Hello everyone! I’m still on my traveling mission, perpetually intrigued by languages and visiting countries that intertwine many of them into their political fabric. Did you know that there are countries in Africa which speak more than ten national languages?! Amazing! I decided to hop over to this continent and work my way up, traveling south to north. The most southern African country is South Africa, which has eleven national languages. I couldn’t wait to get started!
Many of these languages I don’t have the pleasure of practicing very often and I do like to keep my abilities sharp. South Africa’s languages are as diverse as their political past, including: Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Northern Sotho, Venda, Tsonga, Swati, and Ndebele.
To best understand this diverse nation, I decided to ask the people for their understanding of how all these languages came to live under one national flag.
Photo Credit: United Nations Photo
First, I wanted to start with Afrikaans. The first time I spoke Afrikaans with a South African, I quickly realized it was a hybrid of Dutch from the 17th century. How fascinating! For those of you living in English speaking countries, imagine traveling to a country that speaks a version of English you only encounter while watching movies set in Shakespearean settings. About 95% of Afrikaans is derived from the Dutch language.
In recent years, there has been a great deal of conflict in South Africa brought about by the younger generation, born after the end of apartheid. These younger black groups have taken to protest the reality of their “equal” rights and have taken to the streets in front of government buildings and on university campuses.
I headed to a large university in Cape Town to ask for the country’s history by students and teachers. First thing I noticed was a site on campus where a statue seemed to have once been. I asked a student sitting nearby it if he knew what had happened.
“Yes, they took it away. A couple of years ago now,” he said. “It was a British Colonist named Cecil Rhodes.” When I asked him to help me better understand the history of South Africa he gave me a brief early history summary.
Up until the late 1400’s, the population was largely African tribes. The first Europeans to touch down upon South Africa were the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch who went on to found the Cape Colony.
About a hundred and fifty years later the British decided to seize the Cape Colony, only to return it to the Dutch a few years later. However, the Dutch were tired of the British invasion and so they embarked on the Great Trek, during which they journeyed further inland, founding new territories.
Meanwhile, the Zulu people also had had enough and rose up to fight off the wave of new European invaders. The British continued toward their goal of taking over the southern tip of Africa.
The Portuguese Natal separated from the Cape Colony, only to be annexed, along with the Zulu and the Dutch, into the British’s empire by the mid 1800s. A war started against the British, which resolved peacefully until gold came onto the scene. A gold rush broke out and many came to seek their fortune. This resulted in another war with the British, which resulted in more back and forth power shuttling until the British prevailed and South Africa was united into a country in 1910.
“And this explains why South Africa is still a commonwealth country, and why Afrikaans is a version of Dutch,” I said, taking in all this new information. The student nodded solemnly, “A long history with other countries trying to take us over and well, here we are today.”
I thanked the student and continued on my way, heading this time to Johannesburg. Although the largest of South Africa’s cities, and perhaps one of the most important during the apartheid struggle, it is not one of South Africa’s three capitals.
It is however, home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court. This reflects the history lesson I just learned when the student told me about South African existing as different independent colonies before, which eventually all became British. As I walked through the streets of Johannesburg my ears immediately picked up Nguni and Sotho languages.
I also noticed most people seemed to easily be able to switch between multiple languages here. I hopped over to try some local Kota, a type of sandwich, and ask what language the men selling it spoke at home.
“And why is it South Africa has so many languages here? Besides the European influence, were there many tribes?” The man replied, “Ahh yes, but we are also a nation of many peoples. Because of gold and diamonds, many people from all over came to live and work in South Africa. The more the news spread of riches being here, the more people came.
Of course, the black migrant workers received much less than the whites, and most everything was owned by men like Cecil Rhodes. This kind of thing continued on until apartheid, you know.” “Ahhh,” I said suddenly understanding. “I was just on a campus where the students had the Cecil Rhodes statue removed!” The man nodded, “Yes, there are many people with different ideas here about who is in charge, or who should be.”
Photo Credit: United Nations Photo
The rest of my time in South Africa consisted of meeting amazing and yes, very diverse groups, along beautiful beaches, surfing big waves, growing and sampling wines, or cooking delicious local cuisine. Despite their tumultuous politics, South Africa is filled with many types of people who all have a great deal of culture and smiles to share. I’m excited to be heading further north into this giant continent and I’m happy to tell you all about who I meet, which languages I find, and all the interesting stuff that happens! Until next time, “sien jou later!”
Updated August 12, 2019