Afrikaners VS Afrika

What happens, asks Ilze du Plessis , when we google ‘Afrikaans’ in 2020?


In ’n Ander Tongval (A Change of Tongue), Antjie Krog remarks on how she grappled with the translation of the word “African” during the translation process of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. She explains part of her reasoning as follows (2005:304): a person from America would be labelled an Amerikaner, thus in Afrikaans a person from Africa should be labelled an Afrikaner.

Even though her deduction makes sense, the word Afrikaner has always had its roots in a very exclusive and very white South African group.

Have we made much headway in answering Krog’s question in the years since? A quick google, and three hits:

BBC journalist, Alex Rawlings, writes that Afrikaans was used as a “tool of exclusion” in the Apartheid era. It was the language of the white oppressor, it is frequently associated with racism, and unfortunately, it would seem that the ideologies associated with the language lives on in the democratic South Africa. Furthermore, it remains a language that seems to be ‘exclusive’ only to the white South African demographic.

This exclusivity is not new and it can be found in the many definitions of the Afrikaner that has been formed over the years. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes the Afrikaner as “a South African of European descent whose native language is Afrikaans”. This is in itself problematic because it implies that Afrikaans belongs solely to white South Africans.

The exclusivity of white Afrikaans is further described by Christi van der Westhuizen. She says that the very definition of the Afrikaner lies in “ordentlikheid” (roughly translated as “respectability”). As she explains, this concept is derived from a type of white English-speaking respectability but at the same time, it is what separates the Afrikaner from the English. This classification in itself is also problematic because Afrikaner identity is based on the notion of dominance of one grouping over another, once again excluding other race groups. And much of this was done through creating a distinct linguistic identity.

What happens when we read these three observations together (and keep in mind that each carries its own form of authority and online availability)? Even in 2020, online public space is still awash with  the notion that Afrikaans = Afrikaner = white South African, despite the fact that white South Africans of European descent are not (and haven’t been for a long time) the majority of the Afrikaans speaking population. According to one set of statistics, published in 2018 by the Solidariteit Demographic Project, more than 3.5 million coloured people speak Afrikaans as a home language whereas only 2.7 million Afrikaners speak Afrikaans as a home language.

Any nuance that exists between white and Afrikaner and Afrikaans seems to dissolves online.

To return to Krog’s rationalization of the term Afrikaner, (2005:304) but approached from a slightly different angle: Few coloured Afrikaans-speakers will identify as Afrikaner. Nor are online institutions, schools, or media willing to de-centralise the white-Afrikaner-Afrikaans implications of the term ‘standaardafrikaans’.

When the linguistically diverse nature of Afrikaans is hinted at, it is often by othering it as anything from ‘bruinafrikaans’ to ‘varieteit’ ’ to humorous to skollietaal to gangstertaal.

We never speak of witafrikaans.

Read younger thinkers and scholars on this. In his article Rawlings approached Jamil Khan on the issue of standaardafrikaans who, speaks to this in terms of who gets promoted, represented, and platformed in (largely white-owned) media. The Afrikaans coloured community has in recent years fought for more nuanced representation in mainstream media, and poets like Ronelda S. Kamfer, Jolyn Philips, and Ryan Pedro are celebrated and gives a voice to coloured identity. However, these poets’ works are often framed (in reviews, for example) primarily in terms of language use that deviates from a perceived ‘standaardafrikaans’, or as giving voice to coloured identity-as-monolith.

In interestingly unsimilar ways, 2020 has seen Afrikaner identity trying to frame itself as monolithic (“ons” has come to mean something very narrow in Afrikaans pop songs, for example). Maybe we can return to Krog, and read her in 2020 next to Alex Rawlings, Merriam-Webster, and Christi van der Westhuizen. It can be argued that the Afrikaner belongs in Africa; this is where the language was formed and this is where the Afrikaner nation violently planted its roots.

The name ‘Afrikaner’ has the word ‘Afrika’ in it, yes. But that should then imply a responsibility, a more ethical and collaborative way of seeing our place in our continent. Our forebears attempted to change the land, make it more like them, they tried to make ‘Afrika’ into ‘Afrikaner’, while at the same time instituting largescale cultural, social, and political efforts to make ‘Afrikaner’ and ‘Afrika’ into binary opposites. Maybe now it’s time that we unpack that a bit





Krog, A. 2005. ‘n Ander Tongval. Kaapstad: Tafelberg

Rawlings, A. 2020. Is Afrikaans in Danger of Dying? BBC Future.

Van der Westhuizen, C. 2018. Afrikaner identity in post-apartheid South Africa remains stuck in whiteness, The Conversation.