The politics of language in South Africa

The position and role of English were deeply political from the start. English was the language of power during the 19th century, and was imposed in 1822 as the official language of the Cape Colony, replacing Dutch, the cause of great resentment among citizens of Dutch descent—a resentment which was later intensified and hardened among Afrikaners by the South African War of 1899-1901 (also known as the Boer War).

For twentieth-century Afrikaner nationalists, the promotion of the Afrikaans language was central, and under the National Party (1948–94) English was displaced by Afrikaans in government, administration, the police, and the armed forces. However, English was a major influence in business and higher education. It was also the language of choice of the African National Congress and other liberation movements, as it enabled communication both between speakers of the country’s many languages and with the outside world.

South African English is a language of many paradoxes. There are close to 5 million first-language SAE-speakers, comparable with New Zealand’s 4.5 million English-speakers, but they are in a minority, greatly outnumbered by second- and third-language speakers. English is perceived both as the language of communication and aspiration, and as an oppressive juggernaut because of its global power. While politicians often brand English as a ‘colonialist’ and disempowering force, many black parents see it as a crucial instrument for their children’s advancement. And while the government espouses multilingualism, in practice South African English is dominant in public life, for reasons of practicality and cost-efficiency.

Although English is far from neutral as lingua franca, it is more neutral than Afrikaans, which was tainted by its use in enforcing apartheid: it was the attempt to make Afrikaans a teaching language in black schools which led to the Soweto uprising of 1976. And the choice of one African language above the others was not an option.

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