Tag Archives: Afrikaans


Al’s mom (Carol) and step-dad (Gerald) are visiting us here in South Africa and we have many exciting things planned while they are here, including a trip to Kruger for a safari and a visit to Cape Town for wine tasting. But when trying to brainstorm things for us to do here in Joburg, I could only come up with the following activities: eat, drink, or leave Joburg.  We opted for all three today and left Joburg — sort of — to go on a tour of Soweto (Southwest Townships), something I’d been meaning to do since I got here.

Soweto shanty house

Soweto shanty house

First, a tiny bit of background: townships were the peripheral urban areas to which non-white South Africans were evicted or relocated from the cities before and during Apartheid. In Joburg, black people were moved outside of the city proper starting in the late 1880s after the 1886 discovery of gold in the area. What is now known as Soweto began in 1904 with the establishment of a township called Klipspruit, which was created to house black laborers (many of whom worked in the mines). More and more black people were relocated to this area over the years, particularly after 1948, when the National Party took over and began the policy of Apartheid. During Apartheid, starting in the 1950s, the government created separate townships for each of the non-white racial groups (coloured, black, and Indian). Soweto grew quickly (and in an unplanned way) over the years and today is home to around 4 million people.

Soweto "hostels" - housing for laborers

Soweto “hostels” – housing for laborers

Soweto is well-known because of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which represented a turning point in the anti-Apartheid sentiment in South Africa and worldwide. On June 16, 1976, a group of students began to protest the government’s policy of forcing black African students to be educated in Afrikaans, rather than English. That day, as a group of 10,000 students marched in an area called Orlando West, police were called in and opened fire on them, killing adults and children. Soweto was engulfed by riots and by the end of the Soweto Uprising, at least 176 (but perhaps as many as 600) people had been killed.

Sign from Soweto Uprising

Sign from Soweto Uprising

Today, Soweto seems an odd mix of desperate poverty, well-oiled tourism, and flashy wealth. Our tour started with the part of Soweto where the so-called “black millionaires” have moved in. Our guide explained that some wealthy black South Africans moved back to Soweto and revamped certain neighborhoods in an effort to revitalize the township as a whole. There are truly lovely houses there, with fancy cars in the driveways, swimming pools, satellite TVs, the works. And then, you go a few blocks away and you see this:

Soweto shanty town


The poverty is so staggering that it’s hard to process. How do people live in houses with no running water, no sewage system, no insulation, no cooling, no room to move around or breathe? How do people make this work? I felt dismayed and helpless at the poverty we saw in Soweto, not only because of the depth of the misery but because of its breadth – millions of people live like this.

School wall, Soweto

School wall, Soweto

Within Kliptown, one of the shanty-town areas of Soweto, we visited a nursery school for kids ages one through six called Pastoral Centre. This was the most heartening (and adorable) part of our day. We were greeted by a classroom of six-year-olds who performed several songs and poems for us and it was quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Here’s a very short video I took while they were singing:

We met the principal, Pam Mfaxa, a truly impressive woman who started the nursery school to meet a need she saw in her community, giving poor kids a chance to succeed. The school gives the kids three balanced meals a day, allows them to sing and play creatively, and even teaches them computer skills. They’re intervening in these kids’ lives at a time when brain development is critical for success later in life, so the work they do is hugely important. They also have outreach programs for the elderly and other members of the community (including HIV/AIDS awareness and condom distribution). I was very impressed with the entire operation and it was one of the most hopeful things I saw in Soweto.



The tour also included a visit to a shebeen, which is the term for the formerly illicit pubs that sprang up in the townships during Apartheid, since black Africans weren’t allowed to visit bars or pubs for white people.  The shebeen we visited was called, appropriately enough, The Shack. They offered us a taste of the local brew, Joburg Beer, which is made with sorghum, maize, wheat, water and yeast. It had the consistency of chunky milk and smelled like bread. I took a pass, but I did get a photo of the carton.

Joburg beer and calabash cup

Joburg beer and calabash cup

We also visited the Hector Pieterson museum, named after the first person shot by the police in the Soweto Uprising. He was thirteen years old when he died. The museum was fascinating and moving and troubling. One thing that I learned today, which I was not fully aware of before, was how central a role the revolt against Afrikaans in schools played in the entire South African liberation movement. I knew that during Apartheid, everyone was forced to speak Afrikaans in school, but I didn’t realize the difficulties it caused or how hated it was among black South Africans as a means of oppression.

Freedom Charter

Freedom Charter

Although the tour of Soweto was emotionally heavy and rather exhausting, I am so glad we went. I really got a look at a different vision of South Africa from the one that I see every day, which is comfortable, walled-off, a bit boring, even. Soweto was vibrant, sad, difficult, and hopeful all at once. I am not sure what I can do to help, but I will be contributing funds to Pastoral Centre, which relies on donations to stay in operation. I’m so encouraged that there are organizations that are trying to bridge the opportunity gap between the poor and the rich in this country by helping those who are most innocent and full of potential: children.

Pastoral Centre - one-year-olds

Pastoral Centre – one-year-olds

By the way, for anyone considering a visit to Joburg and who wants to go on a Soweto tour, I highly recommend the tour company we used, Themba Day Tours. They were very professional and reasonably priced and they struck a good balance between lightheartedness and respect for the place we were visiting.

Charlize Theron and Afrikaans

Charlize Theron is probably the most famous Hollywood actress to come out of South Africa.  But has anyone else ever wondered why she doesn’t have a South African accent? I looked into it and found this interview with her online.

Check out her interesting explanation of why she has an American accent when she speaks English:

AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: Charlize, have you had to do a lot of work to lose your South African accent? I’m from Pretoria… and uh…


AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Lekker, lekker, baie lekker…

Praat jy nog ‘n bietjie Afrikaans?


Oh you’re English South African, I don’t like you!

AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: I only speak Afrikaans when I don’t want my kids to know what I’m talking about.

Exactly, exactly.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Do you slip back into Afrikaans with your mother?

When I go there, I speak a lot; I speak Afrikaans every single day because my mom lives two minutes away from me. I just feel weird speaking English to her, like I’m playing a character or something. But I definitely do when I go back, Yeah, I come back to Los Angeles an people are like ‘Oh, you were just in South Africa’. Definitely. Yes, I get a little bit of that South African thing going (does awful Afrikaans accent) . But you wouldn’t understand that, broer because you speak English South African.

FRANCINE STOCK: Was that something that just happened or was it for career reasons?

The irony is, South Africans will know this, certain parts of the country are predominantly Afrikaans or predominantly English. I grew up in a predominantly Afrikaans environment where nobody spoke English. So you would have English as a second language at school but if you had Spanish, you don’t go home; you don’t practice it, you’re not talking to people. So my English was actually incredibly poor and so in a way I almost learnt English like an American. I spoke very much like a South African and yeah, I couldn’t do both, I admire people who can go back, I mean also I was much younger too, I think if I was older I probably would’ve hung onto one versus the other. I didn’t really have a voice, as in English South African, it was bizarre, and I didn’t feel like I was losing one for the other because I always just spoke Afrikaans. So English was really a second language for me and I learnt it with an American accent, and then people got really upset, ‘You’re not a South African anymore’.

Did you notice the part when Charlize said “you’re English South African, I don’t like you?”  She was joking, of course, but she was referring to the distinction between the two main white ethnic groups in South Africa: English South Africans and Afrikaners.

English South Africans (or Anglo-Africans) are white people of British descent who live in Sub-Saharan Africa (mostly South Africa) and speak English as their native language.

The term “Afrikaners,” however, refers to all white Afrikaans-speaking people. Many of them are descendants of the Dutch settlers who have been in South Africa since the middle of the 17th century (including the Boers).  However, there are also many South Africans whose families immigrated from all over the world (Italy, Ireland, Portugal) who consider themselves Afrikaner because Afrikaans is their native language. Confusing, eh?

Afrikaans is merely one of the eleven official languages of the country. However, it’s still the majority language of several regions of South Africa, and, according to the 2001 census, the “primary language of the coloured and white communities.”  By the way, “coloured” is one of the four official racial groups recognized in South Africa (along with white, black, and Indian/Asian).

And even in Joburg, you do see signage in Afrikaans and hear it spoken on the radio.

No idea what this means.

I still don’t get the linguistic politics in South Africa, so I’ll probably be writing about Afrikaans again when I have more to say.  Until then, I guess I should memorize these handy phrases:

Praat jy Engels?  (Do you speak English?)

My Afrikaans is sleg. (My Afrikaans is bad)

Suid-Afrika is ‘n wonderlike land.  (South Africa is a wonderful country)