A Study In Applied Linguistics

19 October – Nestled between a ream of paper, fifty kilos of rice, and twenty heads of cabbage in the bed of my supervisor’s bakkie, I watch the massif of the Magaliesberge catch drifting cumulus clouds. Like a child just old enough to watch out for himself, I had been told by Moidi to wait in the car while he places an order at the butchery. My supervisor had asked me to accompany him on a trip to run some errands for the school, including getting a mobile broadband system. Me, I am just happy to spend some time in town. Spring has come but its rains have tarried: the day is hot and the puffy clouds bring no promise of rain. In the heat, my thoughts drift past and scatter into the spring sky, like the clouds before me.

A group of workers from the butchery, heading outside for a break, jerks me from my daydreaming. They light each others’ cigarettes and began chatting amiably in English and Afrikaans. The latter language, the product of Dutch evolving within southern Africa and incorporating elements of Malay and African languages, was the dominant language during the apartheid era. While many still blacks speak of Afrikaans with distaste, regarding it as the language of the oppressor, in many places it is the common language between speakers of different languages – even speakers of black language. In 1976, the language become a flashpoint for the resistance movement. The Nationalist government passed legislation requiring that Afrikaans become the medium of instruction in all schools. 15,000 schoolchildren in Soweto – the epicenter of the resistance – called a strike and marched in protest against the measure. Riot police opened fire on the group, killing over 170 people. The photo of young Hector Pieterson, lying dead in his friend’s arms, became a powerful image in the fight against apartheid.

Still, the black languages in South Africa borrow heavily from Afrikaans. Tswana men refer to each other as “abuti,” adapted from the Afrikaans word for brother, “boetie.” Black and whites acrosss South Africa gather for “braais” – Afrikaans for a grill-out – when the warm summer weather comes. Batswana are just as likely to thank someone with the Afrikaans “Dankie” as with the Setswana “Ke a leboga.”

The group stirs my curiosity: four black Tswana guys and one white Afrikaner who seemed on friendly terms, comfortable sharing a smoke and having a laugh during a dull moment on a hot afternoon. The men’s familiarity with each other caught me off guard. Seventeen years after the abolition of apartheid, blacks and whites in South Africa still lead largley segregated lives, especially in rural areas or agricultural and mining areas like Brits. Two decades after the incredible violence and oppression that marked the apartheid regime, a guarded civility tempers any discourse between blacks and whites. All are careful not to disturb South Africa’s delicate social balance.

The Afrikaner noticed me. “Boetie! Hoe gan dit?” he greets, mistaking me for a fellow Afrikaner. “Brother! How are you?”

Unsure of what to do, I reply in Setswana, “Uhh….dumela?”

The Tswana guys give me a holler, laughing and clapping their Afrikaner compatriot on the shoulder. The Afrikaner shakes his head and takes a drag of his cigarette. “Where you from, boetie?”

I hop down from the bakkie, leaning with them against the Honda Tazz. I explain my role here: I am an American teacher, working to improve education in the rural areas for the next two years.

“Shit, man,” the Afrikaner replies, gesturing towards his black friends with his cigarette. “You’re not learning Afrikaans? You’re learning…their language?”

I smile. “Yep.” Even today it is uncommon for whites to learn black languages.

The black guys holler and laugh again, circling around the Afrikaner, pummeling him playfully and snapping each others’ thumbs. He seems to take their ribbing well; he smiles as he argues in Afrikaans with one of the Tswana guys, jabbing him repeatedly in the chest with his pointer finger. I chuckle at their good-natured verbal tustling, a far-cry from South Africa’s brutal history of legalized segregation.

He turns away, continuing to shake his head while he looks at the ground. “Aw, fuck Setswana,” he comments.

Uh oh, I think, looking around in alarm. This situation cannot end well. “Yhoooo!” the Tswana guys exclaim. One of them looks the Afrikaner in the eye. “Aowa, no, man….fuck Afrikaans.”

The Afrikaner, a strongly-built guy, looks taken aback. He makes a long pull on his cigarette before crushing it on the hot asphalt. I take a step back, increasingly uneasy about the situation. He exales and smiles. The Tswana guy breaks for it, the Afrikaner close on his heels. The two run several laps around the tiny car while the black guys cheer on the rabbit. The white guy seizes the black guy around the waist and gives his quarry a shove. I make myself as small as possible against the bakkie.

The black guy turns to face the white guy. I steel myself for the inevitable fight. Suddenly they break out smiling, and shake hands the black South Africans way do, clasping hands thumb-to-thumb. The light each other a cigarette and join the others guys around the car, carrying on their conversation as if nothing had happened.

Their cigarettes are almost finished. “Thabo,” they holler and wave, “We’ll see you, nay?”

They pass Moidi on their way back into the warehouse, still laughing and jostling each other. With one last drag, they flick their cigarettes into the parking lot and disappear inside.

“Thabo,” Moidi says, “Let’s go.”  I climb into the bakkie, my head spinning.

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