Where do you draw the line?


In December last year I was privileged to be invited by my old primary school as the keynote speaker at their senior diploma night.

This is the school where I learned to read and write, in the absence of preschool education, because in the morning (when I was kindergarten age) I would be taken across the street to an old aunt so she could look after me for the day. Otherwise, I would climb onto a farm lorry with my mother early in the morning to then spend the day with her and other workers from an Overberg location on the onion fields of surrounding farms; and in the coolness of the farm lorry the other children and I would play on striped sacks and eat and sleep until it was tea time.

The smell of onions still makes me think of it: of the days in the cool of the farm lorry on the onion fields of farms in the Caledon area – and of the fact that this is, as it were, the place where I learned my Afrikaans.

Then, on the evening of the graduation ceremony, I told the audience of children, parents and teachers about my primary school years, which began in January 1980:

“This is the story of a small boy – small in age, but quite possibly also small due to malnutrition – who walked into the gate on the morning of his first day of school at the side of his older sister. Neither his father nor his mother could go with him, because his father was a general worker at the district municipality and his mother was a servant in the white part of the town.

“Then his sister left him behind at the classroom where the new children had to report and told him to wait for his name to be called – but when he didn’t hear his name, he decided to go back home. A much older cousin of his, old enough to be his aunt, later came to fetch him from home and took him back to school.

“The boy’s teacher’s name was Miss Pollie. She was from the neighboring mission station Genadendal and she was already old. Miss Pollie let him stand at the front of the line when he and his classmates had to walk to their class. The teacher must have been afraid that he was going to run home again!” I then told my audience and my audience then laughed a lot about it.

And I conclude as follows: “The boy’s bread for break was wrapped in a bread bag. His bread was spread with lard and red jam. On some of the other children’s bread was cheese and cold meat.”

As my speech progressed, I took the audience on a journey of all kinds of challenges that have come my way since those first school days for the duration of my school career and beyond. In short, it has to do with what I once called “the poverty of a language” in another context. The message on that night, specifically to the children in the audience, was that no circumstance should ever serve as an excuse for why you don’t make something of your life or, for example, to act disrespectfully towards others. The children smiled shyly, the parents nodded; and the teachers were encouraged.

Throughout the speech I spoke Afrikaans (although at least I asked at the beginning about the language preference because the staff member who acted as program director threw in bits and pieces of English). But oh, my, after I had finished my speech and the audience had fooled themselves with a joke I had made (what the joke was now escapes me) an old man in the audience raised his voice and objected that I only spoke Afrikaans. OK, you. However, the program director stepped in, thanked me and switched to English to share the rest of the evening’s program with the audience. The man was silent then.

What happened that night, however, remains with me now that International Mother Language Day was celebrated last week, because the incident is a signal of an increasing situation. It is namely that predominantly Afrikaans-speaking events are often forced to make the language of the event English due to the presence of a handful of non-Afrikaans speakers or at least have to give up a large part of it to translation or interpretation.

It’s probably the polite thing to do, right? In the interest of cohesion, right? But where do you draw the line?

In some environments, such as a certain university campus, it is completely as if Afrikaans-speaking students are expected not to speak Afrikaans on the campus or in the residences when a non-Afrikaans-speaking (specifically) black person (and not necessarily a Chinese or Portuguese person not) are around. Such a (black) person may only feel excluded or have an experience of language discrimination and this will not do in an environment of political correctness. The result of that for the institution may just be that another retired judge has to be appointed to investigate the case together with an independent panel.

Until that experience on the evening of the diploma event of my old primary school, I always talked about how impressive is the way in which black and immigrant children who are enrolled in the school learn Afrikaans and excel in it. Surely this is how it should be, I would think: surely you are not going to introduce English medium classes for the sake of the arrival of Xhosa home language or Somali children? Or introduce classes in these learners’ mother tongue, because such a step is accompanied by additional classrooms and educators and where will the money for that come from, especially if it is also a no-school-fee school?

But now I learn that the evil language spirits are at work in the same community, although not at the same school. The school in question is a high school and at this school there are about a hundred black children out of the total number of learners of between 800 and 900 children. As it is told to me, this is reason enough for the education district to start talking about a new language policy (dual medium) for the school.

One would hope that parents will realize that this is our foreland – increasing anglicization – even in municipal environments where the language demographic profile is more than 70% Afrikaans, 4% English and 17% Xhosa, such as in Theewaterskloof where my two old schools are located.

If this is not reason enough to take part in the actions against the introduction of the Bela law, which gives provincial heads of education veto rights over schools’ language policy, then I don’t know what will be. Just know that your silence will jeopardize your child’s (mother tongue) future.