South Africa: Language deals create new Babel: Blacks and women prepare for the dawn of democracy and a fairer society

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The Independent Online
DEMOCRACY in South Africa is being carried to extremes. In the interest of compromise, of accommodating the fears and aspirations of the greatest number of citizens, it has been decided that the country will have 11 official languages.

English, it is generally recognised, will naturally become dominant. It was, for example, the only language spoken during two years of multi-party talks.

But the government insisted that the home language of almost all its MPs and cabinet ministers, Afrikaans, should retain the privileged position it acquired under apartheid. Still today every official state document - everything from parliamentary bills to parking fine slips - is carried in both Afrikaans and English. The same goes for road signs and even road names, which change language every alternate block.

The ANC, highly sensitive to the dangers of upsetting the volk, agreed but, so as not lose face with its diverse constituency, demanded a concession of its own. The nine indigenous black languages - prominent among which are Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho - have also been declared 'official' under the new constitution.

The potential would seem to be high for ecological catastrophe in the forests of Natal. Traffic accidents could also rise spectacularly should it be decided that 'Stop' signs in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg should be carried in Xhosa at one junction, Zulu the next.

Things could have been a great deal worse, however. On Tuesday afternoon, with the deadline looming alarmingly for the negotiators to conclude their constitutional work, a delegate at the Negotiating Council suggested in all seriousness that Hebrew, Arabic and Urdu should be added to the official list in deference to the sensibilities of the non-Christian minorities.

When someone responded that they might just as plausibly include Portuguese, Italian, German and even Polish - languages which are still spoken by some recent immigrants - consensus was rapidly reached that 11 was, after all, an acceptable number.

The importance of the decision is that South Africans will not be forced, if they so choose, to speak any language other than the one that they learned at home. Civil wars, after all, have erupted over less.

The Soweto uprising of 1976, the event which, more than any other, precipitated the mass mobilisation for democracy in South Africa, arose after the government insisted that Afrikaans should become the medium of instruction for black schoolchildren.