Soap operas bring linguistic democracy to South Africa

In South Africa, soap operas have helped eliminate the linguistic boundaries between English and the 11 other languages adopted at the end of apartheid.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The writers of the South African Constitution probably did not imagine soap operas as a way to achieve linguistic democracy, but they are practicing just that.

Television came to South Africa in 1976, with English and Afrikaans dominating programming throughout the apartheid era. With democracy in the 1990s came a new Constitution that named 11 official languages, as well as a mandate for the state to “elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.” Enter “soapies,” as the locals call them.

Zarina Ebrahim, a Durban housewife, watches “7de Laan” (“Seventh Avenue”), a soap opera in Afrikaans sprinkled with English and Zulu dialogue and with English subtitles. English is her first language, but she studied Afrikaans at school and understands some Zulu. On “7de Laan,” characters will greet each other in Afrikaans, discuss a problem in Zulu, and then make a joke in English, all in one scene. “It’s so normal – that’s more or less the way we communicate in real life,” says Ms. Ebrahim.

Switching languages in the course of a conversation is how urban dwellers learn to “meet each other halfway,” says Johannesburg-based language consultant Sarah Slabbert. “We can identify better with [multilingual] characters than if they were speaking only one language. We can work together; we can live together.”

The indigenous programs are culturally relevant, too, situated in places like Johannesburg or rural mining towns and featuring guest appearances by local celebrities.

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