Please protect my mother tongue

Lawrence Schlemmer warns that a new survey finds widespread unhappiness about language policies.

For the first time in its history, South Africa can be regarded as a united country. The era of apartheid balkanisation and racial exclusion, and before it of Boer republics, British colonies, tribal rebellions and all the other conflicts of white and black settler expansion have passed. As SABC television sings for us daily, "we are one".

There was probably a point in time when countries such as post-independence India, Sri Lanka or Yugoslavia had the same sense of national consolidation, but it proved to be only an uneasy interlude during which ethnic or regional rivalries festered. In post-civil war America or Britain after the 1707 Act of Union, on the other hand, national cohesion survived. Which way will South Africa go?

So far, the more obvious signs point to successful initial consolidation. The Afrikaner Volkstaat movement, skilfully co-opted into the government's committee-based patronage network, rapidly vanished from sight. The former independent ethnic homelands, driven on by their anxious, bloated bureaucracies, fell over themselves to rejoin the nation state. The temporary exception to this pattern is one of the most feared and famous ethnic structures of all - the Zulu traditional establishment. It has maintained the same mixture of reserve and resistance that it used in its dealings with the British colonial government in Natal but, very recently, negotiations over the conditions for a willing amalgamation seem to have started in earnest.

Ethnic politics are elusive, however. Regional nationalisms and communal commitments which have lain dormant for decades or even centuries have resurfaced all over the world - think of the fringe Russian republics, Brittany, Northern Italy, the Basque country, the Kurds in the Middle East, the southern Sudan and many other movements in Africa itself. Some immortal gambler betting on a united South Africa in 2097 would be taking a risk. But what about the next five to fifteen years? A recent survey of the reactions of ethnic groups to the present policies for nation building and minority rights provides solid evidence about which one can speculate.

The survey, by MarkData (Pty) Ltd, was commissioned after an informal gathering of Afrikaans community leaders and intellectuals in Stellenbosch last November. A random (stratified probability) sample of 2 200 covered all South Africans, rural and urban. Personal interviews were conducted in the home languages of all respondents during February and March.

Generally the results show extensive disquiet among white Afrikaans speakers. No less than 84 per cent feel that the government either does not respect the rights of their mother tongue as much as they could reasonably expect or else neglects and even positively undermines it. Similarly, some 83 per cent declare themselves to be "unhappy" or "very unhappy" about the official treatment of both their cultural values and language.

Threatened minorities

As a consequence six out often Afrikaners expect that their language will be weakened over time and nearly 20 per cent predict that it will die out if present trends continue. Already, some 21 per cent of the white Afrikaans respondents have decided that it would be best to have their children educated in English.

Among all ethnic minorities, white Afrikaners feel the most threatened. Only 16 per cent of them think that their language is treated "adequately" or "at least as well as one could reasonably expect", compared with roughly half of coloured Afrikaans-speakers. The latter, however, are not exposed to the full effects of new language policies and practices because the overwhelming majority live in the Western Cape, which is not under ANC control and has a dominantly Afrikaans-speaking provincial government.

Black respondents, who comprise nine language minorities, were generally optimistic or unconcerned about their language interests, as one might expect so soon after "liberation". Nevertheless, some 23 per cent of them were unhappy about the way in which their various languages are treated, and as many as one-third felt that the present government was insincere or even hostile in respect of their minority language rights.

Thus there seems to be fairly widespread concern about language, with white Afrikaners clearly the most worried. The differences between white Afrikaners and the other minorities are not surprising. Until 1994, Afrikaans was the predominant language of government and had also emerged as a language of academia, science, technology and the arts. Today it is surviving in private use, the print media and literature, but in all other respects has been downgraded to the formal status of any one of the other nine minority languages, none of which is used in science or academia.

While the other minority language users may complain justifiably of lack of progress in the development of their languages, for Afrikaners the problem is experienced as the actual destruction of progress already made. In politics, as in other spheres, there is a difference between sins of omission and sins of commission.

Sympathy for Afrikaners

Surprisingly, however, Afrikaners can console themselves with the fact that many other South Africans sympathise with them in their predicament. When asked whether Afrikaans today enjoys more or less than its rightful recognition, 48 per cent of white English-speakers and 37 per cent of blacks felt that it was being discriminated against. The accusation which is occasionally made by some progressive intellectuals that Afrikaans still enjoys more than its fair share of privileges is not widely endorsed: only 18 percent of English-speakers and 31 percent of all blacks felt this way.

On this issue of discrimination against Afrikaans, white and brown Afrikaners are more united than they are on the issues already discussed. Some 88 per cent of white Afrikaners and, despite the linguistic privilege of being in the Western Cape, as many as 55 per cent of coloured Afrikaans-speakers feel that Afrikaans enjoys less than its rightful status in public life.

These perceptions are hardly the stuff of which nation building and reconciliation are made. One sees this in the fact that only 31 per cent of white Afrikaners feel that the various ethnic groups in South Africa have "moved closer together" over the past two years. By trying to foster national unity through playing down language and cultural differences, the government, its agencies and other institutions may be on a high risk course. In general, not only white Afrikaners but all South Africans appear to favour a pluralist basis for national unity.

When asked what broad approach to nation building they favoured, only 5 per cent of white Afrikaners (as one would expect) endorsed the view that "national unity should have priority over specific language interests", but only 34 per cent of the entire sample of South Africans did so too. Most South Africans seem to feet that unity and the maintenance of particular cultural interests are equally important; 53 per cent of all South Africans and 72 per cent among white Afrikaners felt that unity should actually be based on the protection of cultural and language interests.

Nevertheless, the view is often expressed in new government circles that ethnicity is a challenge to national unity. But despite their cultural fears, only 23 per cent of white Afrikaners feel that their language and cultural interests should take precedence over national unity, and only 10 per cent of all South Africans share this conviction. The majority view is clearly that national reconciliation can be achieved while simultaneously protecting and promoting the rights and interests of cultural minorities; for the most part white Afrikaners agree with this idea.

In the light of these perceptions the decision by government departments, and some local authorities and private corporations, to move to the exclusive use of English seems hazardous for national unity, and not only with respect to Afrikaners. In the survey 72 per cent of South Africans in all categories (77 per cent for Afrikaners) said that they value being served or attended to in their own languages.

Majorities of all South Africans feel that organisations to promote and protect their language and cultural interests are important. Nor are more intense expressions of this need limited to white Afrikaners - 41 per cent of black South Africans (49 per cent among Zulu-speakers) and some 40 per cent of all Afrikaans speakers feel that the role of such organisations is "very important".

At the Stellenbosch meeting in November, some delegates expressed fears that launching a new initiative to promote and protect Afrikaans, albeit on a non-racial basis, might antagonise the majority of South Africans. But when respondents in the survey were asked specifically what they thought of such an initiative only 10 per cent (and a mere 13 per cent among blacks) felt that it would be "undesirable" or "damaging".

This survey shows that despite the symbolism of our "rainbow nation", South Africa has not yet found the right formula for accommodating minority languages and cultures. There is clearly a groundswell of serious concern among white Afrikaners and very considerable sympathy for them among other groups, not to mention a measure of concern among black minorities about their own languages.

The government will have another chance, however. The Cultural Council for which last minute provision was made in the new constitution, is anticipated with optimism. Some 80 per cent of all South Africans, and 56 per cent of white Afrikaners see the council as capable of providing either effective or adequate protection of their language and cultural interests. Whether this optimism is justified remains to be seen: the Pan South African Language Board (the official watchdog organisation) has recently accused the government of disregarding its proposals for minority language development and of favouring English.

Furthermore, many of the Afrikaner representatives to bodies intended to ensure a balance of cultural expression in areas such as the arts and broadcasting have failed to take a tough and effective stance for fear of appearing "old guard" and conservative. Ethnic protectionism is not a welcome phenomenon in the politically correct ranks of commissioners and advisors. There is a job still waiting to be done.

This job is important for the future. Ethnic protest and reaction is far and away the most common element in conflict within nations in the world today, and it would be remarkable if South Africa, with its history and heterogeneous population, were to escape it. The survey itself provides an early warning.

When asked how far voluntary cultural organisations should go to protect language and cultural interests, some 22 per cent of white Afrikaners and 14 per cent of coloured Afrikaans-speakers endorsed "strong public protest" as opposed to representations to government or the stimulation of interest in their language; this compared with some 8 to 9 per cent among other groups. The seeds of dissent are already present.

Even more worrying, however, is that 16 per cent of white Afrikaners, 32 per cent of coloured Afrikaans-speakers and 28 per cent of blacks preferred not to answer this question - yet the refusal rates for all other questions were around 5 per cent or less. Their silence is eloquent. Behind it may lurk a willingness to consider even more hostile action than strong public protest.

Let provinces decide

But prescriptions are not easy. With 11 official languages, and the possible future inclusion of Portuguese if a high rate of immigration from neighbouring countries continues and of Indian languages if they should be revived, the trade-offs are mind-boggling in their implications for public policy. Under these conditions central government would be well advised to duck below the parapet and leave the thankless task of balancing cultural interests to the provinces, local authorities and civil society.

In some areas such as KwaZulu-Natal, the provinces of the Cape, the Free State or the North West where there are concentrations of one language this will be much easier than in the more linguistically complex regions of Gauteng, Northern province or Mpumalanga. But if problems deepen in the latter let these disputes be fought there, and let them not spread to the rest of South Africa. Experience so far suggests that attempts at language imposition from the centre are exactly the fertiliser that will grow the seeds of ethnic conflict.

An Afrikaner's perspective:
Hermann Giliomee, professor of political studies, UCT, comments on the language survey

The position of Afrikaans in the new South Africa presents a stark paradox. Collectively Afrikaans speakers form the language group with the biggest income in the country. In the survey, on which Lawrence Schlemmer reports above, more than three-quarters indicated that it makes "a great or considerable difference" to them if government and businesses communicate with them in Afrikaans. Yet since 1994 both have steadily reduced their use of the language in their dealings with citizens and customers alike. Less than one fifth of the white Afrikaans speakers feel that the government has a proper respect for their language.

The government shows an increasing reluctance to reassure Afrikaners through positive deeds that it does not desire the phasing out of Afrikaans as a public language over the next 20 years.

The survey is the first evidence we have of how Afrikaans speakers are responding to one of the greatest challenges that their language has ever confronted.

At the heart of the issue lies the clash between Afrikaners and Africans over language and national unity. At independence nearly all the governments and civil services of African countries chose to conduct their business in their colonial language, with legal services and private sectors following suit. Augustine Catera, a Rwandan who heads Unesco's language desk, recently said: "Africans fear the promotion of indigenous languages will handicap national unity and promote ethnic conflicts." To avert this danger, the post-colonial African elite have enthusiastically embraced the colonial language, and kept indigenous languages for "home consumption".

The Afrikaner experience could not have been more different. At the beginning of this century the Afrikaner nationalist movement deliberately abandoned the colonial languages, Dutch and English, in order to build up Afrikaans as a language of high culture that could take its place in science, technology, higher education and the market place. Successive generations of Afrikaners have been taught that Afrikaans is the expression of their social identity, and that the treatment their language receives at the hands of government and society is the best indicator of the respect accorded to them as a group.

Today's misunderstanding between Afrikaners and Africans flows from this cultural history. As I heard one black South African express it recently: "Blacks cannot understand why Afrikaners do not leave their language at home when they go to work and the market place every day. After all, this is what blacks are expected to do." By contrast, Afrikaners cannot fathom why blacks have embraced English with such enthusiasm or why they do not insist on a much wider use of their respective tongues in university education and other public spheres.

National Party blunder

Much of the present turmoil within Afrikaner ranks can be traced to the constitutional negotiations, where the National Party made the greatest hash of things. The decision then to recognise 11 official languages was in reality a thinly disguised ANC move

to introduce one de facto official language. Even before the interim constitution was signed cabinet ministers realised that the future of Afrikaans medium schools was in jeopardy and if they expected to put matters right in the final constitution this soon appeared hopelessly misguided. Yet President de Klerk must have considered safeguarding the Afrikaans language and schools as one of the greatest prizes - after all he donated his Nobel peace prize money to the promotion of Afrikaans.

In government, the ANC has seemed puzzled and uncomprehending about the issue of Afrikaans and the growing alienation of Afrikaners from the new order. On the positive side, President Mandela has taken trouble to make some speeches in Afrikaans and quickly overruled Tony Yengeni when, as head of the portfolio committee on defence, he wished to impose English as the sole language in the defence forces.

Yet nothing was done when the SABC scaled down Afrikaans to 5 per cent of television prime time, when SA Airways banned Afrikaans in public announcements or when the Free State provincial government dropped the Sesotho and Afrikaans versions of its name. Again there was no word when the ANC-controlled town council of Germiston decided to conduct all its business in English or when the Supreme Court upheld the decision. In an open letter to the president, the Pan South African Language Board (the statutory watchdog) pointed out that this decision violates the municipalities' constitutional obligation to take the language preferences of its residents into account.

It concluded: 'If we allow one aspect of the constitution to be eroded aren't we opening a floodgate for the disregard of other aspects of our constitution?" Strong words from a body on which only two Afrikaans-speakers sit and whose vice-chairman, Dr Neville Alexander, is a well-known leftwing critic of the ANC. The president's office appeared unconcerned, merely informing the board that it had referred its letter to the ministry of arts, culture, science and technology "to advise government on the most appropriate course of action, if any is required".

The government seems worried not so much about the fate of Afrikaans but about the fallout of its language policy. In phrases which have echoes of NP leaders of old, Mandela recently referred to "certain intellectuals and commentators" creating a mood of "Afrikaner pessimism" which in turn was having "a corrosive effect on the building material of the new society and nation". The vice president, Thabo Mbeki, has warned against "the temptation to trek back into the laager as recent developments indicated" - which may be a reference to the meeting held in Stellenbosch last year to explore the possibility of establishing a non-racial umbrella group for all Afrikaans organisations.

Government assurances are probably well-meant but often come across awkwardly. Thus Mbeki responded to a speech by a Freedom Front delegate to the youth parliament recently by stating that the cabinet had made no decision to ban Afrikaans in higher education. He went on to say: "Even if it looks as if we are hostile to Afrikaans, the fact is that most Afrikaans-speakers are black. For this reason we cannot adopt a stand which results in withdrawing Afrikaans from the country's personality." The clear implication is that the government's attitude towards language rights is dependent not on constitutional principle but on the colour of those who speak a particular language.

University battleground

The next round will probably be fought over the Afrikaans universities. The new bill on higher education removes the right of individual institutions to determine the language of instruction. Afrikaans universities are vulnerable both because there are too many of them and because the proportion of Afrikaans-speaking students has dropped dramatically since 1993. At the Rand Afrikaans University it is down from 73 per cent to 27 per cent; at the University of the Free State from 87 per cent to 61 per cent; at Potchefstroom from 90 per cent to 70 per cent; at Pretoria from 80 per cent to 61 per cent; and at Stellenbosch from 77 per cent to 68 per cent.

This situation is the result of the English flight from the old liberal universities on the one hand, and of the influx of blacks on the other. There are straws in the wind suggesting that these two student groups might team up to force the more rapid Anglicisation of the Afrikaans universities. In a recent speech at Stellenbosch, Sibusiso Bengu, the minister of education, strongly criticised the university's language and identity policy, warning that the survival of Afrikaans did not lie in "language domination or the creation of language enclaves but in interaction" and in making Afrikaans universities "accessible in equal measure for all South Africans". The conclusion of virtually everyone present was that the minister was insisting on a fully fledged system of dual medium instruction at undergraduate level.

The one hopeful aspect of the new higher education bill is its strong emphasis on regionalisation. With Afrikaans spoken by 60 per cent of the Western Cape population, Stellenbosch must stand some chance of remaining a predominantly Afrikaans institution; the chances for the northern universities are anybody's guess.

Dialogue is possible

Jakes Cerwel, Mandela's cabinet secretary, who once taught Afrikaans at the University of the Western Cape, believes that retaining Afrikaans as a medium for scientific and other instruction must be part of nation building. Another leading ANC thinker, Joel Netshitenze, expresses a similar view: "With regard to the national question: race, ethnic origins, language and sometimes religion have important roles to play in defining a person's identity. These identities do not fade away in the melting pot of a broad South Africanism."

If this is the prevailing view within the ANC then there is more than enough ground for dialogue. But one never knows for certain which tendency has the upper hand in the ANC when it comes to nation building. There is a hardliner faction for whom the eradication of Afrikaans as a public language is a symbolic substitute for its lack of a military victory over the apartheid state.

For Afrikaners and all other Afrikaans speakers the best course of action may well be to establish an umbrella organisation and agree on what realistically can be demanded before entering into a dialogue with the state. The ANC understandably would prefer to deal with a fragmented group, playing one faction off against another. The danger of such a policy is that the language issue could fester and spread its infection throughout the body politic.