Tribal talk: Fate of Afrikaans: The language of apartheid faces challenges in new South Africa.


WORDS ARE POWER. During its less than half a century of political power, South Africa's white-supremacist Nationalist government erected a statue for its cherished Afrikaans language, a mishmash of Dutch, English, Xhosa and Malayan speech patterns and words.

The language statue, unveiled in 1975, was a monument to the triumph of the Afrikaners over English-speaking whites. They emphasized the emotional importance of their patois by producing propaganda films in which English-language teachers forced Afrikaans-speaking children to wear signs in classes that declared, "I am a donkey."

Now that apartheid has ended, though, the Afrikaans language faces a problem. Although the mixed-race people called colored played a large role in its development, many see Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor.

More importantly, only about 15 million of South Africa's population of 43 million speak or understand it. "Afrikaans is today not threatened but it is under pressure," acknowledges Frits Koko, managing director of the Afrikaans Language and Culture Organization.

Under the new constitution, South Africa has added nine official languages to the previous Afrikaans and English. While the government-run South African Broadcasting Corp. operates one television channel primarily in English, Afrikaans has to fight for space on two other channels. As a result it is getting no more than 4 percent of the air time.

This is in stark contrast to the situation just a few years ago, when English and Afrikaans were treated as equals. They alternated each night on prime time television broadcasts and the indigenous African languages got scant exposure. Similar changes have occurred in radio programming.

Afrikaans thrives as the language of the Dutch Reformed Church. South Africa also has a vibrant Afrikaans press and much literature is published in that language. But now that the apartheid rule has ended, many of the people who for their employment or self-interest had to learn Afrikaans no longer have that need. Once a language of power and superiority, Afrikaans is increasingly becoming the cultural identifier and means of communications of just one part of South Africa's white tribe.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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