Free Afrikaans from its capturers and put it in its rightful place

Black students protesting against the compulsory teaching of Afrikaans in black schools charge during the 1976 Soweto uprisings. / Bettmann Archive
Black students protesting against the compulsory teaching of Afrikaans in black schools charge during the 1976 Soweto uprisings. / Bettmann Archive

The year is 1930; recently self-proclaimed Afrikaners are still squabbling about using Afrikaans officially, with an overwhelming majority arguing that it is inferior to their mother tongue - Dutch.

A few decades earlier, around the 1880s, the first Arabic-Afrikaans Quran was printed. Even earlier, around the 1830s, slaves wrote in the hybrid language made up of Dutch, Indonesian and indigenous words in the Madrasa in Cape Town.

I could keep going further back, but I think we have a clear picture of where this is going. The original Arabic-Afrikaans was the phonetic spelling of spoken Afrikaans, using the Arabic alphabet which came with enslaved people abducted by the Dutch and fellow colonisers.

Even as a speaker of standard Afrikaans and "Kaaps", my slave mother tongue, I have experienced exclusion from spaces that validate Afrikaner culture and Afrikaans.

My first question when hearing this history was: When did the Dutch learn Arabic? That's right, they did not. The truth about Afrikaans is one of resistance and survival in the face of violent colonial domination, but also erasure and appropriation.

The long and short of the story is that enslaved people in the Cape, which included indigenous people, created a creole language out of the fragments of their own languages they could quietly hold onto and the dominant language their masters enforced on them.

They did this not only to create new ways to relate to each other under conditions of violence, but also to subvert the prying ears of their oppressors. It was a survival mechanism born out of necessity and creativity.

It was not until later, when the Dutch-turned-Afrikaner embarked on their fascist, nationalist genocide which would later be named apartheid, that their tongues were cut out, standardised and used against them.

If we are not going to engage the history of Afrikaans honestly, then Afrikaans has no place in our society.

Today, many (black) South Africans recall the horror of 1976 and the resistance to Afrikaans as a proxy for exclusion and tyranny. Today the sound of Afrikaans as it rings through the admin blocks of universities still sends shivers down our spines, as do the sight of German shepherds.

We are clear in our calls for Afrikaans as an institutional tool of supremacy and exclusion to be abolished, but what place does Afrikaans have once we have achieved this historical correction?

I have argued elsewhere that even as a speaker of standard Afrikaans and "Kaaps", my slave mother tongue, I have experienced exclusion from spaces that validate Afrikaner culture and Afrikaans.

Therefore, arguments for its retention in institutional spaces that weaponise black Afrikaans speakers as victims of this fight, are completely blind to the fact that the black creators of the original language were the first to be wounded by the creation of Afrikaans.

Cast in the long shadow of racist Afrikaner nationalism, Afrikaans cannot remain immune to the vibrant deconstruction of a colonial past under the guise of protecting the interests of minorities.

If anything, Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola's writing on the matter should remind us that terms like "brown/black Afrikaners" alert us to the racism within "Afrikaner" and within that no black South African can find a home.

A creation of black indigenous Africans and slaves, Afrikaans deserves a historical honesty and a passion akin to the survival instincts of its creators.

It is for us to give credence to a concealed history, buried under centuries of manipulation and indoctrination as a start to reclaiming our history. Afrikaans deserves to be restored to the descendants of the slaves and indigenous people who created it, along with the sense of pride we have been dispossessed of for so long if it is to have a place.

The language must be committed to a fully unapologetic decolonisation project, backed up by our leaders who until today have not fully engaged our country's history.

If we are not going to engage the history of Afrikaans honestly, then Afrikaans has no place in our society.

If we are going to leave it to gurgle and splutter in the delusions of a white supremacist narrative of purity, then it must die. If we are not going to do the work of snatching it, both ideologically and culturally, from the clutches of whiteness, then Afrikaans is already dead.

Jamil F. Khan is a PhD candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies

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