On 2 August 2019, the New Era newspaper carried two very interesting opinion pieces. One piece was written by Lawrence Kamwi and the other by Prof. Kangira. Mr Kamwi’s piece was titled ‘African togetherness is a character-reclaiming exercise’ and the latter was titled ‘Swahili: A punishment to turn learners into polyglots’.
The two opinion pieces were about the same thing – the language debate in Namibia and Africa in general. Both pieces opened up a debate about the need to construct national identity through a common language; which national identity is currently very fluid and fragile in Namibia. Language is central to the construction of a common national identity. Kiswahili in Tanzania and, to some extent, Chi Nyanja in Zambia and Chichewa in Malawi are cases in point
In Namibia, ethnic identity politics has a bearing on language and vice versa. The question is, apart from English, which is our official language, which African language should we use as a lingua franca in Namibia? A lingua franca is a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different.
I often hear radio announcers on NBC Omurari Service jokingly referring to Afrikaans as the “orphan language.” I think what they mean is that before our independence in 1990, the Afrikaans language was so dominant and now it has been pushed to the margins. I also hear people referring to Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor, which must be ignored.
There is no denying the fact that the Apartheid ideology of racial segregation – which was closely associated with Afrikaans - did a great deal of damage to the black inhabitants of Namibia and South Africa. However, we need to take the debate to a higher level by briefly looking at the origin of Afrikaans as a language.
Afrikaans came about as an offspring of 17th century Dutch, which was brought to the Cape of Good Hope after the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set up a refreshment post in Table Bay in 1562 (Stals ELP et al, 2001, p.33). The language eventually attained its character through the influence of the French Huguenots, who had fled religious prosecution in France.
More inputs into the language came from the Khoi language as well as the vernaculars spoken by slaves from Malaysia (Ibid).
White farmers, Khoi, Oorlams and Basters around the Gariep (Orange) River were mainly using Afrikaans as early as the 17th and 18th centuries (Ibid). One of the earliest functions of the language was the bridging of ethnic and cultural barriers between various cultural groups.
By 1796, a large group of Oorlams, who called themselves Afrikaners settled just north of the Orange River in the south-eastern corner of today’s Namibia (Ibid). Part of this Afrikaans speaking community moved to present-day Windhoek in 1835. It is therefore debatable whether Afrikaans as a language was introduced in Namibia by the white Afrikaans settlers or by the Afrikaans speaking Oorlams.
Be that as it may, the question is, where do we place the Coloureds, Basters and some other groups in both South Africa and Namibia who employ Afrikaans as their first language? Are we being fair to them if we refer to Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor? After all, these groups were also oppressed just like the rest of us. Issues around the Afrikaans language are more complicated than seeing the eye.
Apart from the fact that some formerly oppressed groups use Afrikaans as their mother tongue; Afrikaans is also employed by the working class when they communicate across ethnic lines – especially those who were born before independence. A good number of Damaras and Namas also use Afrikaans as their second home language. Interestingly, even the so-called born frees sometimes use street Afrikaans to communicate when they are socializing. More often than not, these would be young people from the same cultural background.
I believe that Afrikaans phrases like oom (uncle) or tanie (aunt), which they use when referring to elderly people are borrowed from African cultures. In African culture, you do not call an elderly person by name; you call him uncle, or if she is a woman you call her aunt. Such references are not common in European culture, and I believe the Afrikaans language has borrowed these phrases from African languages – especially in this particular context. In any social context, interaction between different languages normally leads to “borrowing” of words from each other.
Afrikaans is, for better or for worse, part of our social history – and instead of ignoring it, we should try to engage it to use it to build national unity. Engaging and interrogating Afrikaans as a tool for national unity does not mean we should re-introduce it as an official language or that we should ignore the fact that it was a key instrument of apartheid colonialism.
We must also remember that the American slang, commonly used by African-Americans of mainly working-class background, was started by the African slaves. It was a way of rebelling against the Whiteman’s language and also inventing a way of “gossiping” about the slave owners without them understanding what was spoken.
The slaves were taken from different parts of Africa and they could, therefore, for the most part, not use a common African language to communicate. However, they turned the English language, an instrument of oppression, into an instrument of resistance by creating the African-American slang. Let us re-visit Afrikaans without fear or favour and with sober minds and see how it could be used as a tool for building national unity.