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27/01/2018 06:38 SAST | Updated 27/01/2018 06:38 SAST

#Overvaal – The Ugly Side Of South African English

"The international debate on language rights is sophisticated and complex."

Gulshan Khan/ AFP Photo/ Getty Images
A police van parked outside Hoërskool Overvaal in Vereeniging during a protest against language and admission policies on January 19, 2018.

COMMENT

South Africa, like Belgium and Canada, has had a long history of linguistic conflict. In a nutshell: every time English-speakers have had the upper hand, they have tried to extirpate Dutch and/or Afrikaans. It was the case in the early nineteenth century at the Cape, but also after 1902 when the zealous Lord Milner and Panyaza Lesufi's predecessor, E.B. Sargent, thought they could anglicise all Afrikaans children.

Sargent famously wrote to Lord Milner on June 14, 1901:

"Our military policy has gathered the greater part of the child population into these camps, and I feel that the opportunity during the next year of getting them all to speak English is golden."

In the interests of post-war "reconciliation" between Boer and Briton, the true horror of the British concentration camps and the anglicisation policy has never been properly discussed or analysed, except in obscure academic treatises.

Today, once more, we find ourselves in a situation where Afrikaners and Afrikaans speakers find themselves to be linguistically and culturally oppressed by an aggressive anglophone hegemon [sic] that does not balk [sic] any dissent from its fanatical social engineering. Except that "the interests of Empire" have now made way for a new set of clichés about "diversity" and "social cohesion". As if herding children into the new concentration camp of "diversity" and political correctness is going to ensure "social cohesion".

The international debate on language rights is sophisticated and complex. In developed multilingual societies, a body of jurisprudence exists which painstakingly ensures complete equality between languages. In Canada, the state encourages unilingual French-speaking schools and even businesses in English-majority provinces such as Ontario. Every government publication or website in Canada is strictly bilingual.

In South Africa, we find the exact opposite: the state, which is English in all but name, rides roughshod over all other languages, but particularly over Afrikaans. Its political and bureaucratic machine is akin to a bulldozer that flattens everything in its path. All languages except English must die, or be reduced to simple vernaculars without cultural or economic value.

We have no rights to be served in Afrikaans at a government counter, nor do we have the right to Afrikaans schools, something that we have fought for over 200 years.

Unfortunately, the much-vaunted Constitution with its Bill of Rights will not save us. Mainly due to the National Party's betrayal of its own constituents, there are ambiguities in the Constitution [that] are eagerly exploited by the anti-Afrikaans faction so as to render all the clauses about language almost meaningless.

Over the weekend in Rapport, former president FW de Klerk, witnessing the constitutional house of cards collapsing to reveal the ethnic chaos underneath, made the amazing confession that "with hindsight it is however clear that the ANC negotiators consciously misled not only Afrikaners but all non-ANC parties regarding their intentions in the medium and long term... it was never their intention to respect all the rights contained in the 1996 Constitution".

Hence the confidence of Mr Panyaza Lesufi that his setback before Judge Bill Prinsloo will be only temporary and that the Constitutional Court would confirm that Afrikaans is for all intents and purposes a foreign language in South Africa – more precisely, a stateless language. We have no rights to be served in Afrikaans at a government counter, nor do we have the right to Afrikaans schools, something that we have fought for over 200 years.

Hence the reductio ad absurdum [sic: literally, "reduction to absurdity"] at the heart of the Overvaal controversy: whether the school is "full" or not. In South Africa, we can no longer put forward ideas or argue over principles; as in the prison or the concentration camp, we can only count heads. Children and their right to a culture and a heritage have literally been reduced to numbers.

Ironically, the anti-Afrikaans protestors in front of Hoërskool Overvaal have (equally literally) embraced genocide, shouting: "Kill the Boer" and "White men, you must die!" They are way beyond any legal or educational debate.

Over the years, it has become obvious that the Gauteng education department respects neither the letter nor the spirit of the Constitution, and wants to make every school majority black and English. Mary Metcalfe, Barbary Creecy and Panyaza Lesufi have applied this policy relentlessly.

South Africa is at a crossroads. Majority domination and language discrimination make a mockery of the country's pretensions to liberal democracy.

Mr Lesufi has no mercy for us: he will use state power and the billions of taxpayer funds at his disposal to fight us to the bitter end. It is a matter of "Afrikaans must fall", and Hoërskool Overvaal merely represents a minor obstacle on the way to a "long march" through our educational institutions.

However, the ugly side of South African English is that it really has become a language that breeds intolerance. Notwithstanding global English as a business medium or the charms of British Romantic poetry, it has morphed into a vehicle for expressing ethnic hatred and fantasies of genocide. The English school itself may reflect a "diversity" of races, but not of thought or of learning. It is but a cog in the ANC (or EFF) propaganda machine.

With a few exceptions, South Africa's English-speakers have remained silent in the face of linguistic injustices that would cause governmental crises or even civil wars in other countries. Their silence contrasts with the concerns expressed by a broad mixture of Europeans, U.S. citizens and Canadians as to the inequality of rights in South Africa.

The South African media, as is their won't [sic], have opted for a knee-jerk reaction in reducing the conflict around Hoërskool Overvaal to a simple racial issue. (As I am writing this, I receive an email from a young girl in the U.S., out of the blue, who held a cake sale at her local school that generated several hundred dollars in proceeds. "I would like to give this to you for your cause," she writes.)

South Africa is at a crossroads. Majority domination and language discrimination make a mockery of the country's pretensions to liberal democracy. The simplest solution would be to privatise the remaining Afrikaans schools and have them write the IEB examinations. That way, the Gauteng education department and other educational authorities may focus on their myriad problems besides a dispute over the number of seats at Hoërskool Overvaal.

In most other countries, each language group has its own ministry of education. That is only natural.

I went to a government school, Helpmekaar, that was privatised in the 1990s. It is situated right next to Wits University, a radical English institution where students regularly strike, burn down lecture halls, and rant against Western colonialism. Yet Helpmekaar has never even been mentioned, as it is private and therefore placed beyond the power games of party chiefs and domineering bureaucrats.

Imagine that: a government minister thinking that Afrikaans children have rights. At this stage, we may be excused for doubting the sincerity of that statement.

That would be the way to go for Afrikaans schools. The alternative would be for the country to polarise even more than it already has.

The minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, has recently tried to calm things down by dissuading her party's supporters, as well as those of the EFF, from further protests, burning of tyres and intimidation of children, parents and teachers at the school. Flanked by Lesufi, she made mention of "the children's rights".

Imagine that: a government minister thinking that Afrikaans children have rights. At this stage, we may be excused for doubting the sincerity of that statement.

Dan Roodt is director of PRAAG (the Pro-Afrikaans Action Group)

* Opinions expressed in blogs are not necessarily those of HuffPost