I was on a bus on my way to a party this past Saturday night when a guy, who happens to be Afrikaans, tapped my shoulder to ask if I were South African. It certainly was a lovely surprise. I asked how he had guessed. It was the accent, he said. Accent? I have always believed I had a neutral one, but as the Universe keeps revealing, apparently not. He, on the other hand, had an unmistakeable Afrikaans accent – the kind any white boy from Vereeniging would have. Listening to him, in Milan – the last place I’d expect to speak to an Afrikaner boy, was undoubtedly refreshing.
We spoke about his travels to the Eastern Cape and particularly Mthatha. He recalled fond memories of goats and cows on the road. His lady friend was illuminating besides him and nodding each time he spoke. She had joined him on one of these trips. I was so happy that by the end of that conversation, the muscles around my mouth ached… it had been a lovely chat. But when the bus reached their stop and we bid each other farewell, I began to think of how I had witnessed other friends being met with the same fate – meeting someone from their home country right in the chaos of Milan – and just how effortless it was for them to switch to their native language. It had always been beautiful to watch. This was not the case for us, and it bugged me somewhat.
South Africa, with eleven official languages, is a country with four groups of people – 1. those who only speak an indigenous language (their mother tongue); 2. those who speak more than one indigenous language; 3. those who speak one or more indigenous languages plus English and/or Afrikaans; and lastly, 4. those who only speak English and/or Afrikaans. Of course, many others also dabble on a foreign language or two. This boy, who was the highlight of my week, fell into the last category… and this is not entirely a surprise.
With our complicated history and battle with social-culture integration, language, the importance of language, and whose matters the most can all be sensitive issues for many people in SA, and understandably so. This affects a multitude of things, including our fragile education system. But without branching off into a political debate, I strongly believe that South Africans (especially English and Afrikaans native speakers) need to try harder and encourage themselves to learn a language other than English or Afrikaans. Kunini sazilum’ amalwimi sikhumsha! That’s just my two cents. After all, just yesterday the continent celebrated Africa Day – the 50th anniversary of the African Union. How are we to feel proud of this “unity” when certain languages seem to enjoy more importance and “relevance” over others? What are your thoughts about languages in South Africa, or in your country for that matter?