South Africa and its languages in the post-apartheid era
The South of Africa brings together a set of languages that are remarkable healthy despite historical domination from the white minority. During the apartheid regime, the Republic of South Africa had two official languages: English and Afrikaans. The first is spoken basically by a minority of the white population and by almost all the group of Asians who settled in the country. On the other hand, Afrikaans is the language spoken by the Boers and their descendents who make up the majority of the country's white population although it is also the mother tongue of almost the entire "coloured" population. This group includes people of mixed race who are not categorised as either white or black. These two official languages existed side by side for years in the official authorities, with Afrikaans being used more than English on South African soil.
Democracy in 1994 represented a historical opportunity for more open recognition of languages with non European origin. South Africa is home to over 35 languages, each with a significant number of speakers. Zulu is spoken by almost 10 million people and Xhosa and Sotho by over 7 million each. They are all Bantu family languages. The current Constitution, dating from 1996, establishes eleven official languages. Along with English and Afrikaans, today's official languages are Ndebele, Sotho-Sepedi, Sesotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Article 6 of the Constitution also recognises past marginalisation undergone by African languages and obliges the State to adopt specific measures to improve their status and development.
At the same time, each of the country's nine provinces has set its own official languages, no less than three, taking into account the sociolinguistic reality. There is a Pan South African Language Board that is in charge of promoting the official languages but also other minor languages that are mentioned in the Constitution although not official such as Khoi, Nama and San and sign language. The same Board must promote respect for other languages that are traditionally spoken in South Africa by different communities such as German, Greek, Portuguese, Hindi, Guajarati, Tamil, Telogu or Urdu and languages used for religious purposes such as Arabic, Hebrew or Sanskrit.
Despite this itemisation of linguistic recognition in the Constitution and that theoretically all official languages should be considered and treated equally, there is clearly a growing predomination of English in all non family fields nowadays. Although it is true that among the black population, the position of mutually intelligible Zulu and Xhosa continues to be significant in quantitative terms (together they are the mother tongue of over 40% of the population), the other African languages separately represent a relatively low percentage in the country as a whole. On the other hand, Afrikaans remains the main language of the coloured population and part of the white population, although its spread is limited to the western part of the country. English, however, is the mother tongue of fewer than 10% of the population and is only the majority language in the Asian collective. However, its condition as lingua franca gives it a privileged position in the new South Africa that Afrikaans cannot represent, partly due to symbolic reasons. This explains the preeminent role of English in the academic world, business or the general media. This all means that the country and its institutions really operate officially in English and not equally in the eleven official languages as the Constitution proclaims. South Africa's current situation could be summarised as that of a State that is officially multilingual with an increasingly dominant common and "super-official" language. This is perhaps a linguistic model that is not so distant from what is currently represented in the European Union, reducing the distances.
Eduardo J. Ruiz Vieytez
director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Deusto