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The devil speaks Afrikaans

The Delhi Police need for a translator to understand the Cronje tapes shows how local languages languish.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2006 00:11 IST

With a mixture of bemusement and mirth, the South African media have this past week been retelling a story that appeared first in Hindustan Times. The New Delhi Police, they report, are in a fix. The notorious tapes that in 2000 brought down Hansie Cronje, South African cricket’s blue-eyed boy, and which allegedly also incriminate his team member Herschelle Gibbs, consist of conversations that might as well be gibberish.

The reason? The dark dealings between Cronje, who publicly and unblushingly blamed Satan for having instilled in him a love of lucre, and his cronies were conducted in a funny little tongue called Afrikaans.

It might be acclaimed as the world’s youngest language, but it is no behemoth. In South Africa and Namibia, it emerged from the melting pot of Dutch, German, French, Portuguese, Malay and English in stages. Only in the first decades of the 20th century was it wrested, perhaps unwillingly, from the province of patois to be formalised and fashioned as a language into which the Bible and Plato could be translated. And which could build its very own literature.

Today it is spoken or understood by around 15 million people. Owing to the post-1994 efflux of mainly young White professionals from South Africa, however, you are probably more likely to hear Afrikaans spoken loudly and incautiously on London’s underground than in a Johannesburg boardroom.

In the so-called New South Africa, the Rainbow Nation, English has become the unquestioned lingua franca of the political and economic elite. Probably unfairly, Afrikaans still struggles with the seemingly indelible taint of apartheid.

Yet, despite the fact that a sizeable proportion of South Africa’s Indian population, mainly resident in and around the port city of Durban, could probably make themselves understood in the tongue — during apartheid the State did its best to get all South Africans to learn it — Afrikaans still has not spread to India.

The Hindustan Times reported last week that according to an unnamed official connected to the police’s elite Crime Branch, they approached the South African High Commission, as well as academics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Yet, nowhere have they managed to find an interpreter able to decode the guttural noises that hold the key to unlocking the Cronje tapes.

In this vignette lies a wry comment on the global village of which we increasingly hear so much. Both in India and South Africa, the indigenous landscape bears the deep footprints of Empire. In many ways, especially so soon after Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize, English must be seen as the happiest of these. It leads straight onto the world stage.

However, in the free and democratic South Africa that has achieved so much in so short a time, it is bitterly ironic that the country’s indigenous languages are being flagrantly neglected. Afrikaans might fairly be reckoned in this category; the country has nine other tongues that ostensibly enjoy constitutional protection.

And it is the fact that these so-called Black languages are denied the chance to be further developed that strikes one as sadly ironic. After all, Xhosa is the language of Mandela and Mbeki, and Zulu, the mother tongue of Jacob Zuma and Buthelezi.

There are obvious merits to employing English as a lingua franca in South Africa as in India, but one cannot avoid wondering whether the old apartheid regime’s subtle and not-so subtle denigration of Black culture was more successful than the spin-doctors of the new elite might like to admit. Today, not to use English is to be backward, rural and even a wee bit ‘native’.

And in a marvellously naughty coup de théâtre, the notorious Cronje tapes, on which so much ink has been expended over the past few years both in this country and South Africa, return, defiantly showing an up-yours to the global village and the hegemony of English.

At least we now know: the devil speaks Afrikaans.

Oh, and by the way, if the New Delhi Police still have not found someone to assist them — I am ready, willing and able.

Jean Meiring is a freelance journalist who writes in Afrikaans and is attached to the Faculty of Law of Cambridge University, UK.