Namibia struggles to break free of its past

Afrikaans, derided as the tongue of the oppressor, is still widely spoken at the expense of 'neutral' English

The young people lounging on the lawns at Namcol, a technical college in Windhoek's Katutura neighborhood, are enjoying the slanting winter sunshine and chatting with their friends. There's nothing out of the ordinary about this scene, until one listens to the predominant language being spoken. It's not the official language in Namibia - English. And it's not even one of the 11 indigenous languages that are spoken around the country. Rather, many students are conversing in Afrikaans.

A decade after Namibia declared English its official language, the country is still struggling with the transition from Afrikaans. Many still associate it with apartheid-era South African occupation, oppression, and racial discrimination, yet it remains the language of the street. Afrikaans is widely spoken in neighboring South Africa, where it evolved from early 17th century Dutch settlers. It was declared an official language in 1925, and dominated apartheid-era politics.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, fewer Namibians can speak English than can speak Afrikaans.

"Many people schooled before independence still use Afrikaans," acknowledges T.K. Kamutingene, director of the Namibian Education Ministry. English is today the mandatory medium of instruction in all government schools, but teaching the language is proving to be an uphill battle, he says. "Some of the teachers, especially in the rural schools, have poor English command, and the children they have to teach don't hear it often in their home environments."

Namibia has had to import English-speaking teachers from other African countries, but Mr. Kamutingene says that shows the government's determination.

Namibia had no history of using English, but the independence government of Sam Nujoma feared that making one indigenous language official would inflame ethnic tensions.

"It was a decision on the part of the leadership to have a language that is going to unify all Namibians," he says, describing English as a "neutral" language without the political baggage of Afrikaans.

For four decades until independence in 1989, the apartheid government of South Africa occupied what was then known as South West Africa, despite criticism from the United Nations and an International Court of Justice ruling declaring the occupation illegal.

Language continues to be a highly contentious political issue in other African countries.

While Namibia chose to drop Afrikaans, South Africa took a different path after the end of apartheid in 1994. Its multiracial Constitution names 11 official languages, with Afrikaans retaining its status. The move was all the more remarkable, considering that the 1976 uprising in Soweto township - which many believe marked the rebirth of the anti-apartheid movement - began with students protesting against being forced to learn Afrikaans in school.

Rwanda's post-genocide government is promoting English as an official language along with French and Kinyarwanda, but English-speaking university students have protested a policy requiring them to learn French.

Tanzania is facing growing internal criticism for promoting Swahili as the national language, which some say puts the country at a disadvantage to those countries where English is spoken more widely.

Now colleges, such as Namcol, are doing a booming business teaching English to adults who need to use it at work. A new program called "practical English," introduced two years ago, is proving incredibly popular, says Laetitia Willemse, Namcol's English-language program developer.

Ironically, considering her job, Ms. Willemse is a native Afrikaans speaker.

"I'm not afraid my language will die out, because we speak it at home," she says.

The evidence would suggest Afrikaans is alive and well in Namibia. A new Afrikaans radio station opened earlier this year, and a daily Afrikaans newspaper has a wide readership.

Yet President Nujoma has publicly floated the idea of entirely dropping Afrikaans from the government school curriculum.

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