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Memories from the days of apartheid

Last update - Thursday, August 15, 2013, 12:18 By Panu Höglund

Since Nelson Man-dela, the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, just turned 95 years old, it's high time to remember the days of apartheid. 

As most people know, the big word itself, apartheid, was coined in Afrikaans, the Dutch variety spoken in South Africa, and it means apartness or separation. It became internationally spread as a term for the sort of racial separation that was practised in South Africa until it was abolished in the beginning of the 1990s.

When I was young back in the 1980s, the big bad word was heard all over the world. Young idealists were organising one campaign after another against apartheid. On the other hand, lots of conservative people voiced the opinion that communists had too much influence in the most important of the anti-apartheid organisations, the African National Congress (ANC). They were also concerned that all the whites in the country would be exterminated if apartheid was discontinued. Thus, such conservatism was in the end a philosophy of hopelessness.

True enough, anti-apartheid activism did have a leftist slant, but in Finland even many reasonably conservative politicians and diplomats were openly condemning apartheid. One of them, a seasoned diplomat with a long career in the United Nations, explained his opposition to apartheid thus: “There is hardly a country in all the world where there is no injustice or discrimination at all. In most countries though this injustice and discrimination is against the law of the country itself. In South Africa, laws have been enacted in order to keep the injustice and discrimination happening.”

These were strong words in Finland, as the respect for law is deeply entrenched in our culture. When the country was oppressed by Imperial Russia, the strongest weapon in the Finns' arsenal against despotism was the law, which came all the way from the days when the Swedish king was ruling Finland too. As national poet Johann Ludvig Runeberg wrote: “The law that was when I was born, will be there when I am dead.” We shuddered at the thought that law could be so unjust.

When both apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggle were topical, South African culture captivated many people in Europe. The anthem of the liberation movement, Enoch Sontonga's ‘Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika’, was sung in many languages. Lots of South African books were translated – mostly white writers such as André Brink, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer and Breyten Breytenbach. Regrettably we hardly ever heard names such as Adam Small, a coloured South African who spoke Afrikaans as his native language, or Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, the founder of modern literature in Zulu, his native language. Thus, you could say that even those who wanted to put an end to apartheid in South Africa still reinforced a kind of cultural apartheid.

Since then things have changed, but black South African culture is still quite invisible both in Europe and in the United States. Of course now we have good textbooks for those who want to learn the main black languages of South Africa, Xhosa and Zulu. In 2006, a Xhosa-language production of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen in Xhosa called U-Carmen eKhayelitsha – combining classical operatic music with traditional African song in an ingenious way – became world-famous, especially as a film. Obviously it even made lots of people aware of the Xhosa language itself.

However, the future of indigenous languages does not look bright in South Africa. The problem is that the apartheid regime made its own use of these languages: the kind of education available in them was only what was called 'Bantu education' – ie dumbed-down education that was not incomparable with that of the whites.

Bantu is a linguistic term for the language family, which includes most of the black languages in South Africa, but the regime used it almost like a racial slur. When freedom came, most blacks in the country were demanding education in English on the same level as that of the whites. When the possibility of education in the native language was proposed, it was rejected as 'Bantu education'.

Thus, it seems that Bantu languages still have a very low status in South Africa, with black South Africans abandoning their native languages and adopting English instead. English being the language of liberation and freedom. These attitudes are of course natural and understandable. But as a linguist, I must deplore the fate of their original languages. After all, the languages themselves are not to blame for the way the apartheid regime misused them, and they are not intrinsically ‘bad languages’ unfit for modern life.

They are still living and vigorous languages, and they would be as fit as English itself for describing the physics of black holes or the intricacies of information technology, if only a person was found who would be as knowledgeable of the language as of science and engineering.


Panu Petteri Höglund is a linguist and an Irish-language writer from Finland.



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