Language and Xenophobia in South Africa

“South-Africa is at peace with itself” said former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, after apartheid in his first month of office in 1994. Nowadays this phrase echoes against the present South African fence culture of fear where every house has its own barbed wire and a big sign with “Armed Response” on the wall. Is this the new identity of post-apartheid South Africa? The identity construction of the South African apartheid regime was race-issued. In this article, I argue that the current identity construction has shifted to economic status through the importance of language. (Featured image © Dan Mitler)

The construction of the Rainbow Nation

After apartheid in 1994, South Africa re-baptised itself as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and put a new constitution in place. It was ground breaking, regarded as one of the most progressive in the world. Besides statements of freedom and equality, the constitution recognised eleven different languages as the official national languages to which the state guaranteed equal status. During apartheid, Afrikaans and English were the only official languages of the country so this recognition was an important acknowledgement for post-apartheid South Africa. It was an attempt to implicitly give a voice to all South Africans.

Subsequently, South Africa tried to make an immigration policy as ground breaking as the South African constitution. In 1999, the country released the “White Paper on International Migration” following upon the “Refugees Act” of 1998. Yet the country did not fully succeed in its pioneering attempt of making this immigration policy ground breaking. After all, the set of political, cultural and socio-economical rights of the constitution was and is only guaranteed to all ‘who is resident in the country’. Which means this does not take immigrants into account.

Do citizens identify with the current policy behind this construction?

Nevertheless, the constitution and the following acts were crucial for the bounds of collective sovereignty and equality of the country. The political significance of these national definitions were immense, but do not necessary reveal actual national empowerment. After all, a definition remains a construction. Just as the imaginary nation of the rainbow is, in my opinion, nothing more than a constructed identity, a symbolic idea. A question of greater importance is: do citizens identify with the current policy behind this construction?

Xenophobic Attacks: A disconnect between perception and reality?

Although South African constitution defines itself by its multiculturalism and the coming together of people from different nations, stereotypes of migrants are common in South Africa. The latest wave of xenophobic attacks in the country, where locals looted foreigners shops and attacked immigrants in general, proved that migrants are often seen as a threat rather than an asset. “They are stealing our jobs”, is a typical phrase in the South African anti-migrant rhetoric. But recent research has proven otherwise1 Following the study of the Migrant for Work Research Consortium international migrants play on the contrary, a positive role in the South African economy. 11 percent of international migrants in South Africa are employers and 21 percent is classified as self-employed. Only 14, 68 percent of international migrants are unemployed.

The ‘legacy of apartheid’ is another common explanation for xenophobia. Scholars argue that the prior institutionalisation of black inferiority was so strong that people continue to be defined by it2 In this light, the fence culture has always existed. First, white people separated themselves from black people with barbed wire. Now, people “who have stuff” are separating themselves from people who “do not have stuff”. It just shifted from a racial paradigm to an economic one.

The country fails to acknowledge the different social identities and subsequent difficulties at home. After all a rainbow doesn’t represent black, white or brown.

Nevertheless, an important perspective is missing in this current debate: the argument of identity. South Africa’s struggle with tolerance exposes how it is struggling with its multicultural identity from within. The political process of constructing the identity of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ is clearly not enough. While advocating equality in its national definitions, the country fails to acknowledge the different social identities and subsequent difficulties at home. After all a rainbow doesn’t represent black, white or brown.

Language and anti-immigrant prejudice

A relevant example of this identity crisis is the language factor. Following a study from 2009 about “national identification and Anti-immigrant prejudice” there is an important correlation between anti-immigrant prejudice and language3 The research argues that there is increased chance of immigrant prejudice when people endorse a definition of national belonging based on language, and weaker when they define the nation in terms of citizenship. With a constitution that supports eleven different official languages instead of just one, it would make sense for South Africa to be less prejudiced towards immigrants. This is, however, not the case. South Africans tend to have a prejudiced perception that immigrants are bad for the national interest4

The constitution guarantees the eleven languages equal status, but policymakers are striving to a mono-linguistic culture of English.

This language example reveals a clear lack of policy empowerment. Despite the fact that the constitution guarantees the eleven languages equal status, policymakers are striving to a mono-linguistic culture of English5 For example, 85% of public broadcasting is in English, 10% percent in Afrikaans and only 5% in the Bantu languages6 The current policymakers, the ANC, consider English as the ‘unifying factor’ and as a symbol of the end of apartheid. Some scholars believe that the ANC links the end of apartheid close with the English language because many people of the ANC were banned from South Africa to English speaking countries. In these countries they got a warm welcome, an education and made plans to overrule the apartheid system7

However, indirectly the English language benefits nowadays from the Apartheid history. In 1925 Afrikaans gained equal status in South Africa together with Dutch. In reality, Afrikaans replaced Dutch as an official language. This victory of Afrikaans upon Dutch became a political strategy of the Nasionale Party, the party that introduced the Apartheid. Through language, the Nasionale Party constructed the ethnic identity of the Afrikaner and appealed to the solidarity of that same Afrikaner8 That is why, today, people consider Afrikaans as the language of the apartheid.

Nevertheless the mono-linguistic culture of English is taking root at the universities as well. For instance, today at the Stellenbosch University, the debate is about making English the first language. Questions are being asked whether this will affect primary and secondary schools as well. This might bring education in the mother language, a constitutional right, in danger.

Perhaps this is why some officials of the ANC stated that the constitution must be seen as an ideal, a symbol against apartheid rather than a set of practical guidelines to implement the multilingual policy.

The Rainbow Nation is an example that indicates the complexity of an identity construction from above. Of course, the actual implementation of policy is the weak spot of every nation. Still, it makes no sense to grant eleven languages the status of official language only to exclude them afterwards. Perhaps this is why some officials of the ANC stated that the constitution must be seen as an ideal, a symbol against apartheid rather than a set of practical guidelines to implement the multilingual policy9

Language is obviously only one factor of identity formation. But in the case of South Africa, granting eleven different languages the status of official language was an important aspect of post-apartheid politics and in the specific identity formation of the rainbow nation. This aspect was a strong symbol of the new South Africa. Nowadays it seems that it is nothing more than a symbol. The country struggles and recognizing its social identities is just the first step. This is why prejudice towards immigrants should not only be treated as a concern but as a consequence of a far bigger problem. Because when violence and barbed wire intolerance become normalised in a society, it is only a matter of time before the society itself is in danger.

  • ALEXANDER, N. (2000), English unassailable but anaittainable: The dilemma of language policy in South African education, Cape town, 3.
  • COULMAS, F. (2005), “Language spread, shift and maintenance: how groups choose their language” in Sociologinguistics, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.146-170.
  • DU PLESSIS, T. (2010), “South Africa: From two to eleven official languages” in Studies in language policy in South Africa: Multilingualism and government in South Africa, p. 97-109.
  • LUBBE, J. (2006), “Language exclusion: the rol of ideological preconceptions, attitude to language and the lack of political will” in Studies in language policy: Multilingualism and Exclusion, Pretoria, p.105-115.


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By | 2017-02-03T22:50:34+00:00 December 5th, 2015|Categories: Insight|Tags: , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Anne-Katrien Frans
Anne-Katrien is a Belgian graduate of History and International Relations & Diplomacy. She is mainly interested in language politics, identity and South Africa.

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