From around 1815, Afrikaans, written in Arabic script, began to be used in Islamic schools. Historian Achmat Davids found a koplesboek, an exercise book in which madrassa students copied down prayers and lessons, dating back to 1806.
Perhaps because of these links to slave populations, for centuries Afrikaans was considered derogatively as an uncivilised “kitchen” dialect, unsuitable for official use. Around 1850, Afrikaans texts written in Latin script began to appear, but it was not until the 20th century that it was accepted as a language in its own right.
In 1870, the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (GRA, Society of Real Afrikaners) was founded to foster nationalism amongst white Afrikaners by standardising a Burger Afrikaans or white man’s language. In 1876, the Newspaper Die Patriot began disseminating new spelling and grammar rules and by 1909, the Zuid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Lettere en Kunst deur Afrikaners (South African Academy of Afrikaner Arts and Letters) was set up with its own Spelling Committee to raise the literary profile of Afrikaans. These changes treated versions of Afrikaans spoken by people of colour as inferior, systematically substituting new Dutch words for existing terms of non-European origin. In 1914, Afrikaans began to be formally used in schools, it was recognised as a real language by the South African government in 1925, and by 1933, the first full translation of the Bible into Afrikaans was published.
Under apartheid, Afrikaans began to be imposed upon black and other non-Afrikaner communities by the white nationalist state, thereby earning the reputation as a tool of oppression. In 1974, it was made the sole and mandatory language of all schools even for students whose mother-tongue was not Afrikaans. This catalysed the heavily-repressed Soweto Uprising of 1976. To date there are still protests in South Africa against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in universities.
By Nnenna Onuoha