Answers in a nutshell on questions most frequently asked

Catharina Loader


How can one describe the language scene in South Africa?
The country's Constitution guarantees equal status to 11 official languages. These are Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. As if so many tongues were not enough, one also comes across languages that are not officially recognised by the constitution but very present in the language scenario of the country, for instance languages like Khoi, Nama and San as well as Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, He-brew, Hindi, Portuguese, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. There are also a number of indigenous creoles and pidgins. Fanagalo represents such a mixture of languages, originating from an attempt of mineworkers to understand each other.

Which group speaks which language?
The official languages of South Africa can be divided into two dominant groups. The main group is the African Bantu languages (spoken by groups of Bantu ancestry) and secondly there are the languages that are mainly the inheritance of the colonization of the country (spoken by groups like the English, the Afrikaners, Portuguese, Germans and Indians).

The main group is dominated by the Nguni languages and the Sotho languages. Then there are the smaller groups: Tshivenda is the language of the Venda people (2,7% of the population), who are culturally closer to the Shona people of Zimbabwe than to any South African group. The Tsonga/Shangaan people came to South Africa long after most other African people and represent 4,4 % of the total population.

With the arrival of the Dutch, British and other immigrants in the Cape Colony the Western language groups were introduced to Southern Africa. Dutch officials were also responsible for bringing slaves from their Asian colonies to the Cape settlement and this group of people brought with them their Malay language and culture. The interaction between these different groups thrown together in the Cape region transformed the use of Dutch very quickly into what today is the youngest Germanic language of the world: Afrikaans.

Britain dominated South Africa from the time of the Napoleonic wars to the establishment of the Republic of South Africa in 1961. For more than 150 years, they put great emphasis on anglicizing the indigenous people of the country. Professor W.A.M. Carstens of the North-West University, South Africa, emphasizes the fact that despite the perception that English is the prestige language in the country, according to the 2001 census statistics the mother tongue speakers of English decreased from 8,6% to 8,2%. Only as a second or third language, English is increasing. Zulu is the language spoken by the most mother tongue speakers, followed by Xhosa, Afrikaans and Sepedi. English shares the fifth position with Setswana.

What is the current situation with regard to bilingualism or multilingualism?
The scope of multilingualism at grassroots level in South Africa is impressive. Most people can speak or understand more than one language. This is the result of heritage as well as the inevitable consequence of constant contact between the different groups who live and work together in one society where globalization also plays a part. Carstens moreover highlights the trans-provincial character of indigenous languages by pointing out that several indigenous languages are spoken across provincial borders and regions in South Africa. These languages are shared by speech communities from different provinces across the country.

Are certain language groups stigmatised?
Unfortunately some of the languages in South Africa became strongly stigmatised. Firstly English was associated with colonialism and later with the atrocities of the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) which led to the death of tens of thousands of women, children and old people.

Tsotsis were made famous by the prize-winning film referring to them in its title. In the film the gangsters spoke “Tsotsi taal”, an amalgam of Afrikaans, English and a number of African languages. This dialect is widely spoken in urban areas. The word "tsotsi" means "gangster" and "taal" is Afrikaans for "language". It is increasingly becoming associated with urban criminality.

Bantu languages are somewhat paradoxically also stigmatised in the sense that ordinary people often feel that their children can only succeed in life if they are able to speak English as the language of the globalised world. It no longer matters that English was used to colonise the speakers of these languages and their ancestors. These perceptions reduce the use of indigenous languages in several areas, for instance by limiting possibilities for publishing in these languages. It pays better to write in English.

During Apartheid the image of Afrikaans was severely damaged by short-sighted politicians. Politicians chose to make a political issue of Afrikaans when Dr Andries Treurnicht, the then Minister of Bantu Education, forced Afrikaans as a school language on black children. This became a banner of the student protests of the seventies and as such entrenched the perception of Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor. This was aggravated by policies of the Nationalist Party, which simultaneously promoted Afrikaans and applied the injustices of Apartheid. Gradually but relatively quickly, the stigma earlier attached to English was replaced by the slogan that Afrikaans is the language of oppression.

How does ideology influence the position of Afrikaans and Afrikaners in particular?
This resentment against Afrikaans and Afrikaners in some sectors of South African society was recently accentuated even more extremely by members of the ANC’s Youth League singing songs calling blacks to “shoot the Boer” – meaning white Afrikaans speaking people in general (“Boer” with a capital letter) and farmers in particular (“boer” without capital letter). Condemned as hate speech by the South African High Court, this song is often translated from its vernacular form into English so as to be understandable and to convey a statement. The fact that this kind of anti-Afrikaner outburst is only meekly softened under pressure of bad publicity, but is nevertheless allowed to continue under the guise of a “historical tradition from the struggle”, augurs also threateningly for the future of language equality in South Africa.

This may be illustrated by referring to some opinions expressed at the conference “Trauma, Remembrance and Narrative in the South African Novel” at the University of Vienna during April of this year (2010). Not only Afrikaners were condemned in some of the discussions, but also Afrikaans was (as so many times before on different platforms) criticised in no uncertain terms. While condemnation of the Nationalist Party’s policies, members, leaders and followers (who included English speaking whites) is completely justified and necessary, it is not justified to single out only one language. If that is done, a simple fact is ignored, notably that a major section of Apartheid’s victims – the so-called “Coloureds” – were mostly Afrikaans speakers. They in fact outnumbered the many white Afrikaans speakers who supported Apartheid. Likewise, the fact that English speaking whites, as the most affluent sector of Apartheid society, benefited greatly from white privileges under Apartheid, is glibly ignored. The huge injustice of cheap black labour was exploited to the full by industry and mining, dominated by English speaking people. Another overlooked fact is that there always was a small but vocal Afrikaans speaking opposition who were outspoken for the abolishment of Apartheid. They were also the first to apologise for wrongdoings in the past. Without denying the Afrikaner’s responsibility for acknowledging the darkness of this period, plain historical facts and simple logic should not simply be turned a blind eye to.  If this is done, the argument against the evil of Apartheid is weakened. Nevertheless, the force of emotive response to traumatic experiences under Apartheid should be respected for what it is. But there is indeed a danger that this can become so strong as to substitute the language for the real human culprits who happened to speak that language. Trauma in the South African context cannot be denied and remembrance is a prerequisite for trying to prevent recurrence of the same tragedies. In any event, no language can be a perpetrator of evil.

The position of Afrikaners and Afrikaans can be compared to that of German speakers after World War II. Just as the German language is not responsible for National Socialism and what was perpetrated by the carriers of an ideology who used German, so the Afrikaans language is not responsible for Apartheid Nationalism and what was perpetrated by the carriers of an ideology who used Afrikaans. As little as all German speakers can be covered by the Nazi blanket, so little can speakers of Afrikaans be covered with the Apartheid blanket.

It may perhaps contribute to a solution if all participants in the debate could rebalance their criticism by directing it at the Apartheid Nationalists (or currently the AWB - an extreme Afrikaner rassist minority) instead of using a language and its speakers as an umbrella label. That would sharpen the critical effect of remembering the Apartheid past, because it would be directed against those who perpetrated the crimes against humanity and not against abstractions such as words and syntax.

The power of a nuanced argument would not only enhance critical remembrance, but would also recognise that Afrikaans does not have as many centuries and as many millions of speakers as German to help it overcome the burden of a totality transfer of all that was bad about an unexceptable ideology and its practice.

Did language politics change after the fall of Apartheid?
Its constitution underlines the fact the South Africa is a multilingual country in which the indigenous languages are equal and that all the different languages, including the non-official languages, should be promoted and treated with respect. It is declared as the human right of every citizen to talk and use his/her mother tongue in all spheres of life. This was the point of departure in 1994 but unfortunately not much came of the lofty ideals in the last 16 years. At the moment the country’s lingua franca is English and it is used by the government and in business and commerce. Official forms like the income tax forms and similar documents are, for example, distributed in English. English is the dominant language in public and commercial life, as one can see in the press, on radio and television, in educational institutions, in the courts and in all government services.

What kind of legal control is there to ensure the equal rights of the different languages in the country?
PANSAT (established in terms of Act No. 108 of 1996) is the organisation in South Africa that acts as the watchdog over development and cultivation and survival of the languages in the country. Its task is to optimise the development of languages, to prevent discrimination against one language, to prevent domination of one language over another. This organization is responsible for the founding of language committees, national language organisations and lexicographical study units for each language. But PANSAT has no legal powers. It can only criticize language violations but in practice has no teeth. The powerlessness of PANSAT is a sign of the current lack of will to take an active role in the development of languages issues related to them.

On the other hand, an infrastructure for the promotion of multilingualism does exist. These are primarily concentrated in the Directorate of National Language Services of the Department of Art and Culture and its sub-directorates. They are responsible for the planning of language status, structures and education, translations, interpretation, editing, development of terminologies and literature of underdeveloped languages, implementing of language rights, mediation and administration.

“De facto”, notes Carstens, “we find that in the process of implementing these policies the governmental bodies are dragging their feet.” There is, however, opposition to this attitude. An example is the action by a lawyer, Cerneels Lourens, who recently took the government to court for not applying the stipulations of the constitution for the treatment the various languages in South Africa. He won the case and the State was instructed to adhere to the constitutional rules and to report back to court in two years. The fact that a court case was necessary is a negative factor, but the fact that the court upheld the case does show that the legal option can provide an avenue for language rights to be respected in practice.

Is there competition between the different languages in daily life?
English is privileged over all the other languages in the country (government officials primarily function in English). Jokingly, people refer to the national language of South Africa as “Bad English”, but many a true word spoken in jest. Informally people use their mother tongue but formally speakers of languages other than English have to fight for a fair hearing and fair opportunities. This fact is obviously a source of tension because these speakers do feel that their mother tongue and therefore their rights as citizens are disregarded.

Which languages are used in schools and universities?
In the provinces preferential treatment is given to the strongest languages of a particular region. IsiXhosa is for example prominent in the Eastern Cape. In the Western Cape we find that Afrikaans is more prominent and isiXhosa falls back to the third place. In Northwest Province Setswana is mostly used and in Kwa-Zulu-Natal the emphasis is on isiZulu.

Prof Carstens points out that before 1994 Afrikaans was the medium of education in almost half of South African universities. Today this is only the case at two, namely the University of Stellenbosch and the Northwest University (Campus of Potchefstroom) where it has also come under pressure of English. A policy of parallel instruction is followed by the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State. English is the only language of instruction in all other universities in the country. A light in the proverbial tunnel of mother tongue education is the fact that isiZulu is presently phased in at the University of Zululand.

At the universities where Afrikaans is still the prominent language of instruction the authorities demand that students have access to classes via other languages as well. The North-West University offers an interpreters’ facility to solve this problem. Such a facility, resources and costs involved are not demanded of English speaking universities. This is an example of severe language discrimination. As a student put it: “Fairness means you have to be able to speak English”. Despite the fact that English is the home language of only 8,2% of the population, it is also the medium of instruction in most schools and a compulsory subject in about all schools.

What is done in SA to promote Afrikaans?
In some circles it is said that Afrikaans is moving from strength to strength – there are more magazines and more festivals, the circulation figures of newspapers are increasing rapidly and Afrikaans creativity blossoms as never before.

This is true and a source of gratitude, but cannot be sustained if hampered by official apathy towards the language. But Carstens provides evidence of indifference in this regard: the Director General of the Department of Arts and Culture argued in the court case mentioned above that it is not the fault of the state if Afrikaans fails to have the same status and level of development as English. As for “status”, official policy does curtail the possibilities of the language as sketched above. The utterance on “level of development” evidences linguistic and literary ignorance as well as the generalising image mentality described above. So it comes as no surprise that the court did not accept this line of reasoning.

During the years after 1994 the Afrikaans speaking community developed both successful and less successful projects to promote Afrikaans. After eight years of planning, the Afrikaanse Taalraad (ATR) was established in 2008. Its goals are to promote a process to safeguard the position and status of Afrikaans in South Africa as well as internationally on an inclusive, non-racial basis. The organisation engages in networking and the coordination of Afrikaans strategies. This is seen as the best option available to address political pressure and neglect and to create opportunities to work with the total spectrum of different Afrikaans speaking communities irrespective of race and ethnicity.

Mother tongue education is a priority and to be promoted by the different language groups in the country (as is illustrated by the process started by the ATR).

What does the future hold for Afrikaans?
Prominent Afrikaans author Jan Rabie describes Afrikaans as the biggest non-racial achievement of South Africa. He was able to make this statement because Afrikaans is a heritage from Europe, Asia and Africa itself – facts that can already be verified by considering who actually speak Afrikaans as their first language, and by analysing the vocabulary of Afrikaans.

Several role players, such as socio-linguists and authors, are positive about the future of Afrikaans. Although much pressure is still brought to bear on Afrikaans, that also is the case with other South African languages. Afrikaans is a strong language with a strong literature and enthusiastic speakers. The changing demography of the Afrikaans community due to factors such as racial integration, emigration and language transfer, creates new challenges but also opportunities to develop Afrikaans as a modern language of the 21st Century.

What is the most positive side to the history of Afrikaans?
The story of Afrikaans can be read as a constructive warning to all who drag language into the political arena. Languages, not only in South Africa but in all multilingual societies, should be handled as valuable assets to the cultural richness of a country. They should be fostered, not abused as barriers between groups. It is to be hoped that Afrikaans will in future be handled in a colourblind way and not become the tool of new discrimination based on ethnicity or race. If the latter does happen, it will be a hard blow for democracy in South Africa.



  1. Facts and figures and up to date opinions from Professor W.A.M. Carstens of the North-West University, South Africa are included in the answers.
  2. In Kurzfassung auch auf der Online-Zeitung der Universität Wien publiziert.

Published: May 2010



© Catharina Loader 2001