Stellenbosch, Afrikaans and South African identity

These are one of those ‘one paragraph’ facebook posts which became a blog post as my thoughts developed while I wrote and am looking forward to hear your thoughts.

What do these TEDtalk presentations (see links below) bring to the current discussion around language at Stellenbosch University? English as official language provides access (to some in their first language, to many in their second and others in their third) and connects more people to one another, but that may not be the only effect it has. The simple argument that Afrikaans ‘excludes’ is simply too simple, and incomplete.

Don’t Kill Your Language – Suzanne Talhouk

Don’t Insist on English – Patricia Ryan

The World’s English Mania – Jay Walker

Die Ander Kant (The Other Side) – A South African ‘Coloured’ perspective

When we say Stellenbosch ought to be a ‘South African’ university as opposed to say a White University or a Cape University or an Afrikaner University or an Afrikaans University, are we actually able to define ‘South African’? When we do define something we make it exclusive. It is ultimately impossible to move away from exclusivity.Taal

I won’t die if everything becomes English and neither would my children. I am an eighth generation South African (from before it became South Africa with its current borders I believe) who are currently operating in our third home language since: German, Dutch, Afrikaans… English? My first known ancestor to arrive in the Cape was German ‘Johann Heinrich Hoffmeister’ but was soon registered and ‘Dutchified’ as ‘Jan Hendrik Hofmeyr’ to better fit the culture – I assume his mother tongue was German, although he arrived from a region which was under Dutch rule at times. I am thus not of the opinion that my language is that which ultimately defines me (the one Arab lady in the video might be of that opinion though) but think that the TED speakers might be correct in saying that the country will get poorer, or at least lose a part of its collective mind and diversity should English become mainstream. Not my death but perhaps the slow death or transformation of its cultures. Not the end of the world but a move away from diversity towards uniformity. Away from local cultures towards a global one.

My understanding is that apart from political agendas, a major factor in language changes within (white/Afrikaans) South Africa has been the desire to transfer truth on ground level. I have not read extensively on any of this but it appears that a great influence on the Afrikaans transplantation of Dutch as written language among the people, was the need to serve the less educated and often illiterate (white and coloured) with the Gospel, as they struggled to partake in its fullness while Dutch alone was the official Church language[1]. Assuming the University of Stellenbosch does possess a great ‘truth’ to which more people want and need access, Afrikaans seems to be portrayed as the ‘Dutch’ (or ‘Latin’ in Catholic Europe until Bible translators began making the Word accessible to the masses in their mother tongue so that they may know God and freedom through their own tongue and culture) and English as the national vernacular (or ‘old Afrikaans’ as per above example), despite it being so as a second language.

Language can indeed be a barrier but the former trend referred to seemed to cross that barrier by expanding the choice of language from the position that truth is universal, transcending and celebrating diversity of cultures. Our current approach appears to contract choice into a single language option. The question following is how well our various cultures can continue to exist within an English framework – again, assuming they have to continue to exist in the way they currently do, at all.

The question we have seemingly grappled with from the start is how to live as a diverse people while pursuing a single national identity. Is the idea that we remain a rainbow with separate colours moving in the same direction or that the State mixes all the colours together and the end result is ‘South African’?*

If the rainbow is the goal, it would make sense that institutions displaying various cultures would co-exist, regardless of whether they are public institutions or not. If the melting pot is the end goal with only one official language in mind, English makes sense.

Taal_mother tongue

The following is based on the 2011 SA Census and serves as an estimate:

English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life – but only the fifth most spoken home language representing a mere 8,2% of the population. South African creativity has developed its own version of English. Combining the influences of the many other languages spoken in the country. The traditional Oxford Dictionary incorporated many South African words which have become common usage, such as kraal (village of huts) and trek (travel by ox-wagon).

Afrikaans is the second most spoken language in South Africa. There are approximately 6 million people who can speak [Afrikaans]. The language is only 90 years old, it is officially the youngest language in the world.

Zulu is the most commonly spoken mother tongue (23,8% ), followed by isiXhosa (17,6%) then Afrikaans (13,3%), Sesotho sa Leboa (9,4%), English (8,2%) and the rest made up by the remaining six languages.[2]

*If I’m not the only one asking, “What does it mean to be ‘South African’?”, then perhaps that is a good question to we ought to engage with.

[1] Any historical insight on the development of mainstream languages in South Africa is welcomed; this is merely something I have noticed in works I’ve read. I do recognise it as the typical approach by Bible translators beyond South Africa and even Europe though, and that it did play a role in the development of more languages.

[2] Source:


About Servaas Hofmeyr

For life through Truth.
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