Politicking around identity: Afrikaans holds many truths and evils

Afrikaans is a controversial language. Borne out of Dutch ships passing and trading with the Khoi to slavery, it has come to hold many ambiguities. It was the language of  enslaved people, then used to oppress Black South Africans. In present day South Africa, it is still used passively to exclude Black South Africans. Many job advertisements will specifically list being fluent in Afrikaans as a requirement. It is not uncommon to have language proficiency as a requirement – but in South Africa Afrikaans is still used as a tool to oppress. It is a language with many layers of fact, fiction and a bad reputation.

Broadly we know this as a language spoken by Coloured people in South Africa. Afrikaans is spoken by almost 7 million people across Southern African countries; mostly Black. Language is an integral part of a community’s identity. But are we aware of its genesis? Before slavery Dutch ships passing Cape Town began trading with the Khoi herdspeople. The earliest Afrikaans was spoken then already by Khoi folk to make trade accessible between the two groups. The first and true Afrikaaners were Khoi people. The Dutch and French Hugenouts appropriated the identity and language. 

The truth is Afrikaans has a complicated journey out of the vineyards of Cape Town, into the official halls of colonial South Africa. In the 1600’s the Dutch East India company had a strict language policy; everyone was required to speak Dutch. This included the slaves from Africa, Asia and the local Khoi folk. The various dialects and other languages mix resulted in a creolised version of Dutch; Afrikaans. The KhoiKhoi language has had a significant influence on Afrikaans. Words like kamma, kwagga, dagga, aitsa and kierie are all Khoi words. Afrikaans has so many dialects, and is commonly thought of as a slang Dutch. Slaves brought from parts of Africa and Asia also highly influenced the development of Afrikaans. Part of slave duties was to look after the colonisers children, and this early Afrikaans spoken by slaves influenced the next generation of colonists at the Cape colony. Some of the first written Afrikaans were court reports that recorded testifying slaves phonetically, words written how it sounded.

Slavery was abolished in 1834, and by then a large number of slaves had converted to Islam. The Quran was understood by copying out texts into Afrikaans. These writing exercises were done in the Cape Afrikaans using the Arabic Alphabet. The early variants of Afrikaans were three-fold; Cape Afrikaans (Malay and Arabic), Orange River Afrikaans (Khoi) and Eastern Border Afrikaans (colonisers).

Afrikaans became the official language of the Cape in the early 1900s. The development of Afrikaans is directly linked to colonialism, but it is not a colonist invention. This is evident it’s variety of influences present in including KhoiKhoi and Bahasi Indonesian. It has a variety of dialects spoken all over South Africa. The identity of Afrikaans was shifted by the Apartheid government. The aim was to build a South African nationalism that was largely based on racial segregation, with Afrikaans becoming the language of White oppression in South Africa. It resulted in one of the most deplorable times of South African history. The 1976 student uprisings were characterised by Afrikaans being made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools.

Afrikaans  was the lingua franca of colonial Cape Town. It got hijacked by racist white men, and has never recovered from it. It continues to perpetuate its racial exclusivity in employment is one of the unfortunate results. In present day South Africa, the Afrikaans media and publishing houses are the economic benefactors of the language. There are efforts to reclaim ownership with literature being published in dialects like Kaaps. But this is not enough. It feels like a dangling carrot in front of the descendants of the inventors of Afrikaans. It isolates the true origins so much that all we know is that it oppresses. Admitting the true origins of Afrikaans by the white people who hijacked the language would mean redress and accountability. It would mean a step toward equity.  It would mean acknowledging the impact slavery and colonialism has had openly. Not veiled under miniscule efforts to include Black and Brown people who spoke it first.

The old Afrikaans establishment will never be able to erase how they used the language to oppress and marginalise. It is part of its messy history. But like all things it needs to evolve to stay alive. It may have the economic power to hold onto its imagined legitimacy. But it will never hold any social legitimacy by continuing to deny who invented the language. Recognising the true history of a community is to respect and honour it. You cannot include Black people in a language they invented. You cannot gate keep something you never owned to begin with. Afrikaans was never created to oppress. It was created to unite oppressed and enslaved South African people. 

Featured image by DeWet via Wikimedia Commons