Cape Town is home to the largest population of Afrikaans speakers in South Africa
It took me a long time to realize that I don’t write in Afrikaans. I write emails, postcards and personal journal entries in Afrikaans, but I don’t actively write Afrikaans poetry. Yet to me, it has never felt like something I don’t do. Latently, at the back of my mind, it has always been something that I could do if I wanted to, and do want to do, but haven’t gotten around to. Just like most of the time those identifying as poets don’t really write poetry all that often, spending more time mourning the fact that their poems only come to them in minority moments, so I write poetry in English with a hovering ability (or guilt?) to do more present in my sense of self.
Reflecting on this essay’s title, I realize it’s not the first time that I play homonymically with the word “sentence,” distancing it from the familiarity of syntax and insinuating a verdict and a punishment instead. In 2012, I collaborated with composer Clio Montrey on a chamber opera, which wasn’t overtly about language, but rather about silencing. The premise—which emanates from a former self (i.e., how did I possibly conceive of writing this?)—pivots on a woman named Socrates who shows up to remedy a despotic society lorded over by a virtuosic Femme Fatale who has annexed the voices of her subjects; Socrates encourages everyone to express themselves, but is finally “sentenced” to death. In the Femme Fatale’s culminating aria, she sings, “I sentence Socrates—the verb meaning death—the noun the division of grammatical structure—I say she is a false prophet—for talking of wholeness, while her self consists of a series of punctuated phrases.” An apocalyptic reality, existence is only possible in passive muteness; speaking one’s mind implies a loss of physical form, but also legitimacy and agency as an independent human being.
As bizarre as this may sound, the contemporary debate surrounding language in South Africa shares an eerily similar narrative arc: English is omnipresent, dominant, and muzzling all those who speak the country’s ten other official minority languages, rendering them impotent by their removal from public discourse and seclusion to private spheres. While the critical mass of the South African population appears to back this complete English takeover in terms of educational, institutional, and professional environments, a handful of more analytical voices mourn the inherent loss of the country’s linguistic plurality.
South Africa has now commemorated 20 years of democracy, shakily progressing from the debilitating Apartheid decades (1948-1994) and tactically distancing itself from Afrikaans as the language representative of this fraught era. Swooping in to fill the lingual power void, however, South Africa is unquestioningly following the international trend of employing English as the common denominator.
There is an implicit disenfranchisement if a language is unable to communicate for itself, and an inbuilt logic of affront to have a hostile language do it instead.
An arguably practical move, it comes at a cost, as Mmusi Maimane argues; it is irresponsible to channel resources to excise one minority language just to replace it with English, rather than using these resources to develop Sesotho in the Free State, Setswana in the North West province, isiZulu in KwaZulu-Natal, and so on. A constructive approach would be to expand the institutional representation of the array of languages in circulation, rather than undermining one language deemed colonial in favour of another equally culpable lingo. As Pierre de Vos points out, “The fact that most of us use English as a lingua franca in South Africa cannot be divorced from the colonial history … economic, social, and political power of the English colonizers in South Africa.”
Since I am, at present, interested in the role of Afrikaans in relation to English within South African language politics, I’ll take an interlingual step back. History has Afrikaans developing out of Dutch, the Dutch arriving in South Africa (1652) before the British (1820) so that a rivalry evolves based on two colonial forces trying to dominate a country that doesn’t belong to either. The Dutch—now the Afrikaans-speaking—travel (unravel) systematically north in order to get away from the British and the conflict comes to a head in the so-called Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Three potential facts about this war are, firstly, that the Afrikaans-speaking fighters won certain battles through non-linear guerilla techniques. Vastly outnumbered, they attacked the British troops at unexpected moments, lurking in the landscape with clothes camouflaged khaki with dirt rather than uniform regulations and pounded army gallantry into the dust. Secondly, England’s strategy to win the war was to ransack their opponents’ farms, to burn down the houses, to capture the women and children, and to relegate them to concentration camps—the model for WWII concentration camps 50 years later—where they were raped and fed maggot-infested meat. Thirdly, a disproportionate number of Afrikaans men, the so-called “joiners,” deserted to side strategically with the British; even today, in certain circles, family names are derogatorily associated with those who abandoned the fight.
Considering the entrenched linguistic animosity—past and present—between Afrikaans and English, using English to write about Afrikaans here chafes. There is an implicit disenfranchisement if a language is unable to communicate for itself, and an inbuilt logic of affront to have a hostile language do it instead.
Apart from the sociopolitical context, the slow extinction of Afrikaans is also often attributed to an undue integration of English words, grammar, and manner of speaking. Reminiscent of the whole “poetry is dead” conversation that we are all sadly familiar with, “Afrikaans is dying” also assumes an intrinsically conservative stance, evaluating a genre, or a language, according to an arbitrary, static set of characteristics that are then deemed missing and therefore obsolete, rather than evolved into a different set of values altogether. Just last week, Robert Moore once again felt the need to castigate poetry, citing, as usual, its “difficulty” as an insurmountable hindrance to its lagging audience; he simultaneously dismisses “easier” poetry as a ruse meant to lure readers into compliance (poetry as the manipulative “easy woman,” not to be let beyond her station). In the same vein, when people bemoan the apparent death of Afrikaans on the basis of it no longer sounding as it did 100 years ago, they completely overlook the fact that language is an organic construct. In a post for LitNet, Jan Rap, for instance, lists all the evils he identifies in contemporary Afrikaans. “Mense praat Afrikaans asof Afrikaans hulle tweede taal is,” he writes (or, “People speak Afrikaans as if it is their second language”). Not only are speakers mixing English words into their Afrikaans conversations, but they are also neglecting to use the feminine form of nouns, they are forgetting about the formal address (U being the equivalent of the French vous), and they are exchanging new, more colloquial words for scientific terminology.
Challenging this stilted approach to language, a recent South African “hip-hopera” called Afrikaaps harnesses the creative impetus of a Cape Malay cast—a minority ethnic group living primarily in the Western Cape province and speaking a so-called non-standard dialect of Afrikaans—aiming to reclaim the language by wittily dubbing it “Afrikaaps” (Kaap meaning Cape). Addressing the marginalization, but also envisioning the legitimization of an alternative style of speaking Afrikaans, this production is fun, politically engaged, and smartly researched, illustrating a wide sweep of cultural referents present in the formation and continued development of the language. Suddenly Afrikaans is no longer a Eurocentric language struggling to stand up against its discriminatory past, but rather a language proud of its Dutch, Malay, and Khoisan roots, eager to include English as a present tense iteration of its Creole status. Rather than attempting to polish hybridity out of Afrikaans, they embrace it and place it centre stage.
Ironically then, the neat and relatively standard Afrikaans that I speak—the expansive vocabulary I’m privy to and that isn’t really in conversational circulation anymore—is culpable for aligning itself exactly with the calcified language Jan Rap and his ilk stand for. I am absolutely not structuring any hierarchy of dialects, but tongue-in-cheek, there is a modicum of truth in the notion that—because I don’t interact with Afrikaans on a daily basis and return to South Africa for a couple of months each year, and even then, only get a certain level of reintegration into or exposure to the adapting usage of the language—I maintain a more traditional manner of speaking, which might not be in tune with the times. Generally, for example, I don’t include English phrases when chatting in Afrikaans; I err on the side of disregarding the feminine form of nouns, but out of deliberate feminist reasoning (ek is ‘n digter, nie ‘n digteres nie, or, I am a poet, not a poetess). I’m also unfamiliar with new slang expressions like kwaai, woelig, or duidelik—literally translatable as “angry,” “fidgety,” and “obvious”—but apparently used to denote the equivalent of “awesome” or “dope!”
It’s easy enough to dismiss the deterministic, apocalyptic discourse of the death of a language, less so to visit South African bookstores year after year and never find any new titles of young, upcoming Afrikaans poets and witnessing the lack of vitality first hand. As a result, I find myself grappling with a kind of reverse guilt—conceived as part of the post-Apartheid generation—whether I am somehow complicit in the demise of a language that I love because, as a writer, I don’t compose primarily in Afrikaans. It’s a question that originates in a place of honesty and affection but spirals to include an unsettling array of self-directed inquiry. Is the language of my writing based on political principles? Is it somehow because of my childhood? Is it because of a geographically limited readership? Is it because of the sound of the language? Any of these? All of these? If I argue that one can’t always handpick the context of one’s creativity, if English chooses me rather than me not choosing Afrikaans, what does my object position in relation to language say about me? Should I try more proactively to integrate and invigorate my writing practice with a language, which is deeply a part of me, till I achieve a sense of self, the ability to compose in Afrikaans, ignoring the ease with which I write in English, and subjugating language to my poetic will?
As a result, I find myself grappling with a kind of reverse guilt—conceived as part of the post-Apartheid generation—whether I am somehow complicit in the demise of a language that I love because, as a writer, I don’t compose primarily in Afrikaans.
Rapper and jokester Jack Parow articulates his position in relation to Afrikaans: “Hulle sê Afrikaans is dood, so vat ek Afrikaans vir my, ek sal dit weer lewendig maak … Ek wys dat Afrikaans ook n streetwise taal kan wees” (or, “They say Afrikaans is dead, so I’m taking it for myself, I will make it alive again … I show that Afrikaans can be a streetwise language, too.”) He fulfills this mission by composing zany lyrics and wearing a signature oversized baseball cap, but he is right, of course, and the only way one can truly create in a language is by making it one’s own. It is in this context that I started writing multilingually, integrating Afrikaans into my English poems. At the moment, I mostly combine languages sonically, a pileup of wordplay based on how my writing mind slides between vocabularies. Words accumulate humorously with some semantic intent—like from a poem in my forthcoming collection—“koeie quiver klitsgras knapsekêrels / knapsak” (or, “cows quiver, burdock, blackjacks / knapsack”) or “vlees vleis vleiend veiled / flattery is a type of language greenery versant drinking it / in verbal flânerie” (or, “flesh, meat, flattering, veiled / flattery”).
Yet I dream of pushing this practice further, of writing Afrikaans poetry and circulating it among an anglophone readership. This could posit a complete denigration of the language to nonsense verse, words on the page that don’t communicate. Or it could be a challenge to create nonlinear meaning, either employing translinguistic homonyms or gathering Afrikaans words reminiscent of their English equivalents so as to imply comprehension. Again, this could be interpreted as an act of catering one language’s integrity to that of another, or in contrast, as a way for a minority language to reinsert itself into a creative conversation, or simply, for me to write as I need to do.
Klara du Plessis is a poet and critic residing alternately in Montreal and Cape Town. Her chapbook, Wax Lyrical, was released from Anstruther Press, 2015, and a full-length collection of multilingual poems is forthcoming from Palimpsest Press. She curates the monthly, Montreal-based Resonance Reading Series, writes reviews for Broken Pencil Magazine, The Montreal Review of Books, and The Rusty Toque, and is currently employed at Vallum: Contemporary Poetry magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ToMakePoesis