The Rise Of Afrikaans As An Independent Language

An Excerpt from A Presentation "The challenge of language in post-apartheid South Africa" By Prof Kwesi Kwaa Prah

Indeed, the last quarter of the 19th century and the two opening decades of the 20th century were decisive for the emergence of Afrikaans as an independent language separate from Dutch, and the conceptualisation of the Afrikaner went on hand in hand with the language struggle (taalstryd). In 1875, the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (Society of True Afrikaners) was formed as the core organisation for the national emergence of Afrikanerdom. The publications De Zuid-Afrikaan and Die Afrikaans Patriot became organs of this growing national consciousness. In the negotiations and proceedings preceding the union of South Africa, notable Afrikaans leaders like JBM Hertzog and Martinus Steyn made it clear there was no room for compromise on the language question. Afrikaners wanted full official equality between English and Afrikaans if union was to materialise. So adamant and suspicious was Steyn, that he originally did not want to be part of the convention in case their position on the matter was denied. Only the assurances of General Botha convinced him to agree to be part of the proceedings. At the sitting of the convention on 19 October 1908, Steyn and Hertzog made their case. Hertzog pointed out that Afrikaners would not acknowledge the Union unless there was complete equality in the status of English and Afrikaans.7

After the establishment of the Union in 1910, the Afrikaners continued to make the question of language a prime issue in negotiations with the British. The matter was not closed until 1925. Within three years of the establishment of the Union, in 1913, the Afrikaners standardised their language. That same year, it was introduced into primary school education. The Afrikaners were very conscious of the need to reject the hegemony of English and preserve their identity through language in the form of the new neo-Dutch, called Afrikaans. In 1918, Afrikaans was accepted in the university as a standardised language of instruction. In 1925, Afrikaans was adopted in Parliament as an official language. In 1933, the first Afrikaans Bible was produced, and within 15 years of that, Afrikaans had become a language in which it was possible to study anything under the sun. The 1920s were years of intense activity towards terminology development, metalanguage and the publication of scores of books for all levels of the educational system and for more popular usage.

By the time the Afrikaners came to power as the National Party in 1948 and instituted the apartheid system, the status of Afrikaans as a language of science and technology was more or less acknowledged by all. Although the British regarded Afrikaans as an inferior and derisory cultural phenomenon, Afrikaans had become a respected language in its own terms and, in the interest of its constituency, an adequate language for education at all levels. The 1950s were years of consolidation and sociological entrenchment of Afrikaans in South Africa. The self-assertiveness and single-minded advancement of Afrikaner interest was matched by even greater usage of Afrikaans as a language of communication in the country. Political power had become an instrument for the advancement of the status of the language, and dialectically the rising status of the language meant that the constituency was being socio-politically strengthened. This was very much in line with the idea expressed by the leader of the Afrikaners in the post-1948 period, that, “raise the Afrikaans language to a written language, let it become the vehicle for our culture, our history, our national ideals, and you will also raise the people who speak it … The Afrikaans Language Movement is nothing less than an awakening of our nation to self-awareness and to the vocation of adopting a more worthy position in world civilisation”.8 This observation by DF Malan, made in 1908, was socio-linguistically sound because, in order to empower Afrikaners in the face of English hegemony, it was necessary to empower the language through intellectualisation and wider social usage. This issue was very well understood by a great number of the Afrikaans leadership through their long tradition of resistance against the domination of English in the 19th century.

After the establishment of apartheid in 1948, the Nationalist Party proceeded to Afrikanerise the state. The civil service and other organs of the state were filled with increasing numbers of Afrikaners. More and more official business was conducted in Afrikaans, where English had previously been preferred. From the late 1950s onwards, the steady drive towards imposing Afrikaans hegemony was intensified. The Bantu Education Act of 1953, the Coloured Persons Education Act of 1963, and the 1965 Indian Education Act in stages compartmentalised education in South Africa on sealed racist bases. By the ’60s, the state had become fairly predominantly Afrikaner in character, and the use of the language in all areas of the state had become prevalent. In education, up to tertiary level, Afrikaans-based institutions could rival English-based institutions in all respects. Resources were ensured to support Afrikaans education to an equal degree to English. The increasing power of the Afrikaner establishment was backed up by a strong state, which stamped on any attempt to upset the applecart of Afrikaner dominance. The government was spending far more on white education than on black education: R644 was spent annually for each white student, while only R42 was budgeted for a black schoolchild.

By the early ’70s, attempts to push Afrikaans into African schools had assumed definite proportions, and frustration was building up in African communities regarding the overwhelming pre-eminence of Afrikaans above English. Africans were encouraged to use their Bantustan languages, but this was done in a way which belittled and disempowered the African languages by providing them poor and only rudimentary support. This situation finally led to the explosion which occurred in Soweto on 16 June 1976, when African schoolchildren, mainly based in Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, refused to be taught in Afrikaans as a language of instruction.

Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah is an author, public speaker, and a Sociology professor, who was born in Ghana and has been based in southern Africa since the 1980s. He is the author of several books, including Beyond the color line (1997). 

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