FW de Klerk Discusses the Future of Afrikaans in South Africa and Namibia

Posted 4 July 2012

A shared love of Afrikaans, the importance of mother tongue education and the future of Afrikaans were the central themes of FW de Klerk's speech at the Windhoek Afrikaans Private School on June 30th.

Mr De Klerk’s speech encouraged thoughts on some urgent questions: How can we protect and promote mother tongue education? How can we release the pressure put on Afrikaans? How can we best express our love for our language?

As his starting point Mr De Klerk brought to the fore the deeper meaning of language. Language is much more than simply a medium of communication, he said. Language is an intrinsic part of human identity, culture and one’s innermost being.

Language lies at the heart of our understanding and our outlook on life, and language is intertwined with our culture, our humanity and our dignity. Every man on earth cherishes words, emotions, ideas and thoughts that want to be set free. The key to liberation is language. That is true, not only for all who cherish Afrikaans, but for all indigenous language users of  Southern Africa - and all world languages.

 Mr De Klerk made mention of numerous facts to support his viewpoint. In South Africa today, Afrikaans is the first language of nearly 7 million South Africans, roughly 13% of the population. Afrikaans is the third largest language in South Africa and enjoys the widest geographical distribution of all South Africa's official languages. Afrikaans is also the mother tongue of nearly 11% of Namibia's total households.

Afrikaans is also a non-racial, inclusive language. It is the first language of approximately 200 000 black and more than 6.5 million white and coloured people in South Africa. Large numbers of black and white South Africans also speak Afrikaans as a second language. Namibia enjoys the constitutional recognition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools. Afrikaans is also frequently spoken in parts of Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Despite these facts, Afrikaans is under pressure almost everywhere. In South Africa - where it is an official language – the pressure is steadily increasing. It is under pressure in the South African media, business world, courts, within State correspondence, and in traditional Afrikaans universities and schools. This all takes place largely under the smokescreen of transformation. The manner in which political interference in the autonomy of universities and school governing bodies occurs is indeed worrying. Of the 1 396 single-medium Afrikaans schools there were in South Africa in 1993, only 839 remainedin 2003.

Afrikaans in universities is also under pressure. In 1994, the University of Pretoria was 77% Afrikaans. This has fallen to 39% in 2009. At the University of Stellenbosch Afrikaans lectures are drastically decreasing. Most universities in South Africa today, including universities of technology offer instruction primarily in English. The role of Afrikaans (and other languages such as isiZulu) is limited and is mainly offered through double or parallel medium. The problem with double medium lectures is that the native language more often than not gets the short string. At the Polytechnik of Namibia and the University of Namibia the effect of Anglicisation on indigenous languages is apparent: In 1995 there were approximately 100 students at the University of Namibia studying Oshindonga. In the academic year 1999/2000, there were none.

If all of the traditional Afrikaans schools and universities in South Africa sink into the path of Anglicisation, what will the implications be for Afrikaans as a language of science? If Afrikaans declines or disappears as a language in South Africa, what will the future of remaining Afrikaans schools be? And if this were to happen in South Africa, how will the future of Afrikaans in Namibia be affected?

Mr De Klerk proposed three broad guidelines: First, from an educational aspect, the importance of mother tongue education must be emphasized. Secondly, the rightful recognition of Afrikaans must be claimed - in the case of South Africa within the framework of the Constitution. And thirdly, Afrikaans must be positively promoted as an asset for South Africa.

Firstly mother tongue language tuition is crucial for a child's optimal cognitive and academic development. This applies to all languages. Learners should be educated in their native mother tongue for as long as possible, especially at foundation stage.

Secondly, the requisition for the rightful recognition of Afrikaans: In South Africa the Constitution provides comprehensive protection of linguistic and cultural rights. Unfortunately, this protection is too often bypassed or undermined through administrative action. The challenge is to identify the defiance of language rights in time; to confront it where it surfaces; and when talking does not help, to appeal to the Constitutional Court for rectification. This is exactly what the Centre for Constitutional Rights at the FW de Klerk Foundation pursues. The Foundation also goes out of its way to help ensure that the claims for language rights are not a smokescreen for racial discrimination.

Thirdly, Mr De Klerk argued that Afrikaans should be promoted as a language of value. Afrikaans is a language of Africa. The image of Afrikaans as the language of the "oppressor" must end. It is no longer true, and even at that time it was the language of millions of "oppressed".

The unbanning of the ANC and other far-reaching steps that Mr De Klerk announced on 2 February 1990, are recorded in the Hansard of the South African Parliament in Afrikaans. Thus the end of apartheid was announced in Afrikaans.

Afrikaans is a language of value because it is beautiful and colourful. The language must not only survive, but it has to thrive. Afrikaans must be kept alive. We must speak Afrikaans and cherish it, for a language is only as dynamic as the people that call it their own. For that reason Afrikaans is in our own hands. Finally, Mr de Klerk said that our challenge is build on the positive image of Afrikaans and to make it the language of peace, reconciliation and cooperation.

4 JULY 2012