Towards the fullness of the Afrikaans language

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This contribution by Hein Willemse of the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at UP, forms part of the Afrikaans Language Council’s series of opinion pieces on strategies for Afrikaans, and coincides with the celebration of UNESCO’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition during this month.

On one of my bookshelves sits a framed black and white copy of Frederick I’Ons’s depiction of a freed slave, painted in 1840, two years after the final emancipation of slaves at the Cape. A seemingly joyous man in tattered clothes waves a white cloth resembling a dove in his right hand, while clenching a twig in his left. His shoes are inconspicuous, but also the clearest sign that he is a free man, for slaves were forbidden from wearing shoes. Similarly symbolic are the twig of rebirth and the white cloth of peace. The dancing man looks straight ahead, with a hint of apprehension.

We realise that the sketch obliquely conceals the brutality of the past. One can only imagine the mental anguish of being shipped thousands of miles across the oceans, shackled in the damp, dark hulls of slavers – from the Asian archipelago, the Indian subcontinent, the Mascarene Islands, Madagascar, or East or West Africa. Thousands perished during those crossings, and one can only imagine the isolation, terror and bewilderment of the survivors on their arrival at the strange place their slave masters called Kaap de Goede Hoop. When these men, women and children were sold as chattel at slave auctions on pedestals under trees, they were denied everything that made them individuals: their familial and communal networks, their names, their languages, their customs, their religions.

Very few of the first generations of slaves tasted freedom ever again. Generations of their descendants were born into slavery in domestic service, on farms and under the whips of the officials of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie. We do not have to imagine the 180 years of Cape slavery from the mid-17th century. We have reams of colonial evidence that, at the slightest transgression, slaves faced all manner of physical torture. They were branded, shackled and whipped; sexually assaulted and raped; mutilated, quartered and hanged; and, in a final act of perversion, often denied the dignity of a burial.

Somehow, formerly bonded people, like the man depicted, survived the brutality that was slavery. On manumission, descendants of former slaves consciously had to unlearn the habits of old, and gradually had to gather the sense of agency that had been denied them and their forebears for so many generations. Somehow, they and their descendants have survived. Today, we see their legacy in the buildings and furniture they built; in the age-old gardens, orchards and vineyards they planted; in the artisanal traditions they imparted; and, when we happen on them, in their unmarked graves. We see and hear the intangible remnants of those histories of foreign lands and subjugation. We see it in people’s faces; we hear it in their family names, renamed through colonial suzerainty. We find those remnants in the old Cape dorps and cities, on the remaining mission stations, in the cuisine, in the tales and music – and in language. The freed man in I’Ons’s depiction could only have been speaking Cape Dutch, the forerunner of Afrikaans.

Afrikaans was forged in the mouths of all those who lived at the Cape and beyond. It is in this Creole that we hear the remnants of the slaves’ foreign tongues, and the traces of their experiences. We hear the histories of colonial containment and repression in words of Malay origin, like “amok”, “sambok” (sjambok) or “tronk” (jail). Similarly, the words and recipes of slave cooks have become common in our kitchens, from “atjar” to “blatjang” (chutney), “bobotie” and “piesang” (banana), along with endearments that we use, like “poenankies” (cute), and our conventions of etiquette conveyed in words like “kanalla” (please), “tramakassie” (thank you) or “barakat” (a present). Words like “agáma” (religion), “labárang” (Eid, ie festival), “poewása” (fast), “bátja” (read) and “adhan” (the call to prayer) remind us of the rich heritage that East Asian traditions of Islam have bestowed on the Afrikaans language.

According to Halim Gençoğlu, the Kurdish theologian Abu Bakr Effendi, in one of his letters, reported that “Muslim people were abused under Dutch rule, and therefore Muslims have a strong dislike for the Dutch”. Notwithstanding this impression, or the long history of Dutch brutalisation, the imams bestowed on Cape Dutch a dignity that neither the dramatists of the early 19th-century Cape farces, nor the dominees of the Dutch Church, could ever achieve. We tend to forget that the early to mid-19th century imams gave the creolised version of Dutch its earliest validation in their madrasahs, ie religious schools, when they taught children to write Cape Dutch in Arabic, and to read the Qur’an. We find the first forms of standardisation of Cape Dutch in what we call today the “Arabic-Afrikaans” texts. For more than a hundred years, Cape Dutch (and later, Afrikaans) served as the language of religious service and instruction in many Cape mosques and madrasahs.

For the current generation of South Africans, much of this history has been forgotten or simply never taught in school, college or university. The only version of the history of the Afrikaans language that has ever been taught in schools or propagated through popular media is the Afrikaner nationalist version of it, which started with the Genootskap vir Regte Afrikaanders. Why, for instance, do we continue to think of 14 August as the only date associated with the early history of Afrikaans? In the nationalist version of history, the indigenous people, the slaves and the poor were sidelined, and their role and place in the development of it, minimised. Also, one cannot deny that the apartheid policies of the National Party government in the mid-20th century struck a dreadful blow to the continued fortunes of the Afrikaans language. Not only was the language labelled the “language of the oppressor”, introducing multigenerational antagonism against it, but these policies also caused deep levels of alienation among generations of first language speakers. Many of them turned their backs on it in favour of a language with less political baggage for the majority of South Africans. Still today, Afrikaans is used as an instrument of separation to deny fellow South Africans.

As Afrikaans speakers, we need to tell a story different to the one inculcated for so long through apartheid control, for that story has led to the pervasive survivalist angst of Afrikaner nationalism. Today, many plans are made by all sorts of organisations to ensure the survival of Afrikaans in the future. Many of these plans are predicated on the demands of a diminished Afrikaner nationalism. Unfortunately, many of those strategies and practices still fuel the inaccurate perception of Afrikaans as a sectarian language, and the end result will inevitably lead to the further isolation of its speakers, precipitate further alienation among some of its first language speakers, and increase its distance from fellow South Africans.

We need to resurrect the history of Afrikaans forcefully — through accumulative acts — as one of intermingling, creolization and the speech of people of various backgrounds, be they indigenous or settler, slave or master, black or white. It is, as the novelist Jan Rabie said in the early 1960s, the essential South African story. It is in sharing the commonalities of Afrikaans with other South African languages, and sharing the deep histories of its various speakers, that we could break down the enduring perception of sectarianism. The same goes for the perception of material privilege gained through the association of Afrikaans with apartheid and whiteness. It is through sharing its essential South Africanness, and even southern Africanness, that Afrikaans will endure. Not only do we need to tell this story to ourselves as Afrikaans speakers, but we also need to tell it to our fellow South Africans, and that is why this contribution is written in English. We need to tell the story of the fullness of Afrikaans, a language that was shaped, perhaps primarily shaped, in the mouths of indigenous people and people like the freed slave in I’Ons’s sketch.

Also read:

Op weg na die volheid van die Afrikaanse taal

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