Wading into language politics in South Africa (uh, Suid Afrika? iNingizimu Afrika? uMzantsi Afrika?)

I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, a few days ago to begin my work with a human rights litigation group for the next two months. I came to South Africa cold—I knew little about its languages. It’s also very cold here.

But I knew I was in for an awesome experience when I hopped aboard the Gautrain commuter rail to the center of the city and watched patiently as the electronic sign reading “Stops at Rhodesfield, Marlboro, and Sandton” slowly cycled through five or six different languages, none of which looked familiar to me. (Yes, the city names were even different! Cool! Wait—where does the train stop? Come back, English text!)

The linguistic diversity of South Africa is overwhelming. With 11 official languages–in order of native speaker proportion: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, Tswana, English, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, and Ndebele– South Africa has the second most officially recognized languages in the world after India.

I live in the really tiny bit of light yellow (English) in the central-northeastern part of the map.

According to the 2001 census, Zulu had the greatest proportion of native speakers but still only clocked in at 23.8%. Although only about 8% of South Africans speak it as a first language, English emerged as a politically neutral lingua franca, used in business, politics, and the media, during Apartheid. Choosing English was a politically and racially charged move. The conflict came to a head when the Afrikaner (white Dutch-descended South African) government attempted in 1976 to make Afrikaans, a linguistic descendant of Dutch, a main medium of instruction in all South African schools. That didn’t end well.

While Afrikaans was seen as the “language of the oppressor” (in the words of Desmond Tutu) and virtually useless outside of southern Africa, English offered broader horizons and opportunities in the international community.

Before I started preparing to come to South Africa, I overestimated the role of Afrikaans in Johannesburg and even wondered whether I would need to learn a few Afrikaans phrases to get by. I didn’t—nearly everyone in Johannesburg at least understands English. Of course, Johannesburg isn’t representative of all of South Africa, and there are certain areas of South Africa where Afrikaans is commonly spoken.

I also underestimated the role of other languages: 62% of Johannesburg residents speak Bantu languages at home, a fact that blew my mind but really shouldn’t have.

Not knowing about the sheer diversity of languages in Johannesburg is partly due to my own ignorance, of course. But I also wonder the extent to which representations of South Africa and South Africans in American popular media, and the racial and cultural implications of those images, influenced my previous impressions. I’m still trying to slowly piece a more accurate picture together. For example, I know next to nothing about Bantu languages and I can’t wait to learn more while I’m here.

And the more I talk to people, the more complex the language politics of Afrikaans seems. What does using Afrikaans convey about the speaker? (Is it still the “language of the oppressor”?) When do people decide to use it? (My housemate, who learned Afrikaans as a first language, says he sticks with English, a politically safe choice, unless he’s positive from a person’s name that they know Afrikaans.) Who decides to learn it? (After expressing a passing interest in taking Afrikaans classes, another friend advised me not to tell others that I was learning Afrikaans. As part of her rationale, she pointed out that the relationship between Indian South Africans—who number over 1 million today—and black South Africans is not easy.)

Lots of questions, but so little time!

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