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S. African Tongue Finding New Roots

July 15, 1998

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Wherever he flies in South Africa, Andreas van Wyk pesters airline employees.

He wants to hear ``fasten your seat belts″ in Afrikaans _ the indigenous language that was encouraged by the white apartheid regime.

Usually airline personnel meet his demands. But twice recently South African Airlines filed charges against van Wyk because he refused to heed instructions in English.

``I’m fighting for my language,″ says van Wyk, a supporter of the Freedom Front Party, a small, conservative group.

When the country’s first all-race elections ended white minority rule in 1994, President Nelson Mandela’s governing African National Congress opened a linguistic Pandora’s box.

It added nine languages spoken by blacks _ like Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho _ to the official Afrikaans and English. The move, critics said, left one tongue supreme _ English.

Faced with making pre-flight safety announcements in 11 languages, South African Airlines pared down to English. Similar decisions have given English near supremacy at universities, Parliament, the post office, the telephone company. Afrikaans is down to 5 percent air time on television.

``The whole country is being overridden with Anglo-American culture ... at the cost of all other languages,″ complains Marlene van Niekerk, an Afrikaner writer.

But as the majority black country sorts out a new identity after four decades of white oppression, something unexpected is happening.

Afrikaans, the language whose forced use sparked the 1976 anti-apartheid riots in the black township of Soweto outside Johannesburg, is discovering a new life.

At Nkholi Primary School, for example, the parents of black children in Soweto _ where 600 people died in the 1976 protests _ have opted to add Afrikaans to the Sesotho and English taught there.

``There was a clear agreement by parents that we are part of the new South Africa, and that these children will grow up and have to work with Afrikaans,″ says the principal, Constance Molefakgotla.

Although English seems to have gained an edge, Afrikaans is spoken by just over half of whites, and since whites dominate the economy, those black parents feel their children must learn the language to improve job opportunities.

Afrikaans is a patois that developed from the Dutch of early white settlers, the Malay brought by 17th century slaves and the indigenous languages of the Khoi and bushmen in the Cape Town region.

The Malay community published the first known Afrikaans literature in 1845 _ Islamic religious texts written in Arabic script. This was decades before Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and other white settlers, started printing Afrikaans in Roman script and eventually made it a language many identified with white domination.

Achmat Davids, a Malay descendant and scholar in Cape Town, says whites hijacked the language and created a myth of racially purity.

``I have an ax to grind with the Afrikaner, who claimed it to be his language,″ Davids says.

Afrikaans, however, provided a cultural rallying point for Afrikaners when they began their rise from mine workers and farmers this century to wrest rule in 1948 from the English.

With English still widely spoken and used in schools and the financial world, the National Party government declared Afrikaans the major language of school instruction, triggering the Soweto riots that mobilized the anti-apartheid movement at home and abroad.

Yet Afrikaans hasn’t been the exclusive possession of whites.

Olga Sema, a black educator and resource expert for Gauteng Province, has taught Afrikaans for 17 years.

``I love this language _ it’s so rich idiomatically,″ Sema says. ``It just has this baggage″ from the apartheid era.

A black provincial governor, Mathews Phosa, writes prize-winning poetry in Afrikaans.

Linguists say South Africa’s major language group is Zulu, which is spoken by an estimated 23 percent of the population. It’s followed by Xhosa at 17 percent and Afrikaans at 16 percent. English is down the ladder at 8 percent.

More than half of Afrikaans speakers now are mixed race or black, the experts say.

After apartheid ended, the Stigting vir Afrikaans (Foundation for Afrikaans) set up literacy projects for uneducated non-white speakers in the Cape Town region, where various dialects are spoken.

Financed largely by the Afrikaans press and other cultural organizations, this type of gentle persuasion is much more the norm than the confrontational approach of militant Afrikaners who earlier this year violently objected to black demands for English instruction in Vryburg.

Across the political spectrum, many South Africans agree that the only way to help Afrikaans fend off English is to develop black languages with the same rigor applied to Afrikaans earlier this century.

Starting in the 1920s, Afrikaner cultural and mining societies developed Afrikaans words for a variety of business fields and sciences. After gaining power, the National Party government poured money into the University of Stellenbosch’s project to document the Afrikaans lexicon.

If the nine official black languages received similar support, they would have a better survival chance, and linguistic diversity would strengthen.

There’s not a lot of money for language projects now, even though the ANC government continues support for the Afrikaans project at Stellenbosch. Still, the university has started lexicon projects with writers of the nine black languages.

In a new democracy struggling to overcome widespread poverty and unemployment, finances present a large barrier.

But cultural hurdles are daunting, too.

``In the past, black people thought that their language and culture were inferior,″ says Sema, the teacher. ``That’s why we are lacking in development.″

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