Written by Dyami Millarson
I have thought long and hard before writing up this article, because I do not even want to mention the word ‘politics’. It seems that the mention of Afrikaans inevitably invokes a political discussion about apartheid, and we do not delve into politics on this blog, because there is no reason to politicise language, culture and worldview. I deemed it fitting to address this issue, because Afrikaans is neither a political sin nor is it inextricably linked with any particular historical regime or political ideology; Afrikaans is not the language of apartheid anymore than Frisian is a separatist language of people desiring to break free from oppressive Dutch rule, German is a Hitlerian or Marxist language, English is a Trumpian or Victorian language, Chinese is a Moaist or Qing Dynasty language, Arabic is an extremist or terrorist language, Italian is a Mussolini-styled fascist language, Russian is a Stalinist or Czarist language, Latin is a Caesarian language, and so on. None of these languages are inherently linked with historical regimes, political figures or political ideologies, but they are linked with the lives of generations of people who existed long before particular regimes, politicians and ideologies and will exist long after. It is, therefore, very important to distinguish politics and language, and to see language in the right context. Speakers of any language can fall anywhere on the political spectrum; no language itself is inevitably linked with the political ideology of any particular regime or political figure in history. It is possible to politicise any language, but this would be completely unfair to that language. English isn’t beautiful despite Trump’s regime, Russian isn’t beautiful despite Putin’s regime, Dutch isn’t beautiful despite Rutte’s regime, and so on. These languages have a life of their own, and a political figure, political ideology or a regime is only a particular episode in history; it is basically nothing in comparison to the life of any language, because languages span generations and they aren’t confined to particular moments or snapshots of history.
Afrikaans is thus inherently divorced from politics; Afrikaans as a language is no political statement, and it is not linked with any particular political view. People of any political leaning may, nevertheless, choose to view Afrikaans as part of their identity, but so may people falling anywhere along the political spectrum see Chinese, Dutch, Russian and so on as part of their identity. Literally anyone can view Afrikaans as theirs; you do not have to be a Russian to identify with Russian, you do not need to be Chinese to identify with the Chinese language, you do not need to be a Frisian to identify with any of the Frisian languages. I can’t emphasise enough that language is not inherently political, and it would therefore be an egregious error – and of course completely unfair – to view Afrikaans as a vestige of apartheid, as a language stained by apartheid, as a language responsible for apartheid, or the like. Languages are the sum of their speakers, and they didn’t bring about any particular strain of politics, politician or political party, it is just pure coincidence when a particular political ideology, politician or political party uses a particular language and there is absolutely no causal relationship between the two. So when someone wishes to study Afrikaans, it is unfair to bring up apartheid; would people also blame Latin for the rise of Caesar if someone says they want to study Latin, or would people also bring up Trump if someone says they want to study English, or bring up Stalin when someone says they want to study Russian, or bring up Hitler when someone wants to study German? This is simply politicising language and it is ‘decontextualisation’ at its worst; I like being patient and fair to everyone regardless of errors and I know it may be tempting to commit the human error of politicising language, but it is nonetheless a horrible error, a source of extreme injustice even, because it eschews our understanding of what a language truly is, it doesn’t provide us with a complete picture that helps us to see a language in the right context and it simply discourages objective study and research. I strongly recommend that discussions of Afrikaans remain apolitical and Afrikaans be judged on its own merit regardless of any particular regime, ideology or political figure; I wish the same for any other language.