"Om te behoort"-simposium: Translingual impressions

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On November 11th and 12th, after more than a year of pandemic related delays, I attended the highly anticipated symposium “To belong / Om te behoort” focusing on transligualism, belonging and the creation of South African social collectivities. The symposium was a joint effort of the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, Ghent University, and Zuid-Afrikahuis Nederland. While it took place at the University of Amsterdam and Zuid-Afrikahuis, it brought together panelists and discussants across South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, and in my case, Croatia. Delivered in a hybrid in-person/online format, an extensive audiovisual system brought us together across borders and ever-changing travel restrictions. What follows are my impressions, a Croatian Canadian ethnographer of Afrikaans arts and theatre festivals.



The plane is about to take-off. I can barely hear the pre-recorded announcement. The Dutch accented English instructions fight their way through my heartbeat, as loud as a drum, as we are about to ascend, leaving the pandemic induced inertia of the last year and half behind.

Christo van Rensburg se deftige verslag van die geskiedenis van Afrikaans, sit voor my. Dis nou al ’n jaar vanaf ek laas Afrikaans gebruik het. Na dekades bly ek alweer in my geboortestad in Kroasië. Die gemak om my moedertaal daagliks weer te gebruik het stelselmatig my meertaligheid na die kant geskuif en geheimsinnig my bewussyn oorgeneem. Maar toe stap die vlugkelner verby, en van die kant van sy oog af, sien hy hoe hierdie vreemde Kroatiese passasier ’n boek met ’n ongewone “Nederlandse” spelling lees. “Lees je over Zuid-Afrikaans? Kom jij uit Zuid-Afrika?” vra hy. En toe tref dit my, taal behoort aan niemand nie, maar taal laat mens behoort. Taal laat my nuwe horisonne, nuwe wyses van wees, nuwe oorlewing strategieë toe. Taal verander my nie, dit gee my nie nuwe identiteite nie, taal laat my verken wat al binne my is. Elke nuwe taal, is ʼn nuwe uitsigpunt om hierdie mal lewe om my te probeer prosesseer.

I hurry through the tourist packed lanes flanking Amsterdam’s grachten, making my way to the library… anxious to find my way to the registration of the “Om te behoort” symposium. I find myself in front of a turnstile, unsure of the language to use with the attendant baffled by my out of breath appearance. Behind me, Antjie Krog confirms we are at the right place. We ascend the stairs made for long Dutch legs, up to a bright room… camera and microphone plugged in, bridging time and space across Amsterdam, Ghent, Pretoria, and Cape Town, we are ready to begin!

Translingualism is the cornerstone concept of the symposium. Rather than static, supporting monolithic identity categories, language is a fluid social process, one which constructs and deconstruct group and cultural boundaries in dynamic interaction with its surroundings.

We open with Quentin William’s exploration of the irreverent use of language by herb sellers at an underpass at Bellville Station near Cape Town. The interactions with passersby include code switching, between Kaaps, isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans. The fluid use of language extends to register shifts, culturally specific honorifics, and nods to liturgical languages from Christianity to Rastafarianism. This variety of linguistic tools is deployed to signal acknowledgement of potential clients’ experience, establishing a fleeting yet inclusive form of belonging. Through their daily linguistic practice, the sellers chart out a path towards a non-racial society. They challenge the Herderian notion of language as culturally contained, singular and community specific. They go beyond the categories of native and non-native speaker, and thus beyond ethnic and national labels. Language use is reinvented through daily practice: it destabilizes the power structures and divisions of apartheid. Quentin’s ethnomethodological approach to the herb sellers’ language, highlights how it is precisely the rejection of the purity of language, rather than its encouragement, which carries the potential to engender belonging, a horizontalized power dynamic.

Quentin’s talk electrifies us with the exciting power of language. Loadshedding in Cape Town hold us back from asking further questions… but a vivacious conversation is brewing in the room. Margriet van der Waal, one of the organizers of the symposium remarks: “Quentin’s contribution turns the idea of ‘praat suiwer’ as a prerequisite to belonging on its head. Indeed, it is the remixing and interactive nature of multilingualism which creates new landscapes of belonging in South Africa,” lightyears away from the intergroup insulation which defined South African categories of the past.

Na meer as ’n jaar weg van mense en openbare gesprekke af, sukkel ek om alles in te neem. Quentin se bydra laat my verbeelding jag. Ek wil graag gesels met almal wat om die simposium tafel sit. Wat als kan ons bereik deur om taal soos ’n inklusiewe middel te gebruik? Mense waardeer dit as ek die moeite maak om met hulle in hulle eie taal te praat. Maar wat gebeur na ons, gehelp deur taal, die aanvanklike interpersoonlike hindernis oorgesteek het? Wat is die inhoud en betekenis van ons verbinding? Is taal ’n blote middel of is die poging om deur taal te konnek die doel?

Jolted awake from daydreaming, we proceed to the first set of presentations. Jerzy Koch opens by exploring Cape Colony Moravian missions’ creation of cultural and linguistic subjectivities among the proselytized. Next is Henning Pieterse, appreciating language positionality within the work of Herman Charles Bosman. Hanneke Stuit concludes with a comparative analysis of Coetzee’s “Life and Times of Michael K” and Mohlele’s “Michael K”.

As a foreign speaker of Afrikaans, and a sociologist, I struggle to keep up with presentations grounded in textual analysis. It makes me think of the challenges of interdisciplinary dialogue. Here I am, sitting and listening to talks focusing on the very topics my research explores: breaking up oppressive power structures of the past, reimagining the construction of Africanness, taking agency over the content of one’s cultural heritage, the interaction and mutual influence between European proselytizer and local colonized subject. Yet I struggle to see the end goal of these conversations. As a sociologist, I am trained to think pragmatically. What is this a case of? What data do we have access to? What patterns can we observe? What can these pattern tell us about future behaviour? What policy recommendations can we advance to achieve a specific outcome? Inhabiting the symbolic space of textual analysis feels like drifting aimlessly in the ocean, seeing a multitude of coasts from afar, without ever quite landing.

I long for a more daring approach, one that speaks to the central topics of transgression and connection of the symposium. I need for us to challenge language and its conventions, break away from stilted academic registers and engage with each other. I need for textual analysis to speak to sociologists, I need for analysis to inform activism, and for activism to trust the analytical method of academia.

And as I am left planning my revolution, it is Kanya Viljoen and Pieter du Plessis’s turn. Both are white 20-something Afrikaans speakers trying to make sense of their positionality as the rainbow generation, the born free. They take on a journey of identity exploration, connecting Pretoria and Amsterdam with a visual and spoken word performance piece. Pieter lives in the Netherlands now, he is visually indistinguishable from the mainstream around him, yet inhabits the contradictory positionality of a white African subject, one created by a fraught colonial history tainted by apartheid. He is trying to understand what de-colonization looks like for subjects like him. How can belonging be re-imagined, the material cultural products of the Afrikaner archetype re-constructed: the piles of Huisgenoot from times past, the lion skins covering suburban floors, the koeksisters livening up coffee cups. These objects, Afrikaans, the volk’s history, inform the subject, through repeated use and performance, they create subjectivities. How can de-coloniality intrude upon these repetitions? New meanings are attached, the voortrekker simultaneously becomes the volkverraaier, the tensions of the process of unbelonging create new possibilities, we imagine new ways of being, embracing contradictions.

Margriet sums up the performance: “Niks kan gebeur voor ons dit verbeel nie.” Imagination is the key to change. But as Kanya points out, we are not ready to imagine new horizons before we broach the many silences, the things we do not yet speak about. For now, we will take these old objects, and re-signify them, create new narratives while actively engaging in conversations across the apparently intractable identity boundaries, the legacy of South African history.

Most of the performance is delivered in English, a critique raised by the audience. How do we encourage re-signification and dialogue if we uncritically resort to English in doing so?

Most post-colonial conversations take place in English. The concepts and lines of action that emerge happen in English. To explain and negotiate one’s Afrikanerdom to other South Africans, English is unavoidable. To break out from homogenous safe spaces when approaching conversations about whiteness, we use English to connect with the “other”. But how do we reconcile this with Quentin’s keynote and reminder that deep empathy, respect, and mutual understanding are found in the translingualism that occurs in layered code-switching? What language do we use to engage across boundaries? Do we transcend language itself? But what does that look in practice? Do we all learn each other’s languages? Who has access to language learning? For the herbs sellers multilingualism is a matter of survival, but what about those English and Afrikaans speakers that are safe and comfortable within their own linguistic space?

And as my imagination spins out of control, the brisk and damp Dutch air brings me back to earth, as the symposium members proceed to make sense of the day over some Italian food and red wine at a nearby restaurant. Tomorrow is another day, and I am presenting!

The second day begins with much welcomed jugs of coffee and snacks at the Zuid-Afrikahuis. The largest library of South African content in the Netherlands, operating for nearly 90 years. We are on the ground floor, with large windows covering one side of the room from floor to ceiling, letting every photon of the subdued November daylight in. Cameras, speakers, and a full technical team are getting ready to connect remote participants and those in the room. We open with Antjie Krog’s comparative analysis of “Chaka” by Thomas Mofolo and “Mhudi” by Sol Plaatje.

Antjie conducts her speech in English yet epitomizes aspects of translingualism touched upon the day before. Her English pronunciation and prosody are unmistakably Afrikaans. Her delivery is interspersed with code switching, weaving in and out of Afrikaans when making side comments, doing justice to Zulu clicks and lateral fricatives, a phonetic nightmare for most Indo-European speakers.

Other than its compelling content, Mofolo’s novel stands out as the first African novel written in a non-colonial language in 1925. Also a pioneer, Mhudi’s novel is the first novel in English written by a Black author in South Africa in 1930. Sitting on South African book racks for nearly a century, the novels flaunt a multitude of interpretations. Chaka is sometimes understood as a Christian missionary interpretation of the events around Chaka’s life, yet, Antjie points out, this interpretation might be the artefact of the novel’s most prominent translation by Daniel P. Kunene, which did not always convey the layered original Sesotho meanings. Conversely, Mhundi was not welcomed by apartheid South Africa, among other things because it introduces a radically unconventional moment of contact between the Nguni speakers and the Boers. Mhundi, painted the Boers trekking inland, as vulnerable, a group of people that could be empathized with. This contact does not preclude friendship, making the broken promise and impossibility of the friendship all the more tragic by the end of the book.

Antjie’s talk is accompanied by a thunderous round of applause at its conclusion and an involved Q&A session. I lack the cultural sensitivity and historical knowledge to appreciate Antjie’s stature within South African literature and her pivotal role during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s proceedings. I listen to her not as an anointed goddess, but with the curiosity of an outsider. What I hear is the excitement in charting out key moments of black authors constructing and re-constructing South African narratives from non-European eyes. Her bitter-sweet tone when conveying the potential of friendship before the betrayal by the Boers, is infectious. I notice my sociological mind is opening to what Margriet mentioned the day before: imagining new possibilities is a first and essential step in actualizing change. I can almost reach out and touch the hope and inspiration of the written word. My excitement quickly morphs into dread as I am about to present my own research next.

Over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived and overwhelmed by the sudden surge of interpersonal interaction after a year and a half of reduced social contact, I proceed to the podium unsteadily. I trip over the camera cable, and nearly bring down the entire set up connecting Amsterdam to the rest of the world. Flat on the floor I think to myself, they are definitely going to remember my contribution!

Toe ek die podium bereik, kyk ek ’n bietjie rond. En toe tref dit my, dis die eerste keer vanaf ek my navorsing in 2017 begin het, dat ek my narratief en oogpunt in die openbaar bespreek. Toegang tot spraak is sterk gestratifiseer in Suid-Afrika; dit laat my ongemaklik voel. Waar vind ek my plek binne die breër gesprekke wat ek benader? In hierdie konteks, is ek hoofsaaklik ’n wit, Westerse, bevoorregte subjek, of is ek ’n Balkaniese samewerker, wat deur nuuskierigheid gelei is om die ooreenkomste tussen die ervaring van my konteks en die Suid-Afrikaanse een raak te sien? In daai oomblik, word ek ’n ooievaar, voëls wat elke jaar van Suid-Afrika tot Kroasië kom broei om weer suidwaarts met hulle kleintjies te vlieg. Ek speel brugbouer.

Ahead of presentations exploring the role of feminist translators of Afrikaans prose by Danie Stander and the role of music and speaker positionality in recent Afrikaans literature by Francine Maessen, my presentation feels like the odd one out, which does not help with my nerves.

I make a simple claim: language is a tool, an elastic one, one that we can pragmatically deploy for a variety of political and interpersonal purposes. Language is essential in both constituting and challenging group boundaries, and while language boundary making features are usually associated with ethnicity, Afrikaans represent a case study wherein language informs racial boundaries. For instance, recent efforts to establish a Pan-Afrikaans transracial identity from Afrikaans speakers across the political spectrum, represent a unique opportunity to observe the power of language boundary making in action. Focusing on language communality in constituting a new ethnocultural group, can both perpetuate racially stratified structures of the past, but also encourage a more equitable redistribution of power and resources. Afrikaans is thus simultaneously the solution and cause of divisions. Afrikaans is neither a panacea, nor the devil, it is but a tool to reconstruct and redefine intergroup and intragroup possibilities in a democratic post-apartheid south Africa.

My presentation is over. Despite not being a smoker, I join others pensively puffing outside, hoping for a soothing effect from the cool Amsterdam air. I feel incredibly privileged and elated to let some of the conclusions of my ethnography in South Africa from the last several years see the light of day. I am deeply grateful to all my South African friends and supporters who have welcomed me with open arms into their world, languages, love, and pain. I am humbled by the opportunity provided to me, and excited to continue the growing conversation between the post-socialist space I come from and the Global South. Serendipitously, the discussant for the next session is Martina Vitackova, a Czech scholar exploring feminist themes in Afrikaans literature. The crosslinguistic and crosscultural contact between South Africa and Eastern Europe indeed holds promise!

Earl Basson and Bibi Burger, open the session pointing at the inherent Afrikaner bias within the Afrikaans literature curriculum in South Africans schools. The pair promotes reforming the system to stress a culturally sustaining pedagogy, one that maintains the diversity of cultural practices of its learners, preventing assimilation into a colonial narrative. To effectively amend the curriculum, we need to support the processes of standardization of marginalized varieties of Afrikaans, with the ongoing standardization of Kaaps as the blueprint for other varieties. Yet, the jury is still out on whether it is more feasible to expand the current standard or to establish a pluricentric language.

Marita Nel and Maritha Snyman contributions are next and build upon similar premises. They stress the importance of centering brown Afrikaans speakers’ cultural product in South African schools, and appreciating the cultural importance of humorous exchanges, known as Gwarra, among young brown speakers.

The last session, with Marni Bonthuys and Ihette Senekal, continues the effort to broaden the Afrikaans literary canon by exploring feminist poetry bundles by racialized Afrikaans authors and excerpts from Nathan Trantraal’s recent work, “Oolog”. The content brings to the fore the darker sides of belonging. Belonging, is not always a positive experience, sometimes it constitutes shared and enduring trauma of violence. Yet this should not discourage us: we can work towards harmony and reconstitution of what we want our communities to look like without expecting to solve everything at once.

The second day of the symposium highlights themes of inequality, discomfort, cultural reimagining, and resources distribution. While hope permeates all delivered talks, the weight of South African inequality fills the room. Indeed, the difference in access to these conversations is visible before us: almost all participants are white.

This is where Judith Westerveld’s upbeat documentary “Kulimatji” comes to our rescue. Judith sits down with storytellers in the Northern Cape, cherishing !xun, a small Khoisan language. The documentary interweaves atmospheric shots of Platfontein with music making sessions with the local DJ and story time under a tree with Kopilolo, the community elder. Judith asks difficult questions: whose voices are heard and whose are overshadowed by the consequences of the colonial past? Kopilolo exhort us to respect language, mother tongue, as it is a gift from God. The Khoisan welcomed both Bantu and European speakers, yet they were reciprocated with wars and slavery, resulting in the loss of land and self-determination. How do we protect language? In the last few minutes of the documentary, Kopilolo asks us to unite and make !xun available in schools, while encouraging us to continue speaking to each other, his commitment exemplified by his fluency in over 5 languages!

The symposium is over, and we all stumble towards the champagne and mozzarella sandwiches. We are gravid with information, ideas, eager to make new connections. The Dutch winter night is already upon us, but we put in practice what we preached for the last two days. Shifting in an out of English, Dutch and Afrikaans, we exchange dreams, business cards and promises to keep the conversation going. This is just the beginning, and no pandemic or discomfort of frank conversations is going to discourage us from keep challenging boundaries, crossing linguistic and cultural lines to imagine a different future.

Lees ook:

Verslag symposium "Om te behoort. Transtaligheid, samehorigheid, en die konstruksie van Suid-Afrikaanse gemeenskappe" (1)

Verslag symposium “Om te behoort. Transtaligheid, samehorigheid, en die konstruksie van Suid-Afrikaanse gemeenskappe” (2)

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