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Tensions between Xhosa and “Coloured” in the Western Cape 2006-02-16
Charlyn Dyers

*Head, Iilwimi Centre for Multi-lingualism, University of the Western Cap

**This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in
Per Linguam 20.1, 2004:22-35.


The tenth year of democratic rule in South Africa seemed an appropriate time for me to investigate identity negotiation through language among South African school children in a context of rapid social change. Webb and Kembo-Sure (1999:11) rightly contend that the “exact role of language as an element of socio-cultural identity in African communities has not yet been adequately investigated.” The starting point was to collect data on the language attitudes of two groups of grade 8 Xhosa and mixed-race ‘‘Coloured’’ South African secondary school learners in order to establish whether language attitudes could be linked to socio-cultural identity and behaviour. Smit (1996:12) cited in Bekker (2003:64), contends that “‘The two main structural criteria’ of any society are social identity and power. It is the complex relationship between language, social identity and power that explains why people have language attitudes.”

Background and terms of reference

Blommaert (1998:24) notes that group identities not only determine our opinions and discourses about others, but also other forms of behaviour towards them such as language behaviour, a topic that forms part of language attitude studies. Language attitude studies can therefore be reliable indicators of group identity, because language, an important aspect of a society’s culture (Goodenough, 1957), is also often a symbol of group membership (Bekker, 2003:65). Thus a common language (or language varieties) can be used to create positive social identity. As Hogg and Abrams (1988:57, cited in Bekker, 2003:66) note: “…ethnic groups which consider their language to be of crucial importance can bolster and enhance their social identity by accentuating their language – that is striving for positive ethno-linguistic distinctiveness”. It is well known that in Africa, a former colonial language is normally used to foster nation building, as the diverse indigenous languages in each country are seen to create divisions by the ruling class. “Social divisions and potential for conflict are often fuelled by language as a symbol of socio-cultural identity” (Webb and Kembo-Sure, 1999:11).

When starting out with this study, I believed that factors like group identity and language attitudes in post-democratic South Africa could be studied most effectively in one of the country’s new, post-apartheid townships, where there was no single established community, but rather a collection of diverse groups migrating from different areas in desperate need of housing. It was the complex interaction of these ‘relative strangers’ that would indicate how identity was being negotiated in this new environment. The township we selected, Wesbank, developed in 1999 out of a large squatter community that became established on the west bank of the Kuils River in the Oostenberg Section of Greater Cape Town. These squatters were variously former farmworkers, poor people from other low-income areas in the Western Cape and a smaller Xhosa migrant community who had moved to the Western Cape from the Eastern Cape in the early 1990s and who currently comprise approximately 25% of the total population. The majority of the population of Wesbank speaks Afrikaans as their first language, or are bilingual speakers of English and Afrikaans. This majority group was classified ‘Coloured’ (mixed race) in terms of the apartheid legislation of the pre-democracy era.

Substantial numbers of Xhosa speakers have moved to the Western Cape from the Eastern Cape since 1994. Although their culture and language have managed to survive the periods of colonization and apartheid, there is some evidence emerging of a language shift towards English, particularly among the young, well-educated urban sectors of the community (Ridge, 2000:1).

Although most ‘Coloured’ people in the Western Cape now speak Afrikaans as their mother tongue, there are also signs of a language shift to English among the younger generation of the ‘Coloured’ middle class and elite (Anthonissen and George, 2003). The ‘Coloured’ middle class have adopted a largely Westernised lifestyle, and have maintained few, if any, of the cultural practices of the past. Many members of this group find it difficult to define their historical identity and culture, and some sociologists would argue that this problem lies at the root of the gangsterism, violence and the abuse of women and children that are so endemic in poor, working-class ‘Coloured’ areas like Wesbank (Battersby 2003:123).

Wesbank Senior Secondary School, where our research took place, is a dual-medium (English and Afrikaans) one, and Xhosa is offered both as a first language and an additional language. It has many Grade 8 learners from the other black townships in Cape Town, and in 2004 we found that all of them (at the behest of their parents) had been placed in the English First Language (English L1) stream, even though they often had an extremely limited command of the language. English served as the common language between the two main speech communities at the school and was the language used most frequently at assemblies and in staff meetings. However, my research assistants and I observed that on the playgrounds, and as soon as the learners left the school, they reverted to their mother tongues and tended not to mix with members of the other speech community.

Findings and conclusions

In terms of language attitudes as indicators of group identity, this initial study revealed certain emerging patterns among three distinct groups of learners in Wesbank Senior Secondary School. The first group of learners we identified were the minority (approximately 20%) ‘Coloured’ learners in the English L1 classes, where the majority of the learners were Xhosa mother tongue speakers. These learners, who appeared to be in a state of language shift towards English only, also seemed more positively disposed towards Xhosa as a language as well as to the speakers of Xhosa. They did not (overtly) reveal any of the petty racism of the Afrikaans L1 learners, and appeared to have been influenced by their daily contact with their Xhosa classmates as well as their study of Xhosa as an additional language.

In stark contrast to them were the attitudes of many of the Afrikaans L1 learners, who appeared to be reacting to the presence of large numbers of Xhosa speakers in what they saw as “their” traditional space, with racist attitudes and a determination to hang on to Afrikaans as a positive marker of exclusiveness and power. Their data revealed strong positive, in fact, passionate, allegiance to their mother tongue. Some might argue that white Afrikaner resistance to the influence of English had been carried over to the Afrikaans-speaking working class ‘Coloureds’. But there are other, more compelling reasons. Many ‘Coloured’ working class people feel more marginalized in the new South Africa than previously, and some feel threatened by the increasing numbers of Xhosa speakers in their traditional living and working areas. Confronted also by the strong culture and identity of the Xhosa, as well as the shift in political power, many ‘Coloureds’ may also feel inferior precisely as a result of this lack of a clear culture and identity. To them it must seem as if a ‘Coloured’ identity is synonymous with crime, alcoholism and gangs.  One of the few positive forms of identity for working class ‘Coloureds’ may therefore be their mother tongue, Afrikaans, and they may accentuate the language to enhance their “ethno-linguistic distinctiveness” (cf. Hogg and Abrams, cited earlier). This strong identification with Afrikaans noted among the Wesbank L1 learners, contrasts with the shift towards English noted among young, middle-class ‘Coloureds’.

In terms of language as a marker of identity, the data of the Xhosa learners revealed that they did not apparently feel concerned about preferring English to their mother tongue in many domains. They saw the language as being a common language in South Africa, and as having largely instrumental purposes in their lives, helping them to find better jobs and education, and giving them a passport out of the townships. Xhosa remained closely related to their sense of themselves and their culture and traditions, and some of them were prepared to acknowledge the importance of Afrikaans in the Western Cape. At the same time, they could also have been affected by the clear messages sent out by the government and other black role models, viz. that English is the language of people who have ‘made it’. As Marlin-Curiel (2003:72) puts it: “The globalisation-conscious South African government favours English much as the Black Consciousness revolutionaries did during the fight against apartheid, as a language of power”. In contrast to Afrikaans, and with the exception of some singers and entertainers, there are simply too few role models who stand out as constant users of Xhosa in all domains, and this has serious implications for the status and survival of the language.


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