Afrikaans: Post-colonial South African English – John Scot Feng [EN]

Submitted Sunday, June 1

Preface: During my four years at National Chengchi University, I’ve met many friends from different cultural backgrounds who speak different languages. I believe we don’t truly understand our uniqueness until someone around us points it out. Before that point, we are just “normal”; “ordinary” even. Here is a short piece for all my friends who have pointed out the differences in my English and embraced them. Hundreds, okes. – J.S. Feng


Afrikaans is a regional dialect of Dutch used mainly in the Republic of South Africa and in Namibia respectively either as a mother tongue or as a second or third language. The purpose of this paper is to introduce Afrikaans as a practical language used daily in the lives of most, if not all, South Africans. The academic aspects of Afrikaans can remain well and truly in the textbooks and theses that analyse it. The aim here is to introduce Afrikaans from a different point of view—from a more everyday-life, personal angle.

Even though facts and figures about Afrikaans show the language to be the third-most spoken language in the Republic of South Africa, with an official usage rate of 13.3% (Census, 2001), linguists within the nation would beg to differ. In the modern day version of this “Rainbow Nation” language, it is more than merely a Dutch derivative, as some would suggest. The immense reach and value of this language has often been overlooked, and no proper introduction is complete without the topic’s background.

Early days: the arrival of the Dutch East India Company

Brought over to Kaapstad (Cape Town), South Africa in the 17th century, the birth of Cape Dutch is credited to early Dutch settlers representing the Dutch East India Company that arrived in the Western Cape and established a colony. However, since the inception of Dutch in South Africa almost 400 years ago to the Afrikaans South Africans speak today, many factors contributed to the rapid change and development of the characteristics we now see in the modern day version of the language.

Most noticeable of influencing factors is that of new immigrants into the Western Cape from Europe, more specifically the British, French and Portuguese, who all played a part in shaping the language by incorporating the above mentioned European languages into the then-spoken everyday Dutch. In addiction, the language took on a more oriental flavour with the arrival of slaves in the Cape, primarily from South East Asia, but also from other eastern regions and nearby African islands, such as Madagascar.

As is often the case with colonising languages—Spanish entering the Americas, English arriving in New Zealand or French in the greater regions of Africa, when entering a region that already has a dominating native language present, the colonising language often picks up lingual traits from the local dialect. In this case, the development of Afrikaans can also be attributed to native South African languages, such as Xhosa and Zulu.

In turn, one could say that, as South Africa became increasingly attractive as a main trade route because of its vast lands and seemingly abundant resources, Afrikaans played the role of a lingua franca amongst numerous native and foreign ethnic groups, who found themselves desperately looking for a foothold in the Cape region of South Africa.

The rise of Great Britain: Queen Vic’s arrival in the Cape region

Beyond these lingual influences, Afrikaans goes down in history as the ‘tool’ used by the Dutch government in the late 19th century to solidify their place as the dominant force in South Africa, not only politically, judicially, but by language as well. This, however, was only  seen after the two diamond-conflict-driven Anglo-Boer Wars fought between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

After the original Dutch settlers were ousted by Queen Victoria and her navy, making South Africa Britain’s most prized asset in the southern hemisphere, the Afrikaners (South African Dutchmen) separated themselves from the British. Although also “white” by racially classification, they wanted to make it very clear that they were fighting for the other side, namely, for South Africa, hence the assistance they received from some black South Africans at the time, specifically from the Zulu tribe.

Following the end of the British-won Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the English and Afrikaans languages underwent a series of power struggles, in the end settling with major usage in specific regions in South Africa. Afrikaans was more widely spoken in South-eastern South Africa, such as in Natal and Port Elizabeth, while English was mainly used in Transvaal due to Britain’s major interest and investment in the diamond and gold minding industries.

Apartheid: Afrikaans’s role in post-colonial South Africa

South Africa’s case in the 20th century was a special one. Although both the British and Dutch ruled South Africa during that era, Afrikaans, and not English, was seen as the “language of oppression”. Harsh curtailing laws such as the Natives’ Land Act of 1913 severely restricted the ownership of lands by the blacks; at that stage, natives controlled only 7% of the country, even though they made up almost 80% of South Africa’s total population.

Subsequent South Africa governments only further enforced anti-black laws and regulations, eventually passing and legally institutionalising segregation, later known as Apartheid (literally meaning “apartness” in Afrikaans). South Africa’s implementing of Apartheid officially signified the legal oppression of non-white races, which rightly gained much criticism from the international community.

Under Apartheid rule, South Africa established three racial classes: white, coloured (people of Asian or mixed racial ancestry), and black, with rights and restrictions for each, written up in that order. Needless to say, white-South Africans received the most benefits from segregation laws, with the rights to own land and travel freely in and out of the country’s borders. Coloured and black people, on the other hand, saw their rights curtailed, freedom restricted, and dignity put to shame.

One of the most infamous laws of the Apartheid era was the Pass Law, which stated that black people could not roam freely out of their residential area after dark, and any black person caught (by police or by other white citizens alike) without a “pass” would be put in jail and severely punished.

Although deemed unacceptable by the international community, Apartheid started under the imperial era of colonisation when the First and Second World Wars occupied the world at large. South Africa also played an important role in the Second World War. Being a British colony at that time, South Africa served as a pivot point for the Allies between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The end of the Second World War, however, did not ease up Apartheid, and when the English left South Africa’s parliament after the Second World War, officially bringing Imperialism to an end, Apartheid seemed to only get worse.

The Afrikaner-dominant National Party was the first to seize any form of post-colonial political power when it won the 1948 elections. Without competition from the British, the NP did everything in its power to ensure the survival and further development of the Afrikaans. language. The party introduced measures to leapfrog Afrikaans speakers over others in the country in the employment and business sector. Needless to say, Afrikaans’ status as the language of oppression was only further cemented.

The only way Afrikaans could have gotten a firm foothold on South Africa was if it could appeal to, if not then control, the majority of the population, which since then until now, was the black community. Since the former seemed quite a bit harder to achieve, Afrikaners chose the latter. Using—or abusing, depending on one’s viewpoint on the matter—their political power, the NP sought to boost the status of Afrikaans by making it compulsory in schools and as the main language of parliament, causing more than a few upsets. In particular, the National Party’s institutionalisation of Apartheid and decision to teach black children in Afrikaans was an unpopular one, and these were the main reasons for the Soweto uprising in 1976.

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Soweto 1976: Afrikaans dethroned

Remembered as the height of Apartheid-related protests, the Soweto uprising began on the morning of June 16 when 20,000 students from various schools in Soweto took to the streets in protest against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix of languages of instruction. Of the students involved, roughly 176 were killed during government suppression.

The Soweto uprising was a landmark protest as far as black South Africans were concerned. Similar to the magnitude of protests seen in Homs, Syria since 2011, the Soweto uprising was the largest and most deadly of any protests seen in South Africa at the time. The sacrifices of the 176 or so students who were gunned down by government forces served to bring Apartheid and its accompanying issues onto the world stage, causing unrest in the international community, which South Africa was largely involved in. Today, the Soweto uprising is remembered every year on June 16 as Youth Day.

After the events of the Soweto uprising, South Africa was firmly in the spotlight. Condemned by the international community for its not only unfair, but at times also unethical treatment toward the black majority, South Africa also came under immense pressure after being essentially “cut off” from the world.

South Africa was banned by FIFA (International Federation of Association Football), IRB (International Rugby Board), ICC (International Cricket Council) and the Olympic Committee from competing internationally. But worst of all, member nations of the United Nations severed trade ties with South Africa, bringing South Africa to its knees.

The government finally decided to undergo reform. Former South African President F.W. de Klerk started South Africa on its road to freedom by releasing imprisoned political prisoner Nelson Mandela after 27 years on Robben Island. He allowed Mandela to participate in what was South Africa’s first democratic elections, and needless to say, with the black community firmly behind Mandela and his ideas of a “new South Africa”, the Mandela-led African National Congress was voted into power in 1994, where they remain to this day to the dismay of many. But that’s a topic for another analysis altogether.

Despite attempts to keep the language as one of only two official languages after 1994, the Constitution Assembly in the newly-democratised Republic of South Africa chose to downgrade Afrikaans to one of 11 official languages, its protected status very much a thing of the past. It remains, however, one of the two compulsory languages to learn at school for South Africans, which at least in my eyes, is a very integral part of cultural preservation.

Tweede taal: Afrikaans education today

Whether we realise it or not, all South Africans use Afrikaans on a daily basis. From slang used by teenagers and adults to words that we deem “purely South African”, Afrikaans is everywhere. In modern day South Africa, this former language of oppression has risen from the ashes of its tarnished past and well and truly become a symbol of the country today.

During my time in South Africa, Afrikaans was taught in primary school from grade one onwards, all the way until matric. Afrikaans was also one of the compulsory classes we had to take, and pass, in order to graduate from primary school and high school.

(South Africa’s education system is 7-5-4; 7 years of primary school, 5 years of high school, and 4 years (more or less depending on one’s major) of varsity, or other forms of tertiary education.)

While I was in grade 11, however, the grade tens found that they had an extra option which we at the time did not. Education reform saw a change in system when it came to the learning of a second or third language. For as long as I could remember, Afrikaans was always the fixed, standard second language for all South Africans, regardless of ethnicity, but the reform meant that starting from 2008, grade tens could now choose their second language for themselves, with the extra option being Zulu.

When I was in primary school, Zulu was available as a third language. We only went to Zulu class once a week, and none of us really took it seriously enough. And neither did the teacher, who, just for reference, was white. But this change in system meant that Zulu now became a language that the youth of South Africa could willingly learn in schools and other educational institutes. The change meant that students did not have to go through third-party sources to pick up this historic and culturally rich language.

The introduction of Zulu as an optional second language alongside Afrikaans, however, does not symbolise a “drop in status”, if you were, of Afrikaans, but rather a “rise in status” of the Zulu language, which, if anything else, heaps praise on the rising awareness and cognition of our motherland’s other abundant cultures.

Afrikaans in everyday speech: the emergence of South Africa English

It may be true that less and less Afrikaans is being spoken by South Africans “officially” in schools and by modern day non-Dutch South Africans, but the language itself is survived by many Afrikaans schools, from primary, second to tertiary. These educational institutes teach only in Afrikaans, but also emphasise the importance of English, because it is a language require by the Department of Education in order to graduate. It is also the official language of South Africa. Afrikaans is also survived by many families living in South Africa today that speak perfect English, but, as a rule, speak Afrikaans at home anyway, much like some Asian families in the United States.

Similar to the effect Mauri has on New Zealanders, Afrikaans finds itself in the speech of many a South African, either in the form of slang or borrowing of words.

The following are some examples of Afrikaans in our everyday speech, as well as some must-know South African phrases (these words may also prove useful for wishing to visit South Africa. After all, knowing the local culture of the country you’re visiting is the easiest way to be welcomed):

Phrase Meaning
Howzit What’s up? How are you?
Bru Afrikaans for “brother”; 

Bro, dude, mate.

Oke (Pronounced “oak”) 

Dude, guy, man.

Check that ole over there!

China Mate, buddy, friend. 

Howzit, my china?

Cheers Goodbye; also said when raising a glass of beer or wine to toast.
Shot An expression of agreement and content; also means “good”, “OK” or “thank you”. 

– Shot for the ride, man.
– Ja, no worries (you’re welcome), bru!

Hundreds An expression of content; “100 percent”; also means “OK” or “Good”. 

– Hey, how you doing?
– Hey, hundreds, man. You?

Eish An exclamation of surprise, particularly one of a misfortune nature.
Izzit Is that so?
Jislaaik Another exclamation of surprise. 

Jislaaik! Izzit?

Ja Afrikaans for “yes”.
Ja no Literal translation of Afrikaans “Janee”; means “yes”. 

Ja no, that’s fine!

(Sometimes) No, that’s fine. I’ll meet you there!

Just now/now now Soon.
Kak Afrikaans for “shit”. 

Serious trouble, unpleasantness.

Lekker Afrikaans for “nice”, “good”; also used to describe something tasty.
Sharp An expression of agreement or understanding. 

Sharp, see you at three.

Bokke The Springboks—SA national Rugby team.
Bafana Bafana SA national football (soccer) team.
Protea(s) SA national flower; also the name of SA national cricket team.
Braai Barbecue.
Bake Pick up truck or a small utility vehicle.
Biltong Traditional South African dried meat similar to that of American “jerky”.
Sarmie A sandwich.
Jol/Jolling A party, get-together; having fun.
Mozzie A mosquito.
Trek A journey, particularly one of a long-lasting or tiresome nature.
Monkey’s wedding A sunshower.
Robot A traffic light.

(The above words are just a few of the many words and phrases that we South Africans use in our everyday speech. Personally, I don’t use these words in Taiwan anymore, because, naturally, nobody understands. But when speaking to my South African friends, these words and phrases appear on a frequent basis.)

Today, Afrikaans is no longer seen as an “evil” language, or a language only spoken by the Boers (white Afrikaners; the word literally means “farmer” in Afrikaans. It derives from the profession former Dutch South Africans used to take up). It has become a fundamental part of every South African’s life. Dare I say, even people of Zulu and Xhosa heritage use Afrikaans in their everyday speech, and so did the great Nelson Mandela (God bless his soul). This language is a symbol of South Africa, just like Zulu and the other nine official languages are. And I am not alone in saying that I am proud to speak this colourful tongue. JSF.

John Scot Feng, author of the “Barrelled Thoughts Blog” series and administrator of “Quote, Unquote“, was born in Durban, South Africa. He is currently a Russian studies student at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. As founder of “The Salad Bowl“, John is also one of the project’s English- and Chinese-language editors.

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