Speaking In Tongues But Which One

The SABC proposal to downgrade Afrikaans is unlikely to fly, reports Drew Forrest

ENGLISH language chauvinists beware — if the number of English-speakers in South Africa is the yardstick, it is the language of Shakespeare, not Hendrik Verwoerd, that should be downgraded in our public life.

Official figures indicate that only eight percent of South Africans speak English as a first language, and 30 percent as a subsidiary language. For Afrikaans, the figures are 16 percent and 35 percent or more respectively.

What protects English-speakers — notoriously the least multilingual of South Africans — is the world dominance of the United States in commerce and popular culture.


It is commercial, not political considerations which lie behind the controversial proposal by SABC television management to downgrade Afrikaans on TV, reshaping TV1 as an all-English affair and relegating Afrikaans to one of 10 language media on CCV.

Spearheaded by arch-commercialiser Quentin Green, head of SABC-TV, the proposal is premised on the fact that foreign English-language programmes are on average four times cheaper than those made at home. Afrikaans programmes also have lower ratings.

The proposal is unlikely to fly, for the simple reason that the new SABC bosses recognise that public broadcasting is about more than turning a profit. But the controversy has turned a spotlight on the place of Afrikaans in a black-ruled South Africa.

Constitutionally, the position is clear: the interim constitution entrenches the current standing of both Afrikaans and English, calling only for South Africa’s indigenous languages to be developed to the same level. There were suggestions this week that any move to downgrade Afrikaans on TV would violate language rights.

At the same time, Afrikaans acquired overweening status under successive National Party governments. The Education Ministry, for example, subsidised an Afrikaans dictionary unit to the tune of R1,2-million last year, while ignoring African languages. It retains its symbolism as the language of the security policeman, the hanging judge and the administration board official.

RAU academic Susan Booysen dismisses the outcry over the broadcasting proposal as “new South African pseudo-resistance politics, which invokes the constitution and national reconciliation to protect minority privilege”. Rev Henno Cronje, chief executive of the Afrikaans cultural watchdog the FAK, disagrees: “It must be accepted that it is a major language — 16-million can use it, while one or two of the black languages have fewer than a million speakers.

“The problem is that English is so strong. To make TV1 an English-only channel would further strengthen it against all other local tongues.”

For University of the Western Cape academic Hein Willemse, a member of the ANC’s language commission, the role of Afrikaans in broadcasting is part of a much larger conundrum: that of ensuring democratic access in a multilingual society. Namibia had failed by entrenching English as the sole broadcasting medium in a country where only four percent of Namibians spoke it.

Breadth of access had, however, to be squared with commercial viability. “We will have to negotiate a balance between the commercial interests and language responsibilities of the public broadcaster,” Willemse said.

In education, the dilemma lies in granting the universally acknowledged human right of mother-tongue education in a country with 11 official languages and others, like Gujerati and Hindi, in wide use. Arguing that Afrikaans universities will continue to have a place — although “the future will decide their numbers” — Cronje sees Soweto ’76 as an object lesson in the dangers of imposing any language as a teaching medium.

Afrikaans universities have diverged under the new pressures. RAU, for example, has broken ranks by phasing in English lectures from next year.

A White Paper due out shortly will clarify government policy on language in education. Likely to differ from region to region, it will have to tread a delicate line between cultural needs and the practical requirements of society. “Realistically, this is going to mean the introduction of English at a certain level with the option of the mother tongue as a second language,” Willemse remarks.

In many areas, for example, the public service, affirmative action and the destruction of Afrikaner political hegemony will naturally erode the dominance of Afrikaans.

Sources say the workload of the language services unit in the Department of Arts and Culture, which translates government documents, has doubled under the new official language policy. They add that a departmental task group, due to report back at the end of August, will “inevitably” recommend a shift towards the fostering of black languages.

The ultimate aim, most Afrikaner intellectuals argue, must be to strip Afrikaans of its apartheid prominence while recognising its stature as a language, the profound sensitivities which surround it and the fact that it is not the exclusive property of right-wing whites.

“We must be careful here. Language is a powerful medium for reconciliation,” said “coloured” poet Adam Small, who confessed himself “hurt” by suggestions that Afrikaans, his mother tongue, should be downgraded.

Added left-wing novelist Andre Brink: “Afrikaans was the language of apartheid in some perceptions, but it also played a role in the downfall of apartheid. It was used by Afrikaner dissidents to attack the establishment.

“It is time it lost is privileged status. But there is ample scope for it to remian an important language of our country.”

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