Speaking freely in S. Africa Afrikaans: English is increasingly replacing language of the former white power elite.

July 24, 1998

AFTER Nelson Mandela's ascension to power in 1994, South Africa added nine official languages to English and Afrikaans. The winner, though, was English, which has become the unrivaled lingua franca.

Like many older, nonwhite South Africans, President Mandela is proficient in Afrikaans. But the language of the former white-supremacist power elite has fallen on hard times. Proceedings and debates in Parliament are no longer kept in Afrikaans.

Once-plentiful Afrikaans television and radio programming has been strictly curtailed, and parents of all races demand that their children be taught in English, not Afrikaans.

With their language fighting for survival, supporters of Afrikaans -- long synonymous with the sins of apartheid -- are trying to project their tongue in a better light.

Afrikaans was born late in the 17th century in the Cape Town area. Its basis was Dutch, but it also included English, Xhosa and Malayan syntax and words. It was the basic means of communications for the whole Cape colony -- whites as well as mixed-race people, known in South Africa as "coloreds."

During the apartheid rule, the contributions of the latter group to the language's development were officially belittled. They are now freely acknowledged, including the fact that the earliest Afrikaans was written in Arabic script by Cape colony Muslims.

After the white-supremacist Nationalist government came to power in South Africa in 1948, it adopted Afrikaans as its political symbol.

Only a fraction of South Africa's 43 million people understand Afrikaans, but that language has spawned a vibrant press and much creative literature. Now that the apartheid rule has ended, though, many of the people who for employment or self-interest had to learn Afrikaans no longer have that need.

To its further detriment, Afrikaans cannot compete with English as the language of the Americanized popular culture that has taken the new South Africa by storm.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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