Thursday, June 16, 2016

16 June 1976

Language lies close to our souls. The essence of who we are. Who we are is fuzzy and linked. One of the reasons I love the English language is that there is no boss. The Oxford English Dictionary is a mirror more than a rule book. It looks at how the language is used, and the language evolves. I spent the last two weeks in Langa, Cape Town, trying to learn isiXhosa. If I had only listened to my 8 year old teacher, it would be easy. Just add 'u' to people, and 'i' to things. iXhosa is ivery ieasy ito ilearn Uyanda. There are lots of borrowed words in isiXhosa. Many of the words used in the Eastern Cape (the home of the language) which were formalised in the textbook I am trying to learn from, are not used in the cities. Even the formal language is about 15% from the San People (inhabitants of South West Africa for thousands of years).

South Africa has 11 official languages. The 1909 Constitution of the Union of South Africa had two - English and Dutch. Afrikaans, like isiXhosa, is a language born in and of South Africa. It was originally known as a 'kitchen language'. Derided among the powers that be as 'baby dutch', like isiXhosa it had incorporated elements of Malay, Khoisan, Portuguese and Bantu languages. The rise of Afrikaner Nationalism as a push back on English domination (after the Union by force) ended up bastardising the unifying nature of languages like Xhosa and Afrikaans. In 1925 Afrikaans was recognised as a real language rather than just slang. Along with that comes formalisation. It also became a symbol of pride for the White Afrikaans population tied closely to religious beliefs seeing South Africa as a promised land.

Geographical Distribution of Afrikaans as a home language in South Africa
Darkest shades is 80-100%

Eusebius McKaiser argues that it is 'time to decolonise Afrikaans'.  Many (and soon probably most) Afrikaans speakers are still part of potjiekos (pot food) South Africa. The Afrikaans is that spoken at home. With lots of variety. Different areas taking different mixes of spices. Different mixes of local words. Different accents. That Afrikaans is a celebration of humanity. Raw. Spicy. Full of flavour.


Afrikaans started as a result of real people engaging with real people. Afrikaans became a tool of oppression. On 16 June 1976, students in Soweto rose up against the imposition of formal Afrikaans as the language of instruction. In 1974 the Apartheid Government insisted that certain subjects be taught to Black Africans in Afrikaans (mathematics, arithmetic and social science), because their employer one day would be either English or Afrikaans. Students rose up and many argue that was one of the turning points in unifying the African National Congress in its fight for freedom for all.

40 years on, I agree with Eusebius. I think it is time for us to claim language as a very human, very democratic tool. Learning the languages people are actually speaking in requires listening. It requires engagement. It requires seeing people for who they are. Language is incredibly resistant to central control. Just like education. The ridiculous Apartheid system of Bantu Education attempted to train people to be subservient. 

Language and Education will rise not as symbols of oppression, but symbols of community building and freedom.


Hector Pieterson lost his life in the 16 June 1976 Soweto Uprising

Education and Language
should be symbols of community building and freedom
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