Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Multilingual Rainbow

The Republic of South Africa has 11 official languages, the most in the world according to The Guinness Book of World Records:
The country with the most official languages is the Republic of South Africa with 11. These are: English, Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Setswana, Sepedi, Xitsonga, siSwati, isiNdebele and Tshivenda.
However, South Africa's 1996 post-apartheid constitution doesn't stop with the official languages.  Subsection 6 of Chapter 1 also obligates the national government's Pan South African Language Board to support the Khoi, Nama, and San languages of South Africa's first inhabitants and sign language and to ensure respect for 11 additional languages.  The Constitution's Bill of Rights grants extensive legal protections for individuals' language use, including "the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable" and "the the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice."

As with many of the other sweeping socio-economic rights included in the Constitution, the lived reality of many South Africans differs from their supreme law's soaring rhetoric. Disputes over the language of instruction used in institutions at all levels from primary school to university are ongoing, as are arguments about changing European place names.  During our time in Cape Town, bilingual (Afrikaans and English) and trilingual (Afrikaans, English, and isiXhosa) signs were common everywhere and the norm at government institutions.  The other eight languages are not as common in Cape Town or the Western Cape province.

The current situation and its linguistic disputes, which touch on deeper issues of ethnic and cultural identity, must be considered in the context of the racial segregrationist policies of apartheid which were in place until the early 1990s.  As part of apartheid, the ruling National Party aggressively promoted Afrikaans, a language which has evolved from the Dutch of South Africa's first European settlers, as the country's dominant language.  The National Party's efforts to impose Afrikaans instruction on black students sparked the 1976 Soweto uprising, which was brutally suppressed but marked a key moment in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Apartheid-era government sign in English and Afrikaans, now displayed at the District Six Museum
Today's legal linguistic dispensation may seem messy, imperfect, and confusing, but it is certainly preferable to a situation of domination.  The reversal of the apartheid-era linguistic social engineering and the government's acknowledgement of South Africa's amazing linguistic diversity are victories for the agency and resilience of the South African people over an alternative, dystopian vision of government-imposed linguistic conformity and segregation.  The late Nelson Mandela understood the importance of recognizing people's languages:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Let me conclude with this image from South Africa's Constitutional Court building in Johannesburg, which I visited in 2008 and which is inscribed in all 11 official languages so as to speak to the hearts of all South Africans.

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