Skip to main content

The Power of Language in South Africa

After spending time all over South Africa, we have been exposed to many of South Africa’s eleven official languages. On our first day in South Africa (way back in March!) we were of course first exposed to Afrikaans, the Dutch-like language commonly spoken in the Western Cape. However, throughout our time here we have also learned about Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, and several of the other languages (see Jasmine’s post for more details).

At first, I thought that the variety of languages in South Africa simply reflected the diverse nature of the country, but I soon learned that each language has a power dynamic and a political role I did not recognize prior to this trip. At Stellenbosch University, classes are taught in both Afrikaans and English, meaning that students who do not know Afrikaans, who tend to be black students, are at a disadvantage. This has sparked the movement #OpenStellenbosch, which one of last year’s bloggers wrote about. Because of this, as well as the prominence of Afrikaans language throughout apartheid, many of us have come to think of Afrikaans as the language of power and oppression.

A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to have one of South Africa’s most famous poets, Diana Ferrus, speak to us about her beautiful work. She also gave us a different, nuanced take on Afrikaans—the fact that Afrikaans was created by local Khoi people, the very first people in South Africa, and Dutch workers, making it the only true language of the coloured people in South Africa. Though Afrikaans has been used for oppression—and sometimes still is—Diana explained the importance of the language to coloured culture, reflecting the complex, nuanced nature of South Africa itself. We were fortunate to have Diana shed light on this complexity, and we truly enjoyed listening to her remarkable poems. It is these small complexities and lessons that I will remember most from our time here, and I am grateful for our time spent with Diana.


Our group with Diana Ferrus, a famous South African poet.

Our group with Diana Ferrus, a famous South African poet.

One Comment:

Posted by Jane Gralen on

Hi Emily – Your blog about languages was quite interesting. I’ll be interested to hear more
about Diana Ferrus when you return. It won’t be long now! Love, Gram

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *