Afrikaans is not the en­emy; los­ing di­ver­sity is

To ar­gue that it is not the task of a univer­sity to en­sure the con­tin­u­a­tion of a lan­guage’s cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties and us­age is non­sense, writes

CityPress - - Voices -

If Afrikaans as a lan­guage of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ad­min­is­tra­tion and education is branded a heresy here and shrinks, it will even­tu­ally lead to the in­evitable demise of a pre­cious and var­ied in­stru­ment of awak­en­ing. It will bring about the dele­git­imi­sa­tion of Afrikaans, marginalise the peo­ple whose mother tongue it is and rob them of a her­itage – and there­fore of the pos­si­bil­ity to de­velop their po­ten­tial to ev­ery­one’s ben­e­fit.

We must re­move the masks and cease the heinous South African prac­tice and art of dou­ble talk and dou­ble think. If we do not have clar­ity about who we are and where we want to go, we will be forced into un­ac­cept­able and em­bar­rass­ing com­pro­mises that will leave ev­ery­one dis­sat­is­fied.

The whin­ing about lan­guage is the tip of the ice­berg. This dis­cus­sion is symp­to­matic of a more se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tion: that there is no clar­ity about the vi­tal in­ter­ac­tion among all the lev­els of South African so­ci­ety in this coun­try, where ev­ery­one be­longs, and all are re­spon­si­ble for a fu­ture that must be shared. The rul­ing party has failed mis­er­ably in its mis­sion to make some­thing pos­i­tive for all the cit­i­zens out of the con­struct “South Africa” that should have been built on jus­tice and hu­man dig­nity. The per­cep­tion was cre­ated and pro­moted that it is about an an­ti­colo­nial or anti-neo­colo­nial process. And we are told that “fix­ing” this means that ev­ery­thing of value to the peo­ple, ev­ery­thing that is an ex­am­ple of ex­cel­lence, must be de­stroyed to cre­ate space for jus­tice. At­ten­tion is di­verted from the first and most fun­da­men­tal and most ex­is­ten­tial in­ter­ac­tion an in­sti­tu­tion of higher education should have with its en­vi­ron­ment – its abil­ity to nur­ture. It is un­clear what a univer­sity should com­ply with on this con­ti­nent. The po­lit­i­cally am­bi­tious be­lieve – per­haps with good in­ten­tions, per­haps cyn­i­cally, cer­tainly short-sight­edly – that they can be new Africans, cit­i­zens of the world, by deny­ing and giv­ing up the lo­cal with a col­lec­tive push to­wards equal­i­sa­tion through the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor. In the process, they deny the na­ture of our hy­bridi­s­a­tion. Stu­dents are led to be­lieve that Afrikaans is the ob­sta­cle and big­ger prob­lems will dis­ap­pear with the adop­tion of a gen­eral alien­ation, ac­com­pa­nied by a mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the na­ture and chal­lenges of the fight. Stu­dents are kept away from a re­veal­ing con­fronta­tion with real equal­ity and trans­for­ma­tional po­ten­tial through mul­ti­lin­gual­ism.

True, the stu­dents stand (or dance) in front of es­tab­lished in­ter­ests and en­claves of priv­i­lege. They are the ones who should chase – out of the sa­lons where they are drown­ing in cor­rup­tion – the lead­er­ship corps of in­com­pe­tent cadres who hi­jacked the coun­try and mis­led the peo­ple in the name of lib­er­a­tion. Ideally, they will also be able to re­sist the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of in­sti­tu­tions of education and re­search. And all this in a con­fused world where we slowly dis­cover there are no clear ide­o­log­i­cal op­tions com­ing out of the dev­as­ta­tion, on a planet be­ing de­stroyed by the greed of the pow­er­ful and the blind sur­vival in­stinct of refugees.


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To ar­gue it is not the task of a univer­sity to en­sure the con­tin­u­a­tion of a lan­guage’s cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties and us­age is non­sense. One yearns for the es­tab­lish­ment of a univer­sity here in the heart­land where so much ac­cul­tur­a­tion has taken place and the re­mak­ing of co­ex­is­tence is still pos­si­ble, where, de­spite the un­cer­tain­ties, but also with the pos­si­bil­i­ties it of­fers, a revo­lu­tion­ary and per­haps even Utopian hu­man­ism can be formed. Why not? What pre­vents you, apart from your anx­ious self­pun­ish­ment on the one hand and an ill-con­sid­ered pop­ulism on the other? The hic­cup is the un­ques­tioned as­sump­tion that English will be the “lan­guage of record” – af­ter all, the other lan­guages are ad­di­tives – and in this way the ma­jor­ity of South Africans of all back­grounds are alien­ated in the same way from the use and de­vel­op­ment of their mother tongues as a medium of in­struc­tion. Aren’t we all equal here? Yes, but some are more equal than oth­ers. What we lack is the fear­less­ness of moral imag­i­na­tion. It’s clear that the lim­ited space that is given to Afrikaans is be­com­ing smaller by the day – be­cause the mo­bil­i­sa­tion of cul­tural hos­til­ity against Afrikaans is the eas­i­est way to di­vert the at­ten­tion of a frus­trated pop­u­la­tion from the real causes of their back­log, be­cause it is more mo­bil­is­ing (and a cathar­sis of self-de­struc­tion) to pour over the cliff in a snort­ing herd to the se­cond-class sta­tus of sup­posed world cit­i­zen­ship than to think one’s way through the dif­fi­cult road to the com­plex­i­ties and rich va­ri­eties of South African so­ci­ety.

The real dan­ger is the grow­ing abyss be­tween rich and poor, be­tween the priv­i­leged on one hand – in­clud­ing the de­ployed cater­pil­lars and grasshop­pers – and the less for­tu­nate on the other – in­clud­ing, still, coloured peo­ple and a grow­ing ma­jor­ity of white peo­ple.

Pre­cisely for this rea­son we must con­tinue to prove that univer­sity spa­ces ex­ist as re­source­ful and nour­ish­ing parts of the greater whole. Univer­si­ties where Afrikaans is used, and where there is there­fore a re­al­i­sa­tion of the value of mul­ti­lin­gual­ism and the ex­is­tence of the liv­ing means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that we ex­pe­ri­ence as “lan­guage” – where it is re­garded as us­able and as a por­tal to the deeper re­al­i­sa­tion of a shared hu­man­ity – are not ghet­tos or sanc­tu­ar­ies for the pre­vi­ously priv­i­leged.

“It is un­done for the Afrikaner to be the over­dog,” our dear Pro­fes­sor Sampie Ter­re­blanche ap­par­ently once said. In­deed, Afrikaans needs no pro­tected sta­tus or ex­cep­tional pam­per­ing. Only the space in which it can con­tinue to make an es­sen­tial con­tri­bu­tion to the coun­try’s de­vel­op­ment; only the dis­pen­sa­tion of com­mon sense that can en­sure it is not ma­li­ciously painted black like the prover­bial pig in the story of a search for dig­nity and jus­tice.

And it is im­por­tant for us to say it loud and clear. Non­par­tic­i­pa­tion in na­tional de­bates can­not be pre­scribed as the price to be paid by mi­nori­ties for con­di­tional ac­cep­tance as fel­low cit­i­zens. That non­sense is a dead cow dug from the trench by pi­ous whites to be milked for the venom of divi­sion and moral black­mail. Com­mon sense tells us, and the Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tees it: we are all cit­i­zens with the same rights. We are not pro­vi­sional or sep­a­rately de­vel­oped or si­lenced tem­po­rary cit­i­zens with sus­pended or waste­ful cit­i­zen­ship; not those who are ashamed or claim that lan­guage is just a bizarre fetish and a small sac­ri­fice to bring to the al­tar of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Breyten­bach is an artist and writer. This is an edited and trans­lated ver­sion of a talk he de­liv­ered

to the univer­sity’s con­vo­ca­tion last week


Breyten Breyten­bach

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