It’s hard to put a place like South Africa into words. South Africa is not just the beautiful sunsets, the landscapes, the baboons that sit and watch you from the middle of the highway, or the delicious food. South Africa is a feeling. It’s the smell of the hot earth that hits you as you walk out the airport and follows you everywhere you go. It’s the warmth and diversity of the people, and of course the many different languages that they speak.
I’m largely drawn to South Africa because with 11 official languages, it is officially one of the most multilingual countries in the world. At least, so I thought.
“We’re not really a multilingual country,” a friend from Cape Town casually mentioned to me once. “We don’t even have 11 languages here, it’s all made up. The only real language here is English.”
I was intrigued.
South Africa: The Most Multilingual Country in the World?
South Africa officially became the world’s most multilingual country in 1994 after 11 official languages were enshrined in its new democratic constitution (technically, India later trumped this by introducing 22). The idea was, after a century of racist division and discrimination under Apartheid, to foster an environment of mutual respect, tolerance, and equality amongst an extremely diverse population.
However, part of the thinking behind this move might have been to drown one language in particular out. Afrikaans, the third most commonly spoken language in the country after Zulu and Xhosa, was the only official language along with English prior to 1994, and many people still associate it with Apartheid. The largely Afrikaner-dominated government sought to promote the language, which was only recognised as distinct from Dutch in 1925, as much as they could. Ultimately, it was their insistence that all schooling should be done in Afrikaans that sparked the Soweto riots in 1976, which is seen by many as the turning point in bringing about the end of the regime.
But by drowning Afrikaans out, one language seems to have disproportionately filled its void. English, spoken by less than 10% of South Africans as a first language, is everywhere. And if you were to judge by the country’s signs, media and advertisements, you’d be forgiven for thinking like my Capetonian friend, that English is the only language left.
“Afrikaans Must Fall”
2016 was marked by violent protests at South African Universities mainly about fees, but also about the exclusive use of Afrikaans at two of the country’s biggest schools, demanding the end of Afrikaans-medium education. As a result all tertiary education is now in English. The management of the University of Stellenbosch, once considered the Afrikaans university, even issued a statement describing English as the “common language in South Africa”. (It has since revised aspects of this policy and states that it is “committed to multilingualism”.)
This is certainly bad news for Afrikaans, and it’s certainly not pleasant to watch academically-dominant English swallow yet another minority language institution. However, the reason for this decision was not simply to hurt Afrikaans, but due to a very specific problem. Students who did not attend Afrikaans schools or speak Afrikaans at home, in particular black and other non-white students, were at a real disadvantage.
As this excellent documentary about non-white students at Stellenbosch University explains, it could take a year longer or even more for them to complete the same degree as their Afrikaans-speaking fellow students. They simply could not follow lectures or write essays in academic Afrikaans as well as they would in academic English. And to those that might say they chose to go to an Afrikaans university so what are they complaining about, remember the reality is that not a single of the country’s official African languages is yet offered as a language of instruction in any tertiary institution.
A More Multilingual South Africa
So could English actually be the solution to South Africa’s age-old societal problems? Is the new South Africa really heading towards a situation with 10 languages that can be spoken at home, and English used for everything else?
Outside of the world of the white minority, things might look a bit different. A Quora post recently drew my attention to the fact that black South Africans are almost without exception expected to be multilingual. Many are proficient in at least several African languages, with Zulu serving as the de-facto lingua franca for much of the country. Indeed, I noticed on my last trip that while in shops and cafés Afrikaners and English speakers would almost always address people in English, black South Africans might first ask a test question of “Unjani?” (how are you?) and if the person responded, they would continue the interaction in Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, or whatever the majority language of that region was.
This puts English in a quite intriguing position. Yes, English is spoken everywhere and objectively speaking is the only language that you need in the country. But that gives English an exclusively transactional role in South African society. In other words, when you want to buy something you speak English. But when you want to form a friendship, express your feelings or do anything emotional, you use any of the other languages.
This is demonstrated in the way that South Africans code-switch, particularly in the country’s most popular soap opera ‘Generations’ (available on YouTube). One fascinating thing I notice is that some characters clearly use English to project their sophistication, education, and also to show that they are slightly evil, while honest, simpler characters hardly use any English at all.
So yes, in many ways English may have won and South Africa may be thought of as an English-speaking country. But be under no illusions of the fact that it is no more than an uncomfortable marriage of convenience. As the dark days of Apartheid grow ever further away from the present, it will be interesting to see how the country’s language situation is affected by a new generation of different, and ever more self-confident South Africans.
I can only hope though that the multilingualism so embraced by much of South Africa is embraced by all South Africans. Sadly for the time being, many white South Africans, and especially (the old culprits the world over) English speakers, seem woefully ignorant about their country’s linguistic diversity.
“Nobody even knows what the difference between all those languages is,” my Capetonian friend went on to say, before calling over our waiter, who was a Tsonga speaker. “Hey Brian,” she asked him, “what’s the difference between all those African languages, hey?”
Brian looked so startled that I immediately pitied him. He had clearly never been asked such a stupid question in his life, and had absolutely no idea what to say.
“Erm… I don’t know, ma’am.” He smiled out of embarrassment.
“See? He doesn’t know. I don’t know. Nobody knows,” my friend continued. “It’s just so much easier when everybody speaks English.”