From Afrikaans to Zulu: Fragmented S. Africa settles on 11 official languages

December 12, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- With 11 official languages, it is not clear if the new South Africa will become a Tower of Babel or a monument to multicultural tolerance.

The fact that this seemingly unworkable language provision of the country's new constitution was also seen as completely unavoidable demonstrates just how difficult it is to build a nation out of this troubled land.

As in so many colonized countries, the history of language in South Africa is tied to a history of repression of native peoples. But, as with so many things, the situation is much more complicated in South Africa.

For one, the most violent language battles have been fought between the two tongues introduced by whites -- English and Afrikaans. For another, though there were the usual attempts to enforce European language on the indigenous people, apartheid policies of "separate development" encouraged the various African tribes to retain their languages as one way of emphasizing and enforcing their separateness.

Currently, South Africa has two official languages, English and Afrikaans. For the Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch settlers who were the first whites to come to the cape of Africa, their language is a source of fierce pride.

A derivative of Dutch, it is often boastfully described by Afrikaners as the only Germanic language to develop outside Europe.

After the 1902 defeat of the Afrikaners by the British in the Boer Wars, English was forced onto the Afrikaners. Children who had hardly heard English in their lives were made to take all their school lessons in it. Pupils caught speaking Afrikaans were punished and ridiculed.

Some say that the seeds of resentment that later bore the fruit of apartheid were planted during this period. The Broederbond, a secret society whose members later virtually dictated the policies of the South African government, was founded in 1918 with a mission to protect the Afrikaner culture and language against this English onslaught.

Though Afrikaans became a co-official language in 1925, it was when the National Party took power in 1948 that the language became protected by law, the Afrikaners enforcing their language in much the same way the English did theirs.

To this day, anyone who deals with the public in any fashion is required to speak English and Afrikaans. News broadcasts on the so-called "white" television channel alternate -- Afrikaans on Monday, Wednesday and Friday; English on Tuesday and Thursday. (A separate channel now offers nightly newscasts in Zulu and Xhosa.)

Advertisements, labels and street signs are in English and Afrikaans.

Televised rugby, golf, cricket and most other sports events have commentators who switch back and forth between English and Afrikaans. The exception is soccer, the favorite sport in the black community, whose commentary is often in an indigenous tongue.

The power of language as political tool was demonstrated in 1976, when students in Soweto protested the use of Afrikaans in schools. That event spurred widespread unrest that is cited as a crucial turning point in the the militant resistance to apartheid. Afrikaans, the language of the people who instituted apartheid, became identified as the language of the oppressor.

The constitution-makers wanted to avoid any appearance of forcing any language on anybody. So it accepted the African National Congress proposal to have 11 official languages -- Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

"The concept is one of language rights," explained Albie Sachs, a longtime apartheid fighter who is architect of the ANC's language policy. "We are not talking about downgrading Afrikaans, but upgrading the black languages."

Mr. Sachs compared the situation to that of the European Community trying to offer governmental services to people speaking a multitude of languages on that continent.

"There will be pragmatic difficulties and pragmatic solutions," he said, offering the picture of United Nations-style interpreters and headsets in Parliament and courts as well as simulcasts and subtitles on television and other media.

Many of the solutions will probably be taken care of by the country's nine regions, which have been given some power over language policies in the new constitution.

In practice, English will probably be the universal tongue, with each of the nine provinces having a different second and third official language that would be used in schools and official transactions with the government. In Natal, for instance, that would be Zulu; in the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town, Afrikaans; in the Eastern Cape, Xhosa.

"There will be tremendous pressure towards English," Mr. Sachs said. "That must be balanced with the need for each person to develop their mother tongue. In their education, they should first learn to read and write that, then learn English."

South African blacks will actually have a much easier time with the new language policy. Most learned English and Afrikaans in school and often learned to speak three or four of the African languages to negotiate the multi-tribal townships. Most whites know only English and Afrikaans, though Zulu, the most widespread African language, is now being taught in elementary schools.

Still, for some, 11 languages is not enough. In the waning hours of the constitutional negotiations, representatives of the country's substantial Indian population asked that Hindi, Urdu, Gujurati, Tamil and Telegu be included. Others pushed for Portuguese and Greek, spoken by immigrant populations, as well as Hebrew and Arabic.

The constitution says the Pan South African Language Board should promote "respect for and development of" those languages, too.

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