The South African constitution guarantees "parity of esteem" to no less than 11 languages. But English, despite being the mother tongue of only 9 per cent of the population, will soon crowd out the restby RW Johnson / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Race has clearly been the dominant factor in South Africa’s difficult history, but language comes a close second. Generations of Afrikaners bristled with anger at the story of how, in Alfred Milner’s South Africa, immediately after the Boer war, a child who spoke Afrikaans was made to sit facing the wall wearing a dunce’s hat. More than 60 years later, as the tide of linguistic nationalism trampled over Anglo sensibilities, the South African post office was still stamping every letter with the slogan “Die Wonder van Afrikaans.” And while the apartheid government was able to jail Mandela in 1962 and intimidate his supporters into silence, it went a step too far in 1976 by trying to insist on Afrikaans tuition in black township schools. The resulting explosion inaugurated an era of popular protest which never really stopped until apartheid was toppled and majority rule ushered in.
When, however, the new constitution was drafted in 1996, African nationalist indignation at the centuries of white dominance mingled fatally with linguistic correctness to produce a perfectly mad language policy: there were to be 11 official languages as well as special measures to promote and expand the almost dead languages of Khoi and San. The 11—isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, English, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga and isiNdebele—had to enjoy “parity of esteem and must be treated equitably.” In addition, the Pan South African Language Board was set up to create “conditions for the development and use of all official languages.”
The French, when weighing the question of British entry to the EEC, worried that “three languages mean one.” That is, while French-German bilingualism was a viable mix, once English was admitted, any gathering of three nationalities would quickly lapse into English because it was the one international language almost everyone knew. And so it has proved: today English is the EU’s dominant language by far. But if just three languages mean one, then 11 do even more certainly. The ANC elite, many of whom spent decades in exile in London, invariably speak English. The space occupied by Afrikaans in the broadcast media has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was and manufacturers have quietly removed Afrikaans instructions from their products. You can use any language you like in parliament but 90 per cent of the proceedings are in English, and Hansard gives only an English translation of the other ten languages. English is reinforced at every turn, not only by the familiar forces of the anglosphere but also by the arrival of satellite television, English football, the internet and South Africa’s re-entry to the Commonwealth. Even next-door Namibia and Mozambique, Commonwealth members both, are striving to become English-speakers. Since 1994, South Africa has rapidly and irreversibly moved towards becoming an English-speaking country.