Goodbye isiXhosa

Prospect Magazine

Goodbye isiXhosa

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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 rest

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

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RW Johnson

RW Johnson is the author of "South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation" (Orion) 

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