AfriKaaps is an act of reclamation

COMMENT
Multilingual speakers of Kaaps remain burdened by the negative colonial and apartheid image of Gamtaal in South Africa.

Gam, referring to one of the sons of Noah, carries a sense of deep shame and being cursed. In the very real biblical sense, it continues to plague those speakers.

As part of a new generation of sociolinguists working at a historically black university, I’m thinking deeply about the implications it holds for decolonial language empowerment. Let me illustrate this with an example.

AfriKaaps is a new language movement challenging the ideological hold of Gamtaal on coloured speakers of Kaaps.
In a documentary directed by Dylan Valley, hip-hop artist Emile XY?, Moenier Adams and other hip-hop crew members visit Lavender Hill High School to gauge pupils’ views on language — in particular, what they think about AfriKaaps as a new language movement.

Towards the end of the visit, the camera zooms in on a coloured pupil agonising over the burden of speaking Kaaps, and dealing with the leftover stereotypes of the racialisation of his speech.

He describes a hypothetical interview situation. Here are his exact words: “As iemand nou vir my gaan interview. Nou praat ek en hy. Nou’t ek hom nie lekke’ gehoo’ nie, dan gan ek hom nou sê: ‘Jy, sorry broertjie, wat het djy nou net gesê?’ Dan gaan hy dadelik die indruk kry, ‘Jy, die’s ’n gangstertjie.’ Nevermind het ek ’n degree of hoe intelligent ek is, maa’ hy gat my judge by die taal wat ek nou gepraat het. Vir een vraag gat hy my judge vir dai job, wat vir my liewe gaan impak.”

Translation: “If somebody interviews me. And he and I chat and say I don’t hear him correctly, then I will say: ‘Yoh, sorry bru, what did you just say?’ He will immediately get the impression, ‘Damn, this is a gangster.’ Nevermind if I have a degree or how intelligent I am, he’ll judge me by the language I speak. For answering one question, he’ll judge me for the job, that would impact my whole life.”

This is no hypothetical scene but the reality in South Africa. It is heartbreaking to watch on screen and even more painful to the ear. Every time he gutturalises Kaaps sounds, flattens his vowels and deletes his initial and final consonants, he betrays his working-classness and his awareness of his own linguistic marginality in the larger South African language community.

Speakers of Afrikaans, English and Xhosa judge him on a daily basis. And this judgment is almost always based on how pure (suiwer) or mixed (verbaster) the competence and fluency of his language is, not on the linguistic resources that makes up his language biography. It is these judgments on his speech that makes him feel less empowered, irrespective of his hypothetical interview scenario.

What he does most powerfully is to indict us to understand his multilingual repertoire as decisively defined by his Kaaps speech. This is one of the post-apartheid burdens for coloured and black speakers of Kaaps. I should know because I am also a coloured speaker of Kaaps.

What is to be done for learners strained by the discriminatory and racist legacy of Gamtaal? Is there a decolonial option to empower him linguistically through Kaaps in his classroom, beyond his classroom and at university today?

Some answers to these questions may lie with the hip-hop language activists promoting the use of AfriKaaps.

In recent years, AfriKaaps emerged as a new form of linguistic activism, going almost unnoticed in South Africa. Members of the movement such as Blaq Pearl, Bliksemstraal, Jethro Louw, Moenier Adams, Emile YX?, Shane Cooper, Quintin Jitsvinger and Kyle Shepherd are doing the deconstructive work usually reserved for Afrikaans sociolinguists immersed in the study of language, race and power.

In the documentary we learn that AfriKaaps is about reclaiming Afrikaans. The goal is to revisit the creole history of Afrikaans, as it was set down in Arabic scripture in colonial times and was standardised and became an empowered language.

AfriKaaps is also about the sociolinguistic future of Afrikaans in South Africa. Throughout the documentary, we see references made to change the future of the stigmatised roots of marginalised varieties of Afrikaans, and the need to revisit and rethink the history and place of Afrikaans in society.

AfriKaaps may very well be the answer to the often irritating exclusive politics of Afrikaans promoted by Afrikaans sociolinguists in the academy, providing an important tool to decolonise spaces for multilingual South Africans.

Hip-hop language activism is not a new or novel form of language activism. It has been around since apartheid South Africa and continues with much energy today. Hip-hop group Prophets of da City (POC) were the first to put practice into activism.

The cultural theorist Adam Haupt writes how groups such as POC, Brasse vannie Kaap and Black Noise focused their energies during the 1980s and 1990s to promote the use of nonstandard dialects of Afrikaans.

Back then, hip-hop artists felt it necessary to recover the positive images that were connected in the minds of multilingual speakers about the style and speech practices of Kaaps. By doing so, they actively worked to empower young coloured and black speakers of Kaaps linguistically on the Cape Flats and beyond.

Today the creators of AfriKaaps are making a more intense and necessary intervention into the decolonial debate on language empowerment.

Over the years, there have been several initiatives to deconstruct the ways Afrikaans disempowers multilingual speakers of Afrikaans in post-apartheid South Africa. A fine example is Emile YX?’s Heal the Hood project. It enters schools on the Cape Flats on a weekly basis to introduce primary and high school pupils to the power and value of Afrikaans and broad multilingualism. They challenge school teachers to loosen up their rigid curricula to consider the value of emphasising multilingualism and empowerment through language.

Let’s face it — our schools pigeonhole multilingualism into a variety of separate languages, and there is not a single resource consisting of several languages from which learners can draw that would greatly help with their creativity, voice and language confidence.

If I had my way I would tell teachers to accommodate the best of Kaaps and use pupils as resources to teach Afrikaans poetry, language grammar and language performance better. Teachers should ask hard questions about how they are able to use the Kaaps resources and language biographies of their pupils, without fear of compromising the curriculum. This is but one challenge at the primary and secondary school levels.

At university level, there has been some progress. The University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research recently held its first annual Heal the Hood hip-hop lecture series, opening the door for greater understanding of the hip-hop culture and the sociocultural conditions in which Kaaps is used.

There is also the much-anticipated volume on Kaaps in Focus, edited by Frank Hendricks and Charlyn Dyers (two pioneers of research on Kaaps).

One of the greatest challenges we face at university level is how to develop undergraduate courses and postgraduate research. For this, we may need to capture more space in the academy for the sake of research on Kaaps.

Over and above these collective efforts by Heal the Hood and other hip-hop artists at primary, secondary and university levels, we need to strengthen positive perceptions about Kaaps in the classroom and schools to empower the speakers of that language variety.

We could learn from the AfriKaaps language movement, because it points towards several correctives we, as a multilingual community, should pursue. I summarise only three, although there are many more.

First, it emphasises multilingual diversity. Second, it asks us to revisit the history of the formation of language, Afrikaans specifically, and find ways to promote the respect and dignity of marginalised speakers who wish to enjoy their citizenship fully in the public sphere. Finally, it also promotes the politics of linguistic correction by taking back linguistic power, as young poet and comic artist Nathan Trantraal is doing.

Writing a column in Kaaps for Rapport newspaper, he succeeds in uniquely capturing a spectrum of analytically complex and subtly nuanced arguments through cameos of life — the kind of content that most readers previously assumed was not possible in Kaaps.

These are the necessary interventions of AfriKaaps for decolonial language empowerment now — for all of us and for that pupil in Lavender Hill.

Quentin Williams is a senior lecturer in the linguistics department and research fellow at the Centre for Multilingualism and Diversities Research at the University of the Western Cape.

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