The transformation of transgender women into goddesses for an annual Hindu festival takes place in an atmosphere of reverent, somber concentration. Laugh lines vanish, replaced by an impassive mask. Skin becomes stone. As they prepared to perform in the Mayana Kollai festival in a fishing village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, some of the dancers slipped into trances so deep it appeared they might have fainted.
I am a bit nervous to raise the topic. People get very, very cross when one says the “wrong” thing about it. A bit like Gareth Van Onselen when one criticises Helen Zille. (Remember Gareth, that self-righteous guy from the DA who now writes a self-righteous column in Business Day chock full of his own pedestrian prejudices? Sadly, I have not had a call from him for ages. He must be too busy crafting his 150 word gems for the newspaper to engage in friendly little chats in which he tries to convince me that white is black and black is white and that I am lying by insisting on the opposite.)
In any case, they phone you and (without knowing you from a bar of soap) start insulting you and tell you what a useless excuse for a human being you are. They might even pour a cup of tea over your head or assault you — but only if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, well, you guessed it, they will force you to watch recordings of Steve Hofmeyer performing at Huisgenoot Skouspel, or some such event. They complain bitterly about how they have been persecuted since 1994 (usually calling from next to the swimming pool at their house or from a brand new top of the range car masquerading as a truck). They call you a self-hating Afrikaner and a communist (or, worse, an ANC lackey) and a useful idiot (not knowing that they are quoting Joseph Stalin).
And all this because you might have suggested that the Afrikaans taalstryders making a living out of whipping up anxiety and fear about the demise of the Afrikaans language are at best opportunistic exploiters making a fast buck out of the fear and misery of others and at worst just pining for the good old days of apartheid when they were in power and could stuff up the country all by themselves.
But here goes. On Sunday, the main headline in Rapport (the Afrikaans version of the Sunday Times – only far more, you know, white, and with more headlines about Rugby and about NG Kerk infighting about the existence of the devil and whether dominees should be allowed to exorcise said devil) screamed: “GEE TERUG ONS TAAL!” (Give us back our language!) It told the story of some “brave” Afrikaners who are taking on the University of Stellenbosch, allegedly because that University is not ensuring that lectures are predominantly or exclusively conducted in Afrikaans (with sign language interpreters at hand to accommodate black students).
Some lecturers want to attract the best students of all races to study at Stellenbosch (something that is not happening at the moment) and want to appoint the best lecturers to teach at the institution (as it recently did when it appointed the brilliant Prof Achille Mbembe in the Sociology Department), but this would not be possible if everyone was required to speak and lecture most of their courses in Afrikaans. They are called the verraaiers or hensoppers or bootlickers of the new elite (in private they are said to lick other parts of the anatomy of the new elite too).
Others wish to ensure that the University remains dominantly and proudly Afrikaans, which would relegate it to the status of a second or third tier parochial institution for the children of whites (including, ironically, many English speaking whites whose children attend Stellenbosch University because it remains overwhelmingly white) and a few coloured students from the platteland. They claim the University does not need to attract black students (and it is sometimes implied that attracting black students would lower standards) because the Constitution protects language rights.
Afrikaners, they argue, have a right to their own Volkstaat-like University in pretty Stellenbosch where their children could study (and drink lots of red wine), free from the evils of affirmative action that would open up the university to black students and staff. In the eyes of this group, only Afrikaners (they are still debating whether Afrikaans speaking coloureds are Afrikaners or not) should continue to benefit from affirmative action — just as they have benefited from affirmative action for many decades after the rise of the National Party. Standards would be maintained by forging links with some of the better Universities in the Netherlands and Belgium, and embarking on joint projects about multilingualism and how to run a country without a government.
Well, at first it might appear as if this second group have a point. After all, section 6(1) of the South African Constitution states that there are eleven official languages in South Africa, namely Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. However, because the ANC negotiators were much better at their job than the old National Party negotiators, this section says much less than the Volkstaters would like to think.
Section 6(2) recognises the “historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people”, and places a duty on the state to take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages (somthing the state has not done at all over the past 18 years). Because Afrikaans has not been historically diminished (it was relentlessly promoted during the apartheid years and is therefore still one the most understood and spoken languages in South Africa – along with English and isiZulu – and hence does not fall within the ambit of this provision.
Moreover section 6(3) states that the national government and provincial governments may use any particular official languages for the purposes of government, taking into account usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances and the balance of the needs and preferences of the population as a whole or in the province concerned; but the national government and each provincial government must use at least two official languages. All official languages must enjoy “parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”.
This does not mean that languages should be treated equally — the term “parity of esteem”, borrowed from the Irish Constitution with a little help from Kader Asmal, means far less than equal treatment. It means that they must be treated fairly, given the economic, political and social context. Given the systematic promotion of Afrikaans during apartheid, given the dominance of English as a world language (for the time being at least) and given the neglect of other indigenous languages over the years, these sections might well mean that other indigenous languages had to be promoted vis-a-vis Afrikaans.
If Parliament adopts the National Language Bill now before Parliament and the national government finally formulates a national language policy regarding the use of official languages for government purposes (as required by section 4 of that Bill), the taalstryders might get a shock. Other indigenous languages might well — very legitimately — be preferred above Afrikaans in this language policy, the latter being a language who had been very much affirmed and promoted for 50 years during the apartheid rule.
Referring to Stellenbosch particularly, taalbulle argues that the right to receive education in the official language or languages of one’s choice in public educational institutions is guaranteed in section 29 of the Constitution. They fail to note that section 29(2) also states that this will only happen “where that education is reasonably practicable”.
In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account: equity; practicability; and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.
Section 30 underscores this point by stating that while everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, these rights may not be exercised in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights – including the provisions of the non-discrimination clause. Using a language policy that would exclude many black South Africans from accessing the excellent education at Stellenbosch is therefore not permitted by the Constitution as it infirnges on section 9(3) of the Constitution, read with section 30.
Where a University teaches some courses exclusively in Afrikaans, the effect of this policy would be to exclude many black South Africans from studying there and from teaching at this institution. Ironically, as long as Stellenbosch remains a University where quality education is provided and quality research is conducted (as it presently still is), the effective exclusion of black South Africans form the University through any language policy would contravene the non-discrimination clause in the Constitution. This is because the policy deprives many black South Africans from accessing a very high standard of education they might not receive at many other Universities and this disadvantages black students and staff.
This fight is only going to end one way and that is with the so called verraaiers winning the argument and the fight. If the taalbulle wanted to have a shot at retaining their white privileges at Stellenbosch they should have ensured many years ago that slightly less dim-witted people negotiated on their behalf at the Constitutional Assembly.
This is not to say that ons taal will disappear. On my iPod I have music from the early days of the Afrikaans music revival (Bernoldus Niemand, Koos Kombius, Johannes Kerkorrel), from avant-garde bands like Buckfever Underground and Die Antwoord, from Jan Blohm and Karen Zoid. On my bookshelf I look at books by Marlene van Niekerk, Ingrid Winterbach, Antjie Krog, Johann de Lange, Loftus Marais and Deon Meyer. When I want to express my anger in a colourful way, I choose one of the wonderfully expressive Afrikaans phrases available to me (but is unfortunately not polite enough to repeat here).
Ag, if only the taalbulle would stop fighting for the taal things might still turn out well for Afrikaans. Because with friends like them, who needs enemies?
As things stand, they are giving Afrikaans a bad name with their selfish and jingoistic crusade. By painting themselves as victims (“met ‘n wit brood onder elke arm vasgeklem” – “with a white bread clutched under each arm” – as my mother would have said), they are creating the impression that Afrikaans is being used as a proxy to try and retain the dominant white status of Stellenbosch University. Down that road lies permanent ruin for our taal.
If you want to save ons taal, why not write a poem, a short story or even an email in beautiful Afrikaans? Teach your children to use the language well. Engage in real debates – in Afrikaans, English or another indigenous language – about the real issues that face our nation: poverty, crime, corruption, racism, discrimination, homophobia, homelessness, hunger. Stop protecting the ill-gotten privileges of the apartheid years and stop acting in ways that will give the appearance of wanting to protect these privileges. Become an ambassador for the language through words and deeds – including words and deeds that demonstrate an understanding of the horrors of our past and its effect on the lingering injustices in our country. But please, spare me the moans and groans about the need to “save” the language at Stellenbosch University.BACK TO TOP