreds, if not thousands of Afrikaners from all over the world would rush over to take part in such a project, both as a way to ensure Afrikaans’ survival, and to assuage the guilt that a great many of them do feel over apartheid.

Another part of the tradeoff could be to demand an initiatory programme to teach all students that Afrikaans is not a white, Eurocentric language as racist Afrikaners believe, but one created by black and Asian slaves and labourers.

However, I don’t see this kind of solution being pursued. Many in SA’s elite seem quite happy to lord it over a divided society where the non-English excluded are a ready reservoir for cheap manual labour. And a government with South African Communist Party members in the advance guard, will always need the conversation to be in English, because their ideology can only be practised in a European language.

Meanwhile, Open Stellenbosch and its supporters’ linkage of race with language is herding Afrikaners into a new laager where racism will only end up being reinforced.

• Pienaar is a writer. His latest book is the novel My China. This contribution was originally published in Business Day.

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Pienaar bederf sy betoog met valse stellings, bv dat swart en Asiatiese slawe en arbeiders Afrikaans geskep het en dat diegene wat Afrikaans Eurosentries benader rassistiese Afrikaners is. Hy behoort sy kennis van die die geskiedenis van Afrikaans op te knap voordat hy met uitlatings kom.

  • Ek wonder of Hans Pienaar besef dat, wat na sy sin "bribe them" volg, niks anders as aparte parallelle ontwikkeling is nie. In Afrika is daar 2038 tale (laaste syfer wat ek in Ethnologue of Languages gesien het) en een mens praat 'n ander taal as die volgende mens hoofsaaklik uit hoofde van die feit dat hy van bed, tafel, hulpbron, man, elke aspek van die samelewing, geskei is van die ander mens. Om nou 11 of 25 of 300 verskillende taalsprekers (volke) in een arbitrêr-begrensde gebied saam te gooi en hulle te vertel hulle is nou 'n demokrasie is 'n resep vir chaos soos ons kan sien aan die huidige sirkus alhier.
    Die volgende sin van Pienaar is interessant: "The good English provided by apartheid took nearly a million Afrikaners and their skills out of SA, not their Afrikaans."
    Dit is waar in dié sin dat die oorgrote gedeelte van daardie miljoen na Engelssprekende lande toe is.
    Dis halfpad waar in die sin dat 'apartheid' gesorg het vir goeie Engels; dit het ook gesorg vir goeie skoling en goeie administrasie en dus 'n goeie groeikoers en dus 'n goeie lewensgehalte vir swart en wit.
    As Pienaar soos hy voel oor die borsbeeld van Verwoerd, wonder ek hoe voel hy oor die standbeeld van Shaka?

  • Bribing Afrikaners by "allowing" two of their universities to stay? Who's going to do the "allowing"? The bolshie kleptocracy? Isn't stealing what bolshie kleptocrats do best, including usurping and plundering the learning institutions of those they hate with an abiding racist vengeance? And what about the other two remaining universities?

    But why stop at their universities? How about "allowing" their primary and secondary schools to stay by bribing the parents? Why not just bribe the lot of them to grovel whenever their bolshie masters snap their fingers?

    How silly and selfish of me to think that Afrikaans-medium education is a constitutional right.

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