Dance – you’re Afrikaans!

Johannes Jacobus Botha as a young man of 26.
My grandpa, Jan Jacobus Botha, as a young man of 26.

I think the two most surprising things I experienced travelling and living ‘overseas’ was that everything was not, in fact, cooler/better/more fabulous than it was in SA (we Saffers suffer from a terrible inferiority complex in that regard), but also how deeply, madly and uncompromisingly South African I became. Before I left the country I had a tenuous, undefined and vaguely apologetic sense of my own heritage. But – and I guess this is identity politics 101 – put me amongst a clan of white-blonde, herring-marinating, super-stylish Scandinavians, and I was one step away from wearing a lion skin to the Vårdcentral and throwing bones for people as my party trick. Since I didn’t own a lion skin, what I did instead was join a South African book group and learn to bake rusks and source a boerewors maker in Copenhagen and phone my mom just to weep when I heard Alicia say, ‘molo, Sisi! Kunjani?’

And the other thing I did, after not doing this thing for many years, was start to speak Afrikaans. Afrikaans – the language of my country, of my childhood, of my history with its uncompromising ‘r’s and it’s guttural ‘g’s that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself. Its verkleiningsvorm that adds ‘tjie’ to small things so that they shrink before your very ears, and its words which are so unique and descriptive that they refuse to be moulded into the clipped, uptight and inflexible rigours of English. Nothing is as crawly as a ‘gogga’; nothing says you’ve hurt yourself like ‘eina!’, and that’s not even touching on the assortment of swear words and abuses which are so colourful they verge on psychedelic.

And, of course, the more ‘Kaaps’ you get, the more evocative and descriptive Afrikaans becomes. And it’s a shame it got associated with all that bad stuff. That a language so vibrant and defiant and home-grown became branded and white-washed and sterilized so that it served the purposes of a few power-hungry old men who loved this country but not its people, and, in the way language constructs reality, was used as a very effective tool of oppression. Which, given its origins – a ‘secret’ language developed by slaves so that they wouldn’t be understood by their tyrannical masters, and also a rebellion against speaking the language of their oppressors – is deeply ironic. Another thing I only discovered recently is that ‘kombuis’ in Dutch signifies a ship’s galley. Which implies that it might not be ‘kitchen Dutch’ as we have always understood, but ‘ship galley Dutch’, which carries its own insidious connotations. And its hybrid of Dutch, Portuguese, Khoi and Malay (with some Xhosa and Zulu influence along the way) makes it magnificently unique and special as languages go.

And while I wasn’t nearly conscious enough at school to understand that Afrikaans was a tool of apartheid, the overt preference the Afrikaans kids got in my dual-medium Somerset West school was enough to distance me from it and all it represented. We English-speaking kids were largely regarded as wayward and traitorous and, despite being as South African as they come, in this country of divisions and apartness, our affiliations were somehow believed to be British. Because Afrikaans was not our home language, we were not ‘true’ South Africans, and I have vivid memories of teachers comparing us negatively to the Afrikaans kids, a censure which hurt me at the time, being a diligent, conscientious student who loved my school and was very proud of my good grades.

Because I suppose, even though we were children and clueless, the Anglo-Boer war with its concentration camps and brutal treatment of the Boers was still fresh in a lot of minds. So that when my maternal grandfather, Jan Jacobus Botha, who grew up poor on a farm in the Eastern Cape, went to school barefoot on horseback and spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa but not one word of English, met and fell in love with Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley who spoke no Afrikaans, their families were none too pleased. And when, in a real Romeo and Juliet-style saga they married anyway, his family, who lived literally down the road from their home in East London, would sit on their stoep and refuse to greet my granny when she walked past.

The beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilly.
My beloved granny, the beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley, shortly before she married.

Unfortunately, in those days, Afrikaans was – and still is in some quarters – considered a lesser language, and my granny made it a condition of their marriage that their children would be raised English-speaking. So, while both my parents are bilingual, my accent is bad, and I wish the language hadn’t been allowed to slip away over the generations as it has. But, with growing up, I’ve learnt to love it again and appreciate it and consciously embrace it as an integral part of my heritage. In a strange way I feel like my Afrikaans roots bind me to the soil of this country, and legitimize my living here. Because the Afrikaners were, really, South Africa’s white tribe. I wish I’d been older when my grandpa was alive so that I could have asked him questions about his life back then. And I wish I’d been awake enough to tell him not to speak his accented English to me, but to talk to me in his mother tongue, using the words of his own childhood to paint pictures of the world.

Now I rely on my mother’s memory to keep my ancestors alive, while in my own mind I’ve reclaimed the culture for myself. For me, it has nothing to do with those cross men and their brylcreem who didn’t smile one time in their lives and conjured a political system madder than your wildest imaginings. It’s a connection to this corner of Africa; my soul’s dompas, if you will. The blood of those people who fought and suffered to live freely in this country runs through my veins, too. And to the ones who say I don’t belong here, I answer in my best, accented Afrikaans, ‘fok jou! Gaan vlieg in jou ouma se klein kwassie!’ And I defy anyone to translate that.

I think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s by the late Koos du Plessis, and it was used in a TV series when I was growing up, but I don’t remember which one.


92 thoughts on “Dance – you’re Afrikaans!

  1. Please please please please write a book. Every single one of your posts hits me deep in my South African gut. And your observations on motherhood and schools absolutely kill me, they are so spot on!! Love your writing, thank you for sharing it with so many of us.

  2. Well eish wena Susan you’ve done it again..encapsulated what most South Africans feel (or the SA’s that I know) about that crazy language that is uniquely ours. I’m Indian and growing up in KZN in the 80’s/90’s I had no special love or hatred for the language it was just something to pass at school and to speak with me brother when we didn’t want our parents to understand (still being used as for its original purpose of not letting the ‘baas’s know) but it was only when I began my travels that I really fell in love with it..I used to speak it to myself when I was homesick or sing volk liedjies in the showers (Jan Pierewiet or Suikerbossie) and every other Saffa that I met would instinctively start speaking in Afrikaans as if we knew that even though we may be of different colour our experience was the same and nothing bonded us together more than that lovely language. The politicos might say that its the language of the oppressor but I think for most children of my generation it bonds us together, black, white, indian, coloured because its not so much a white language its the language of all our people. Keep it up, love your blog! Px

  3. I love your blogs, although they often tend to pique my SA-white-guilt (and annoy me :) )! As an Italian-born “gekweek” in P.E., I know exactly what you mean. We left SA when I finished school to go back “home” and two years later in 1980 we uprooted everything again and came back forever. My best was getting on the plane to fly back and having a couple sit next to me talking in Afrikaans. I remember turning to them and saying how I had missed hearing it. Thank you for sharing so authentically.

    1. Aaah, I know! I had exactly the same experience coming home to SA from Sweden, sitting next to an Afrikaans family on the plane and having to hold myself back from saying HELLO! People of my tribe!! Thanks for sharing xxx

  4. I loved reading your post today, I needed to hear that my “moedertaal” is still considered favourably in our country by those not speaking it. I am an Afrikaans woman, married to a Soutie (my second marriage). We moved to Durban last year and I have been struggling to feel at home in what is regarded as SA’s last British outpost! Though my kids are fully bilingual (I speak to them in Afr and hubby speaks to them in English), I find myself speaking to them in English when we are in public because in Durban Afrikaans really is uncommon. Reading your post now makes me realise again that being born Afrikaans in South Africa is as unique as it gets on a global scale and though I am cognisant of the fact that my kids will study and work in an English world, I feel the need to celebrate my heritage and also say to those who want to keep seeing Afrikaans as the languate of the oppressor “Ag jou moer man! Kom net by!” I am as South African as it gets. “Ons vir jou Suid-Afrika”!

  5. I can so relate to this! 11th Generation Swiss, I’ll have you know ;-) My parents are staunch Afrikaans, they sent me to an English school and my husband is Portuguese! What a mengelmoes! My kids are English in a ‘dual-medium-actually-afrikaans-preferred’ school. Sad to see how they are still side-lined for being English-speaking (fluent in Afrikaans, by the way), but that doesn’t ‘buy’ them any points to enjoy the same opportunities. I grew up being the ‘black sheep’ of the family because I went to an English school 30-40 yrs ago, not much has changed, has it? As a Country, we will not be able to unite, until the barrier between English & Afrikaans is broken down. The Anglo-Boer still rages on….

    Still proudly South African :-)

    1. Mengelmoes! What a great word. Yes, it’s amazing how it does live on in some ways – it amazes me how divided we kids were at school. Happily, we ignored those boundaries and some of my closest friends now were in the Afrikaans classes at school. I love speaking Afrikaans to them, though they do chuckle at my bad accent. Thanks so much for sharing your story :-)

  6. Hi Susan. I’m one of your loyal readers who is quietly delighted by what you write. Sometimes I share (my one daughter is one of those go-to ant mothers). Today I feel like commenting. Afrikaans also makes me feel rooted and grounded, more so as I get older. I am one of those braks: my parents spoke Afrikaans to each other, but English to us, and sent us to English schools. (When I did use words such as bliksem and donder, I got a clip about the ear. In what other language are weather phenomena and strange body parts, e.g, womb, used as swear words?) Decades after reading my last Afrikaans book at school, I read Marelene van Nieker’s Agaat, in Afrikaans, without a dictionary. It is 718 pages of pure poetry. It made my toes curl with the pleasure of the language. It connected me with my Afrikaans self. Thank you for your blogs. Eldene.

    1. Wow! I’m impressed, and I know exactly what you mean. I read Agaat in English, and the translator was so clever in preserving the Afrikaans grammar so that throughout the book I found myself translating the sentences back into Afrikaans. It was totally English-written-in-Afrikaans. Quite a feat to have achieved that. And yes, so delicious, you can taste the words. But now that I read your comment it makes me want to read the book again in its original language! Thank you for writing x

  7. Oh I so enjoy your blogs. Am a South African 40-something living in London…also blonde (-ish now)…great-grandfather Swedish I believe…and posts like these sound like the whirrings of my own mind. My parents and grandparents are all South African…Mom, too, road a horse to her farm-school in the Eastern Cape (and fed it her sandwiches at break time she tells us). And I’m terribly homesick for some sun and that wide open bushveld you describe. Have a trip planned back home in April, but thank you for making me smile and helping me to ‘hou die blink kant bo’.

    1. Ah, thanks so much for writing and sharing this! Ha ha, sandwiches for the horse – fantastic! What a different world that must have been. I so wish my grandpa had lived longer so I could have asked him to tell me stories of those days. Hope you have a wonderful trip in April :-)

  8. Amen Susan! Every sentiment echoes and reverberates in my English speaking/Afrikaans heritage heart! I was afraid a short while back that, although I love, love, love your writings, we might have strayed off our shared road and deviated a little onto the political verge, but, today we’ve walked together once again. Today, once again I feel the richness of connection, the richness of David Kramer’s ‘Matchbox full of Diamonds’!

  9. Why do I always want to cry when I hear this song! Koos du Plessis, ‘Kinders van die Wind’.
    Touches my soul! Thank you for The Disco Pants Blog, highlight of my week!

    1. That song brought tears to my father’s eyes every time he heard it. He was Scottish and didn’t understand a word of Afrikaans but he got the meaning loud and clear. Wasn’t it from the TV Series ‘Ballade vir ‘n Enkeling’?

  10. I love, love your writing! Thanks so much, and this piece particularly resonates. I grew up in SA (now live in Israel) hating Afrikaans largely because of poor teaching, my own shortcomings and the association with apartheid. When I studied it at UCT I came to love and appreciate it thanks to the wonderfully talented faculty.
    Keep writing Susan, I look forward to your posts.

  11. Just fabulous Sue! thank you. I never read your blogs dry eyed whether it’s from laughing or crying. I agree “we want a book”. love you my darling.

  12. Kinders van die Wind was exceptional, but oh dear, there are some nauseating attempts at music- making in Afrikaans these days .

  13. I too discovered my Afrikaans ancestry late in life – my late 40’s !
    My great grandmother was in a Boer concentration camp in Barbeton , her granny- born Botha- was a 1st cousin of Gen. Louis Botha. Possibly we are related actually -[ when I go back through that family line there are not many Afrikaans family’s I am not related too] but more to the point I
    really relate to the disconnect one feels when brought up as’ English’ South African, and like you, I wish I had known my granny. We grew up thinking Afrikaners very ‘other’ – as did they of us !

    1. Wow, what an interesting past you have! Mine is not as glamorous. Unless of course we are related, then I become a bit more fabulous :-) I wonder what kind of books there are on those concentration camps? I think I’ll go and have a look at my local library. Would make for some very interesting reading x

  14. I too discovered my Afrikaans ancestry late in life – my late 40′s !
    My great grandmother was in a Boer concentration camp in Barbeton , her granny- born Botha- was a 1st cousin of Gen. Louis Botha. Possibly we are related actually -[ when I go back through that family line there are not many Afrikaans family’s I am not related too] but more to the point I
    really relate to the disconnect one feels when brought up as’ English’ South African, and like you, I wish I had known my granny. We grew up thinking Afrikaners very ‘other’ – as did they of us !

  15. Ongelooofluk!
    Susan you are a national treasure ! Love your blog love your mind love your heart,
    Having lived abroad for most of my South African childhood I wrote French as my second language in matric and never got to learn Afrikaans. I feel like a total fraud sometimes and the looks of disbeliefs at my lengthly explanation …let’s just say it doesn’t cut it. (Especially with the flower sellers in town!…) but through my grade 3 child we are learning this fascinating language of our heritage together, her mondelling this week was mine too.
    Don’t ever stop writing Susan.

  16. This is so great! Love your courage. There is another Koos du Plessis song, don’t know the title, but the opening line is: ” Laat my nooit die grond verlaat nie” which is equally appropriate! If all South Africans stretch out both their hands occasionally to others there will be no end to our prosperity. You might just start a ” love” revolution starting with the love of language!

    Carry on!

    Marie – Helene Maguire

    Sent from my iPad

  17. ‘n Ongelooflike getuigskrif vir Afrikaans in al sy vorme, kleure en geure! Baie dankie. En ‘n boek uit jou pen sal ‘n geliefde en kosbare skat op enige boekrak wees!!

  18. Susan, thanks for the laugh. Always needed.
    I married an Afrikaner from French descent. I recently watched a 2min video on FW de Klerk who explained Afrikaans to American students. I tried to find it now so I could post it, but were unsuccessful. When we travelled we always could ‘gossip’ in Afrikaans. Real fun we had!

    Personally, I think its grand that SA has its own language and I honestly can never understand why some people refuse to associate with it, well, I suppose I can. But its a language, something to communicate with and its good to be able to say its our own.

    Sadly I still hear some of my friends refer to themselves as German, Italian or whatever and I think, ‘yeah aren’t we all’ but I want to be just SA’n. Its good enough for me.

    Thanks for the pics :)

  19. Dis soooooo lekker!!!!!!
    We live in Bahrain at the moment, and sooooo many kids from lots of different cultures copy my kids when they speak Afrikaans while they play. I miss that they cannot go to an Afrikaans school and run around barefoot. I miss the jokes and the soft funny sarcasm among the people. I wish they all knew how truly lucky they all are to live in S.A. and speak a truly South African born language.

  20. Ag, nou huil ek sommer, trane vir die taal!So verlang ek nou na SA! Thanks, Susan! This is a very special blog – not that all your others are not incredible. But this was written with such heart and I feel it all the way over here, in my koue kombuis in Portland. I crossed the culture divide and married an Afrikaner and we still converse, a lot, in Afrikaans. Our girls sing along to all the lekker music we play, although most of the words they do not understand. Thanks for this early morning treat!

  21. For a wonderful history of the early Afrikaners read The Great Trek by Robin Binckes.We’re still awaiting the visit!

  22. I am one of those marinated-herring-eating Swedes (although not particularly blonde), and I must say that this is a fabulous text. It tells you a lot about how we humans function and relate to other groups and tribes, how we relate to our language or dialect and to the country of our birth. If you don’t mind I will translate it for the little membership Magazine we have in our Southern African Society (that my wife Gillian may have told you about).

  23. Susan wow, that’s another ripper of a story! Just goes to show – one can be blonde, funny, attractive AND highly intelligent. Who’d have thought that?

    Baie dankie vir al die tonekrul-lekker stories.

    Die safaripakdraende, boereworsetende, brannasdrinkende Dutchman Rockspider.

    The Quizz

  24. Lovely, thank you. Interesting how Afrikaans songs, considered so uncool years ago, invoke a sense of belonging, of roots. This from a proper soutie…

  25. Love, love your blog, Susan. You have the most amazing way with words – they just evoke so much emotion.

    Also have Botha’s in my blood..

  26. … I mentioned the word ‘houding’ on my last blog post … one of those Afrikaans words that I just love … I love how we have words that mean one thing when translated, yet means something so so so much more in our everyday language ;-)

  27. Hi Susan…

    Wow..I mean…my heart expands painfully as I read each and every comment. I am Zulu and was one of those forced to learn Afrikaans children. And truthfully it was just so painful for me and a lot of Africans ( I assume.) When I read ‘power-hungry old men who loved this country but not its people’ it brings tears to my eyes. So much pain for a lot of people associated with this language and by what I read, so much love and connection as its quite a heart opening experience for me. Also, I know that it was only a language (is a language) but a lot of my adult life, even though I know how to speak it, I have chosen not to engage in Afrikaans. I choose instead to teach my daughter Zulu, Xhosa, Swati and all the loveliness and deep grounded language of my ancestors as unique as any other language. And I wish that when everyone arrived on this continent they would have embraced the languages spoken there and embrace the people as well.I think we would have an entirely different history full of love and recognition and acceptance of one another. And ofcourse this can still happen, and I think part of it is fully embracing who you are in your heritage without excuses but with full recognition while also celebrating and acknowledging the heritage of others as well. I love how Trisha in the comements says, that’s it is enough to be just South African…and yes it is. It is when we truly embrace each other, land, people and all of it as part of us that we can really truly land here in this country, this world and truly belong to one another..which we do…we just need to awaken to that.

  28. Oh Susan, once again I can totally relate to your writing although I am 100% Afrikaans. Sitting here in Iceland, looking at the snow on the mountains, listening to the Koos Dup song and shedding some tears, I decided to stop procrastinating and sent a mail off to some immigration lawyers in SA to ask about the procedure to allow my Icelandic spouse to return with me to SA!

    We have a number of Afrikaans words we have incorporated into our English speech, gatvol that someone else mentioned, lekker of course, and then there is deurmekaar and vrot and klap and bakkie and Ventertjie (the first trailer in SA was manufactured by someone Venter I think)

    Thanks for writing, you have managed to cheer me up on this cold grey day!

  29. Wat ‘n wonderlike blog oor Afrikaans- en dit van ‘n Engelssprekende Suid Afrikaner. JY skryf so goed, ook oor jou redes waarom julle teruggekom het Suid Afrika toe. Dis goed om ‘n slag patriotisme te hoor te midde van al die negatiwiteit.

  30. i grew up in bloemfontein in an english family, going to an english school. the english always thought they were better than the afrikaners (still do), but it was in my afrikaans friend’s homes where i was made to feel part of the family (still am) and grew to love afrikaners and ‘die taal’. nothing speaks to the soul in the same way. i think actually that i am an afrikaner trapped in an english body! (help!) i walked into a shop once and heard ‘kinders van die wind’ for the first time in a long time and almost cried. i’m going to listen again, hold on whilst i fetch the tissues.

  31. Susan, Hi, this is brilliant!! I grew up in the Northern Cape, am 5th generation in SA and have an Afrikaans mom and had an English-speaking, but 4th generation dad, so not really English-English, however, even though the majority Afrikaans-speaking school kids looked down at us “souties”, nothing beats being able to converse in Afrikaans. I love the language more than I let on, and always try to convince my kids to make sure they can read, write and speak “die taal”. One just needs to travel abroad, like your commentators above, to appreciate what we have in the Afrikaans language, as as per one Indian-South African above said, it is a language that actually unites us, and should not be seen as the language of the oppressor – the Afrikaners were badly oppressed by the British and merely carried on with policies the British introduced, however, today large parts of our communities use Afrikaans and we should use it more as a language to unite and not divide. Saffers are actually the coolest people on the planet, and once you break through our slightly toughened, hard exterior, we’re the most hospitable. May the legacy of the horrible past be soon forgotten and only the good be part of where we’re going, for each and every person of this great nation. God bless Africa!!

  32. Great blog and another great post, thanks Susan!

    After a few years of living in Australia we visited SA and I remember catching a connecting flight from Jhb to CT. We were just seated on the flight when I heard a young coloured boy in a very excited voice saying “deddy deddy, look at the Qantas jet neh”. I looked around with such a big smile I think the kid thought that I was going to eat him! His dad replied to him in Afrikaans and it was such a great feeling, a sense of “I’m home”.Our language is our culture and our culture is unique. That is why I had belly aches from laughing at Trevor Noah’s new movie, It’s Culture and my Aussie mates could see nothing funny in it.

  33. I was raised bilingual so when I moved to Belgium it was not that hard for me to learn Dutch and I now speak it fluently. And yet…there just is no equivalent for ‘gatvol’ or ‘bakkie’ or ‘tekkies’ or so many of the other words I grew up with.

    So slowly but surely (and entirely unconsciously) I have incorporated some Afrikaans into my Dutch when I speak it at home. My Flemish husband is totally down with this because he loves ‘gatvol’ even more than I do.

    PS. Only discovered the blog in a real way today and have been reading feverishly since this morning. My apologies if I have spammed you with comments!

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