Afrikaans struggles to shake off the taint of apartheid

The language of the Boers has some surprising friends, writes Mary Braid in Johannesburg
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The Independent Online
Jacob Versfeld, a journalist at Radio Pretoria, a private Afrikaans station which still flies the old South African flag, occasionally makes the news rather than reporting it. He drives the 30 miles to the headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg, and sets fire to television sets on the pavement.

Mr Versfeld is protesting against what he claims is the treachery of the SABC. The corporation, which used to pour out Nationalist propaganda in Afrikaans, is now slowly strangling his mother tongue, he says.

When Afrikaans-speakers dominated South Africa, so did their language. But today the taal, which contributed such words as trek and, of course, apartheid to English, and to which there is a grandiose monument near Cape Town, is just one of 11 official tongues along with Zulu and Xhosa, each spoken by far more people. English is emerging as the country's new lingua franca.

To Bennie Bunsee, parliamentary adviser to the Pan Africanist Congress, this is entirely reasonable. "Afrikaners have been shown a generosity they never cared to give others in their entire history," he argues. "There is no special place for the Afrikaner language and culture."

But Mr Versfeld, chairman of the Genootskap vir die Handhawing van Afrikaans (GHA) - Society for the Preservation of Afrikaans - insists that concerted annihilation is under way. South African Airways' recent decision to drop flight announcements in Afrikaans, local and central government's switch to English, and the waning of Afrikaans schools and universities support a conspiracy theory which even implicates former president F W de Klerk.

"After the unbanning of the ANC, De Klerk started making speeches in English," said Mr Versfeld. "Now Afrikaner families are choosing English as the language of advancement. The National Party betrayed our language - the very basis for our culture and identity."

Coming from a man who unashamedly admits he would like to see apartheid return, such complaints are unlikely to inspire widespread sympathy. Instead, death may seem a fitting fate for the language of the oppressor, a language whose imposition in black schools provoked the 1976 Soweto uprising.

But an appeal for lingustic rehabilitation is also coming from more rarefied circles. Academics, intellectuals, businessmen and writers, including Breyten Breytenbach, considered by many the finest living writer in Afrikaans, recently gathered to defend the language at Stellenbosch in the western Cape, where 60 per cent of the population - including a majority of the mixed-race Coloureds - speak Afrikaans.

Mr Versfeld was not invited. His crude campaign, so blatantly linked to nationalism and white supremacy, would have been embarrassing. The aim was to free Afrikaans of its political baggage and celebrate it for its own sake. Even that proved controversial, however - newspapers warned against reviving Afrikaner nationalism, and suggested that fears for the language simply reflected Afrikaners' despair at their loss of political power.

But Mr Breytenbach's presence lent credibility to the event. His literary talent is undisputed, even by hardliners who hated him for his unrelenting criticism of apartheid and his marriage to a Vietnamese in Paris, where he still lives. He was sentenced to nine years in a South African jail when he was caught trying to organise a bizarre anti-apartheid campaign after entering the country under a false name and in disguise.

Today Mr Breytenbach can come and go as he pleases. He would like his language to be similarly unshackled. "We are not looking to launch a nationalist organisation, an ethnic organisation, a cultural organisation or a kraal," he insisted. His vision was of a non-racial, vibrant language, owned by all who speak it.

Not everyone was convinced. Even some of those who work in the language confess to a schizophrenic relationship with it.

Adam Small, a Coloured poet and academic, was a member of Die Sestigers (Writers of the Sixties), an Afrikaans anti-apartheid literary group which included the novelist Andre Brink and Breytenbach. During apartheid's darkest days he vowed never to write in Afrikaans again.

Professor Small switched to English, but his productivity was severely depressed, and in February 1990, when Mr de Klerk unbanned the ANC, he reverted to Afrikaans. It was a joyful and fruitful reunion.

He says it is unfortunate that Afrikaans is so inextricably linked with an abhorrent political system, and argues that its roots are misunderstood. Although based on Dutch, it was shaped by the ethnic groups in the Cape, including Malay slaves and indigenous Africans. "It is a wonderful composite of Europe, Africa and the East," he insists. "And it is a wonderful medium for expressing the deepest feelings about this country."

If there is a political conspiracy against Afrikaans, it does not enjoy full ANC support. President Nelson Mandela, who speaks the language, has encouraged its preservation. Mathews Phosa, a black provincial premier and former guerrilla commander, has gone further - a few months ago he published his first volume of poetry, Deur die Oog van 'n Naald (Through the Eye of a Needle), dedicated to his fallen comrades.

Mr Phosa speaks six languages, but chose to write in Afrikaans, despite finding it "ironic" and "very painful". Even at the most politically explosive times, he said, he expressed his deepest feelings in Afrikaans: he says he was fighting the system, not the language, and wants politics removed from Afrikaans.

That may prove impossible, however - Mr Phosa was criticised by some blacks for not choosing an "indigenous" language, while Mr Versfeld dismissed his contribution as minimal.

Professor Small believes the Stellenbosch initiative must seek popular support, but Mr Versfeld's views dismay him. "I don't think you can preserve a language like jamming a jar," he said. "It must live, reach out and love. If it is always on its hind legs, on the defensive, it won't achieve a damn thing."