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Wag your Native Tongue – Growing the 44


Just before Christmas 2022, a well-known celebrity made a negative comment about her native language, setting off waves of bitter replies in response.


“…there’s about 44 people still speaking Afrikaans. It’s definitely a dying language, it’s not a very helpful language…” – Charlize Theron


Before you head off thinking this is a smack article against Charlize, I would like to create an opportunity to explore a different perspective. I invite you to reflect on, and take part in the debate her words have evoked.


The Afrikaans Language


Just to set the record straight: 6,855,082 South Africans (of various race and ethnicity) speak Afrikaans as a first language and make up 13.5% of South Africa’s total population.


Even with the diversity, Afrikaans is the black sheep of the family. Why? Well, if I may address this elephant in Africa. Afrikaans is sadly still seen by many as the language of the oppressor, associated with Apartheid – deep, painful and yes, political.


Now wait just a minute, can a language really be oppressive? What about the person behind the language? Well, in my mind I guess it depends on what people are really saying, what is the message behind the cultural idioms, commas and periods. And deeper than that – what resides at the heart, behind all the words. Isn’t this true language? The wordless language we all speak in the spirit of love or hate.


As an Afrikaans speaking woman, poet and artist, born, raised and living in South Africa, I can confirm that: “Jy kan nie alle skape onder dieselfde kam skeer nie” – not all sheep should be shaved with the same razor (An old Afrikaans Saying). Charlize was sharing what Afrikaans means to her in her world. She was born in South Africa and grew up in South Africa, but it seems that she has detached herself from her Afrikaans heritage. 


Afrikaans is dead to Charlize, but it isn’t dying.

quotation marks

Afrikaans is alive to many different people in South Africa, in many different ways and dialects.

Along with many others, I regularly create Afrikaans poems and songs. We speak Afrikaans in our homes, churches, schools, towns and cities! It has moved on from its shady connection to the past, it is alive, well and developing; a language of hope, community, lit with a dazzling sense of humour (especially through our frequent power outages). This growth includes a fusion and diverse group of beautiful South African people and by the looks of the response on Charlize’s comments, people who will be showing their proverbial middle finger to anyone standing in their growing way.


Consider Mr. Schindler with his list. He was speaking and dealing in German, using the language of the “oppressor” during that time, but what was he really saying? His life and his empathy for the Jews is proof that a language in itself is not oppressive, but rather that it is a tool, a gift to use for greatness, to communicate and express ourselves creatively. Something we must allow to be awkward at times. In allowing, spontaneity and creativity start to flow and a language has the space to truly develop root, strong enough to bud and blossom. 


Isn’t this how Afrikaans started in the first place? An Academic language, Afrikaans, also called Cape Dutch, West Germanic language of South Africa, developed from 17th-century Dutch, sometimes called Netherlandic, by the descendants of European (Dutch, German, and French) colonists, indigenous Khoisan peoples, and African and Asian slaves in the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. 


In short, Afrikaans is alive to many different people in South Africa, in many different ways and dialects. Ask any true South African!

Wag your Native Tongue – Growing the 44

Learning a new language

Learning to speak a new language is a sacred thing. You are stepping out of your own world and entering another. You are broadening your heart and your mind with linguistic fabulousness, rich history, different ways of thinking and doing are all connected with language. In essence, no language is oppressive, but the person using it might be an orchestrator of unthinkable sadness and war, or a saviour like Schindler. 


The question is where are you in your life, what kind of impact would you like to make in the lives and relationships in your life and how will you be using and developing the gift of your language?



My Afrikaans poem (and its translation) published in Poetic Voices, Mossel Bay 2021



mag jy my hart raaksien na hierdie tyd

na jy die pas van woede en hartseer verby is


daarin word jy ook styf vasgehou


mag jy verby die skerwe van my geskiedenis groei

die soms bloeiende wonde van nalatigheid

dit wat my gevorm het


mag my stryd ‘n ferm fondasie vorm

vir jou voete


dat jy sal kies

om in liefde, vergifnis en vrede

voort te loop

sonder hindernis


dis ‘n baie nou pad

wawyd oop

weet dat dit liefde is

wat vir jou baklei het





English Translation:




may you see my heart after this time

after you have moved through the mountain pass

of anger and sadness

in it you are also held tightly


may you grow beyond the shards of my history

the sometimes-bleeding wounds of negligence

that which shaped me


may my struggle form a firm foundation

for your feet


that you will choose

to walk in love

forgiveness and peace

to continue

without hindrance


it’s a very narrow road

wide open

know that this is love

who fought for you


Written by Riska du Plessis / @RiskArt

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