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What’s that got to do with language?

Perspectives on language and race in South Africa

Desmond Painter

The social psychology of language is a surprisingly small field in South Africa — surprising, given the important role language has played in racial and ethnic mobilisation and segregation in this country. Further, while South African researchers have commented on indirect or symbolic racist strategies (claiming immutable differences in the more acceptable terms of “culture” and “tradition” for example), the role that constructions of language and accounts of language differences might play in symbolic or indirect racism has not been granted much attention.

In an ongoing research project about everyday understandings of language diversity in South Africa (in association with Robyn Baldwin and Deidré Matthee, affiliated to Rhodes University), we have explored interconnections between ideas about language and race in the talk of two groups of white English-speaking respondents: learners (Grade 12) at a high school in the Eastern Cape and postgraduate students at Rhodes University. These respondents in general eschewed forms of linguistic nationalism, in which languages coincide with natural and unsurpassable group differences, in favour of a liberal language order that should facilitate mutual understanding between different South Africans, foster a shared South African identity, as well as ensure individual economic mobility.

This liberal language order, however, was used to argue for the exclusion from public domains of languages that do coincide, according to our respondents, with racial difference and a history of racial antagonism. The liberal language order, and peaceful co-existence in South Africa, was seen to depend on a language that is politically transparent, ideologically neutral, and disconnected from particular places and identities. This language is English. English was consistently presented as a universal language, which referred to two things at least. First, English is universal in the sense of being spoken all over the world and as belonging to everyone. Second, and more specifically, it referred to an assumed universal ability to speak English: “everybody speaks”, as one of our respondents said, “a bit of English”. This universality made it possible to sufficiently distance English from South African history and racial politics. Yet, because of this distance, and in addition to the universal ability to speak it, English could also be presented as the obvious choice for a national, South African language.

The racist effects of such constructions of English, veiled as they were in forms of liberal talk, emanate from the way English was contrasted by our respondents with other South African languages. Arguing that the empowerment of indigenous African languages would merely, in a form of reverse discrimination, mirror the enforcement of Afrikaans by the apartheid government, African languages were reproduced as ideologically loaded and bound by particular places and (racial) identities. Unlike English they were not seen to transcend the racial history of South Africa, and could therefore, justified by the liberal desire for mutual understanding and respect, be excluded from public use. This also meant that African languages remained entrenched as racial signifiers. They were consistently constructed as black languages — a status that was mostly negatively attributed to them. As one high school learner said: “Xhosa is just like a bonus subject that, I mean, black people take.”

The continued racialisation of African languages (in our study: Xhosa) was, however, not used to argue for the immutability of racial boundaries, but for the value of English as transcending race and creating an equitable public space. The effect of this is that Xhosa was constructed not only as racially entrenched, but also as a threat to a liberal utopia where racism had already been transcended. English was so thoroughly associated with the possibility of a non-racial public life in South Africa that the speaking of any other language was seen as a violation of that value. If not relegated and confined to private spheres of existence, and thus reduced to silence, Xhosa was blamed as causing misunderstanding. From here it was a small step to present the speaking of Xhosa in public as a cause of racism.

Those who have little or no command of English, or who simply wish to see their languages empowered in the public domain, were not only marginalised or silenced by such discourses, but also blamed for being racist. The significance of these findings is that white English speakers could resist multilingualism, and generally any changes to a public linguistic order that currently favours them, by portraying their resistance as anti-racist and liberal. They presented themselves — based on a careful construction of English as everyone’s language, not just their own — as defending universal political, economic and moral values. These findings fit the theoretical model of symbolic or indirect racism: by constructing English as racially neutral and indigenous African languages as racially fixed, a racial order is reproduced in terms that are apparently anti-racist. The findings also challenge positions that see English, simplistically, as a corrective to a history of ethnic and racial fragmentation in South Africa, and thus as a necessary and sufficient tool for nation-building and economic empowerment. Portraying English as transcending race can, in fact, be used to keep the idea alive that (other) language communities are racially defined. It can also be used to hide the way English can function as a barrier to education, wealth, etc. In this sense, at least, English is certainly not sufficient.

Department of Psychology, Rhodes University, PO Box 94, Grahamstown 6140.
E-mail: d.painter@ru.ac.za.

Note: This article previously appeared in The Researcher (2002, no 1, p 8), a bulletin of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA). The research on which it is based was also presented at the 25th Annual Conference of the International Society for Political Psychology (July 2002, Berlin).


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