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Today I was invited to speak at the Woordfees in Stellenbosch. I was the only back on the panel because the other black person just didn’t pitch. It is a very intimidating environment especially now with the calls for the fall of Afrikaans and so I can understand why the other person did not arrive. Anyway, I honored the invitation because I haven’t really engaged the Afrikaans community on the issue of language and multilingualism and I thought it is about time I do. The question that we were asked to consider for the panel discussion was: ‘Can a third world country such as SA afford multilingualism? Why don’t we become English, as it seems if it is already happening?’ Below is a summary of the points I made:
1. The issue is not whether we can afford multilingualism or not, but it is about whether there is a political will to do it.
1. Language is a proxy for race. The inequalities in our society (class, race etc) are mirrored in the linguistic inequalities. So the call for the fall of Afrikaans is a call for the fall of white privilege.
2. Inequality is a big problem and we cannot address the issue of inequality without talking about language because language differences in South Africa are also racial.
3. We should never forget that in South Africa the issue of language has always been interwoven with the politics of domination, separation, resistance and affirmation. During apartheid,the issue of the language of learning and teaching became a dominating factoring opposition to the system of Bantu Education
4. There are many Africans who have called for the use of English as the only official language. Though not unmindful or ashamed of African traditions, they have generally viewed cultural assimilation as a means by which Africans could be released from a subordinate position – they therefore fought against the use of African languages for teaching and learning because they saw it as a device to ensure that Africans remain oppressed.
5. If we consider how much money was put into the development of Afrikaans then we might recognize the inequity and thus unfairness of not spending money on the development of African languages.
6. The fact that African languages are not as developed as English and Afrikaans has nothing to do with whether black people are lazy or not but everything to do with history of apartheid and the reconciliatory approach that the African people went for during negotiations that led to our democracy under Mandela2. Language is not benign it is always political. (So is multilingualism.)
1. When we speak we create a political perspective, we use language to project ourselves as particular kinds of people engaged in certain kinds of activity.
2. It is one of the characteristics that are used in society to determine power
3. White people who are fluent in an African language often use their fluency for colonial power.
4. Language is a powerful tool for control. If you master the language of the oppressed then you can use it as a powerful tool for oppression
5. There is a very good reason why every time society changes the language policy also changes.
1. South Africa is a good example
2. Israel is another – they introduced a policy requiring all Israeli students learn Arabic!! Ask yourself why?
6. Language can be used to exclude or include people in conversations and decision-making processes.
7. As much as language can bring people together it can also separate them.
8. Language is one way in which one can define one’s adherence to group values.
9. So decisions about which language to use in education when, how and for what are not just pedagogic but also political

3. South Africa’s multilingual policy has limitations and we will never be able to attend to the challenges that we are facing with the calls for the fall of Afrikaans until we understand and deal with the limitations of our language policy
1. Our policy assumes that all languages are equally powerful
2. It ignores the hegemony of English
1. We have to understand why African people want access to English because it is a language of power and it provides access to social goods such as higher education, jobs, etc.
2. Access is a double edged sword- ensuring that more people are fluent in English is good but at the same time it makes English even more powerful.
3. Access to English entrenches its power

2 Responses to “My thoughts on language and the calls for Afrikaans to fall”

  1. Gretha

    I attended the panel discussion yesterday. Thank you for participating and for your most insightful contribution. As an Afrikaans-speaking person, I really found the points you made valid and relevant, points that should be noted and taken seriously by all groups. The issues you raised and perspectives you highlighted certainly helps me to have a better understanding of the context within which the current protests and conflicts are taking place. We need these conversations, to understand each other and find common ground. It is a pity that you found the prospect of attending a Woordfees event intimidating, although I can understand why. It would be ideal if cultural events like the Woordfees could feature more guests from other language and cultural groups, to promote an exchange of views in a friendly, rational environment. I hope that other Afrikaans-speakers in the audience were able to set aside their preconceived notions and listen with an open mind to what you had to say!

    • Kgethi Setati Phakeng

      Thank you Gretha for visiting my website, reading the blog and leaving a comment. Despite my discomfort attending the event, it was doable and I am sure I will attend again if there was ever another opportunity.

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