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News24.com | ANALYSIS | It was a tongue-in-cheek, so why the anger over Charlize Theron's comments

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Thabo Ditsele examines why if people knew the facts, did they get so upset with the tongue-in-cheek comments that Charlize Theron made.


2016 Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg, whose father is Finnish and whose mother is German, is a citizen of both countries. 

He was raised in Monaco and speaks German as his home language as well as French, English, Italian and Spanish.

Rosberg’s father, 1982 Formula 1 World Champion Keke Rosberg’s home language is Finnish, but he decided Nico should not learn this language as he considered German, French, English, Italian and Spanish to be more important or useful languages. Put differently, Keke considered Finnish to be less important or not useful in Nico’s life. The point here is that the usefulness of a language should not be viewed only through the eyes of a community of home language speakers but also that of an individual. So, saying, “this language is not useful to me” does not translate to “it is not useful to everybody”. 

Similar decision

In South Africa, many parents have made similar decisions to Keke Rosberg. Among black middle-class families who reside in affluent suburbs, it is prevalent for children to go to ex-Model C schools and private schools where English is taught as the primary language of instruction. At affluent shopping malls, it is very common to bump into, walk past or meet black middle-class parents communicating with their children in English. Some are even proud to say that their children cannot speak African languages as if it is a badge of honour. Does this mean that such parents know very little about the relationship between ‘language’ and ‘identity’? Are they betraying their home language? What is at play here? 

Prof. Nkonko Kamwangamalu, a sociolinguist who understands language matters of South Africa well, suggested that South Africans gravitate towards English because it pays bills and helps them go up the socio-economic ladder, and they abandon their home language because it does do not have the instrumental value that English has. Nothing new; many Europeans who migrated to the United States gravitated towards English and did not transfer their home language to their children.

READ | OPINION: Vanessa Banton: My f*k Charlize! Why did you stick your ‘voet’ in it, again?

All my American friends do not speak languages that their forebearers spoke upon arrival from Europe, but they are proud of their European ancestries. People in my catchment area are proud of their Dutch, German, and French ancestries but identify as Afrikaans home language speakers. Circumstances change language identities. 

Charlize Theron was born in 1975 in Benoni and lived in that town for 19 years. In 1991, she left the country. She currently resides in Los Angeles, California.

Having lived in the US for 29 years, all her adult experiences were made in that country and around the American culture, which includes being blunt. Is it reasonable to expect her to carry herself like a 47-year-old Benoni binneplaas woman? She has far more life experience as an English speaker than an Afrikaans one. English has long overtaken Afrikaans as a useful language in her life, and dare I say it, English is now her first language. For completeness, a language that one learned as a second language can replace their home language as a first language. Yes, to most people in the world, their home language is their first language, but this does not apply to everybody, like Theron. English is the first language of many children born to black middle-class families. 

I have listened to the podcast which has caused a stir and there is a lot of laughing and joking around, which suggests a less serious conversation. When asked about her background, Theron is upfront about Afrikaans being her home language.

We know that it is the home language of between 7 and 8 million people, which is comparable to the population of the state of Washington or even the five boroughs of New York City. So, in US terms, a language spoken by a population the size of New York City is a small language. I mean, there are 12 US states with a population exceeding 8 million. The US has more than 330 million people, so 8 million accounts for 2.4%, which is a small percentage in US terms, the interview’s target audience.

READ | Is Afrikaans dying and useless, like Charlize Theron says? Experts weigh in

Many people who argue that Theron is wrong to insinuate that Afrikaans is a small language are focusing on South Africa, a geographic location which was not the target audience of her interview. Afrikaans is not a small language in South Africa and the SADC region, but it is in US terms. This is a crucial context which was missed. 

Theron joked about Afrikaans having 44 speakers, and I completely understand why so many people immediately jumped in and fact-checked her. My reading here is that she did not literally mean 44 speakers; she was making the point that it is spoken by a small population and did that through exaggeration. Whether right or wrong, exaggeration is part of how we communicate; we tend to use it for clarity or to strengthen our arguments. 

Theron also said that Afrikaans is a dying language. I cannot find any angle to explain this comment away. Afrikaans is a growing language with speakers outside the SADC region. I have personally heard it spoken at international airports such as London Heathrow in England, Munich in Germany, and at JFK in New York City. I have even spoken to a US-based Afrikaans home language-speaking couple in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, US in 2013. 

Why are Afrikaans speakers so aggrieved?

People have asked me if “Afrikaans speakers know the facts, so why are they so aggrieved by these comments?” 

My sense is that so many of them see themselves in Theron and probably tell their children that they should speak Afrikaans with pride, study through it and may one day reach the levels she has reached. It is part of human nature and experience to see ourselves in others and cite them as great examples of our ingroup membership. This is all about identity, which humans express through their home language, and all ingroup members are expected to embrace, not mock it. 

In the eyes of many Afrikaans home language speakers, Arnold Vosloo and Charlize Theron are them; they have made it in Hollywood, and by default, internationally. When they visit South Africa, one of the things they are expected to do is to speak Afrikaans to “prove” that they have not forgotten who they are. For Theron not to portray Afrikaans in a good light is very painful to them, and they view this as a betrayal by one of their own. 

One could ask: “What if the same comment was made about South African English?” 

The reaction would have been very different for the simple reason that English has never had to fight for its space in the world, at least in the last 400 years or so. South African English has never lost power or felt threatened since Lord Charles Somerset declared it the sole official language of the Cape of Good Hope in the early 1820s. I suspect that South Africans whose home language is English would not have issues when one of their own joked around about their accent or even picked a new one. 

Theron should have been more careful

Theron should have been a little careful about what she said about Afrikaans, particularly on it not being a “useful language”. Whereas her context may be that Afrikaans is “not a useful language” to her, it is to many others in South Africa. She should have been aware that some Afrikaans home language speakers are paranoid and falsely believe that there is a clandestine agenda against it. 

One thing is certain, Theron has inadvertently put the spotlight on language matters in South Africa. In a recent Newzroom Afrika interview, I suggested that South Africa must have an open and frank conversation about language matters. As we speak, there is a disproportionate number of Afrikaans-medium public schools in areas where black middle-class families have moved. They are asking that some space be created for their children. What they get is a pushback from initial residents who insist that such schools must remain Afrikaans in character. Something has to give. South Africans must engage in sharing space and resources. 

– Prof Thabo Ditsele (@BThaboDitsele) is an Associate Professor of Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology and an NRF-rated researcher at Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria. 


Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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