Living in Stellenbosch, I find myself moving constantly between the beauty of the Afrikaans language and its biting chauvinism. Afrikaans can be perplexing if you’re black and not a native speaker of the language. This is how it works.
Me: Good morning.
She: Waarmee kan ek help?
Me: I am looking for stationery.
She: Is jy die Prof van die Vrystaat?
Me: No, I am DJ Black Coffee.
I understood perfectly the sentiments in that landmark video called Luister that was produced in Stellenbosch during the student protests of 2015-16. Black students would explain, without rancor, the ways in which Afrikaans in this college town insults you, ignores you and breaks your spirit.
In a sheltered place like Stellenbosch you experience that emotional whiplash of encounters with Afrikaans every single day. The most common of those experiences is in the marketplace where many Afrikaans speakers in trading places would refuse point blank to speak to you in the language of initiation. Hence the above posting on my social media pages that evoked bitter online comment from white Afrikaans speakers.
Now let’s unpack that brief exchange.
I greet the trader in my home language. She pretends not to hear me and responds in Afrikaans. I continue in the language of the client, the one bringing business to her store. She renders me invisible by continuing in Afrikaans. By this point I am fed up and respond with the Black Coffee jibe. So here’s the question: Why does the woman behind the counter ignore the greeting in my home language? Why does she continue to spurn the approach in English?
On the one hand, she is being aspris (deliberate) for there is no doubt that she heard the language of approach. On the other hand, the salesperson’s behaviour is unconscious because of the ingrained habit of speaking Afrikaans as if the customer’s mother-tongue does not matter at all.
I could of course ignore what just happened but this is not the first time and it happens all the time to people without a facility in Afrikaans. In Stellenbosch I have seen Africans from other countries reduced to tears because the teller refused outright to speak in the one language they can both manage as a basic form of communication.
So what lies behind this behaviour? The late Neville Alexander, a longtime advocate for Afrikaans, explained such tendencies as a response to language pressures. He is partly right. In a town like Stellenbosch, the number of non-Afrikaans speakers is growing rapidly especially on the campus. It is not only English speakers from Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal that populate classrooms and fill academic vacancies. It is also citizens from north of the Limpopo. English is coming to town and the subjective experience of people like traders in the shops is that Afrikaans is being squeezed out of the community and off a campus which was founded for Dutch-Afrikaans speakers as a response to the English university on the other side of the Kuils River. To make matters worse, not too long ago the Courts effectively ruled that Stellenbosch University could have English as its primary language of instruction. Afrikaans is clearly much more than a language of communication; it is also a placeholder, standing in for something else.
On a trip to the West Coast resort town of Paternoster, a Stellenbosch professor entered a restaurant to inquire about a reservation. The professor asked in English, his home language, if it was possible to reserve seats for two. The man answered in Afrikaans. “That’s not very polite,” reacted the prof. “Well, this is an Afrikaans place; here we speak Afrikaans.”
This language chauvinism of white Afrikaans speakers is born of two impulses: the humiliation of ‘their’ language at the hands of the English and the imposition of the language on non-Afrikaans speakers.
The key to understanding the Afrikaans marketplace is that these two impulses are tightly interwoven threads. In the one knot, the Afrikaans speaker places himself in the role of victim. ‘My language is being marginalized or trampled upon.’ In the other knot, the Afrikaans speaker positions himself as aggressive defender of the language. ‘You will speak Afrikaans in my place or I will refuse to hear you.’
The sharp reactions to the bookshop encounter did not, however, only come from white racists in the online environment. Why could reasonable people not see what was so obvious to me and many others? I call this the Ashwin effect.
When Springbok rugby star Ashwin Willemse walked off the set of Super Sport, complaining bitterly about prejudice on the part of his fellow commentators, something revealing happened. White and Black saw exactly the same dramatic moment on television. Yet many whites could not understand what the fuss was about while blacks would say ‘that happens to me all the time.’
South Africans often struggle to see the prejudice, if not feel the pain, of other people’s exclusion. That is because we see an emotional event through the prism of our own experiences. We instinctively identify with one of our own especially when race is part of a conflict situation. And we read events on their own terms. In other words, the exchange in the bookshop has no past, only an immediate present stripped of any context.
Language chauvinism is certainly not limited to Afrikaans speakers or to white speakers of a language. The forceful experience of language aggression is often made in relation to isiZulu. The difference with isiZulu and Afrikaans, however, is that the former was never a language of social privilege and political power imposed on other languages through instruments of the modern state.
We sometimes underestimate the profound sense of loss for white South Africans in general and Afrikaans speakers in particular with the democratic transition of the 1990s. Imagine being in command of the country with power over black people for more than three centuries and then suddenly the world changes before your very eyes. You are acutely aware of the fact that you have lost political power, you feel the threat to your economic power (e.g. land expropriation) and you are left to assert yourself through the one thing that you still believe is your exclusive belonging: that very emotional and very personal source of cultural power, Afrikaans.
Afrikaans is a beautiful language with a diverse history of origins and belonging. It is decidedly not a white language. And yet the sad reality is that Afrikaans was appropriated by Afrikaner nationalism as an ethnic possession and, in the process of imposition on the black majority, became its own worst enemy.
That Afrikaans still struggles in trading places to accept its equality with other African languages and that it is no longer a language of domination is, paradoxically, a sure way of limiting its broader embrace after apartheid.