In Other Words

Linguistic Apartheid

A South African essayist considers the ugly history of his native tongue.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

From Not Our Leguaan. Translated from the Afrikaans by the author.

I am an Afrikaans writer. I write in a language that is Dutch but not Dutch, European but not European, African but not African — even though it is the only language named after this (or any other) continent. I write in a language that has little to do with tulips, windmills, or silly snowmen with carrot noses, a language honed to denote Africa in all its harshness, cruelty, and beauty. "Aardvark," "veld," and "wildebeest" — these are the words that Afrikaans has given to the world. As is "trek," of course: to migrate, to get going, to yield to the fever of the horizon. Yes, in the language of the Enterprise, to boldly go where no man has gone before. I write in Afrikaans, a language of wanderers and migrants, of "trekkers," who trekked rather than submit to British rule, who trekked again when the British occupied Natal in turn, who kept on doggedly trekking as the Free State and Transvaal and all the other dreams fell to the juggernaut of Empire. And finally, just when the smoke of war was clearing, just when it seemed that things were finally looking up, just when it seemed that there would be no need of further trekking, these migrants, these god-fearing people who had given the world "Boer" and "spoor" and "commando" and "puff adder," embarked on their final and most ambitious journey. Inventing the word "apartheid," they proceeded to trek away from sanity and even from reality itself.

And this thing, this big A, this abomination that strung barbed wire between us and the only country we ever knew or loved, has made migrants of us all. How can we forget the freedom fighters, forced into exile or into that other kind of exile from which there can be no return? How can we forget the men and women who had to flee to fight another day, or the activists, harried by the security police (whose tactics were of course always extremely interesting)? And how could we forget the writers who had to abandon everything to escape persecution or hardship or any hint of kinship with these bastards who were turning the country into a parody of all they had ever dreamed of or believed? But we shouldn’t forget the silent majority either, those who stayed behind, those who suffered in a country that was becoming more and more like a foreign country every day. They were the migrant workers with their passes designating them as temporary sojourners in the country of their birth. They were the vagrants and the dispossessed, but also those who retreated into a kind of inner exile, a moral stupor where the sky was still as blue as it was on TV, where the doves sang exclusively in verse, never mentioning the shacks and the barricades or the obscene whirring of rubber bullets. There were the English too, lest we forget, who had had the savvy not to give their policies a name and were now torn between memories of Home and this strange new republic which they supported as eagerly as anyone else who was allowed to draw their crosses — though this has become an inconvenient truth of late, a kind of non-fact, something that will hopefully go away if no one mentions it again. And always there were the cruel and haunted Afrikaners, the beautiful, deluded Afrikaners, these men and women who came up with names like "meerkat" and "boomslang" and "berg," but loved this country more than words could express and still managed to turn it into a stranger.


For the next translation, click here.

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