Apartheid: Controversy and Ambivalence

This month we have published Language Learning, Power, Race and Identity by Liz Johanson Botha which explores the situation in South Africa where the colonial population has learned the language of the native population, isiXhosa. In this post, Liz discusses the controversies of the apartheid era and the complex language situation of the region.

Language Learning, Power, Race and IdentityApartheid was always controversial. Many were shocked that anyone could think of separating people so completely from each other by virtue of their race and skin colour, even though apartheid was a logical extension of the racial segregation which had been entrenched throughout the colonial era in South Africa and many other colonies. I remember my father looking round him at the population in Cape Town, the outcome of co-habitation over hundreds of years between colonists, the local Khoi and San people, and slaves from many different lands. ‘How they think they can unscramble this egg is beyond me,’ he said. But a kind of separation – or at least categorization – was attempted by introducing a number of different sub-divisions of ‘coloured’, or ‘mixed-race’ people, and ways of testing which group each person belonged to (e.g. If you put a pencil through this person’s hair, does the hair hold it, or does it fall through the hair?).

Although apartheid was clearly a way of entrenching white power and supremacy and keeping other races ‘in their place’ as labourers for the white state and economy, its creators controversially and persuasively claimed that it was the best and fairest way to deal with South Africa’s race problem: to compel different groups to develop separately, ‘along their own lines’. As far as language was concerned, bilingualism was defined as the ability to speak both English and Afrikaans, in spite of African language speakers being in the majority in the country, and social separation was so strictly imposed that most whites did not get a chance to acquire an African language, nor were they taught one in school.

In the long run, apartheid came to be seen as the ultimate dehumanisation of people; a crime against humanity. In the post-1994 democratic South Africa, it is difficult to find a white person who will admit to having supported it, although the Nationalist Party won a majority in the white parliament for close to 50 years. Apartheid is a subject which provokes responses of avoidance and denial among white people: there is guilt over the part they played, often blindly, in the structures of privilege created by the apartheid state; there is also indignation and a sense that blame cannot be attached to someone who was living a life which fitted into current patterns of ‘normality’, and was a good life in as far as they saw it at the time. And much of the socialization into racist attitudes has proved immutable.

Perhaps apartheid is also controversial because of the ambivalence which many feel towards ‘the other’: race theorists have noted that while we often fear and despise ‘the other’, we also feel longing and desire, a sense that ‘the other’ is part of us in a very profound way (Hall, 2000). It is this which prompted people to break through the corpus of draconian apartheid legislation to connect across the racial divides, sometimes with tragic consequences. And it is this ambivalence which becomes one of the powerful themes in my book: Language Learning, Power, Race and Identity: White Men, Black Language. I examine the life stories of four white men who grew up on farms in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, playing with young Xhosa boys, learning their language and sharing their lifestyle. The book examines the process of their language learning against the background of theories which are part of the ‘social turn’, and uses post-structuralist and post-colonial theory to look at how their language skills and early socialization affect the construction of their racial and social identities within the sharply divided apartheid society in which they live, and within the post-1994 South Africa, in some ways radically different from the past, but in other ways horrifyingly the same.

While all of the men grew upon farms, none of them works on a farm, and each has responded in a different way to the changing power dynamics within their places of life and work. The book concludes that the life story interviews show complexity and multiplicity in the men’s identities: they position themselves in white space, using discourses on race which are typical of white people (Frankenberg, 1993; Steyn, 2001). However, the facet of their identities which experienced, in childhood, what could be called ‘carnival space’, where inequalities are inverted and ‘life is one’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 209), informs their attitudes and decisions, and the directions taken by their lives.

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