Nelson Mandela's statue
Nelson Mandela's statue (Cath Everett)

To make the most of the unseasonably warm weather, my beloved and I decided that a weekend trip to the countryside was in order.

And so it was that we made our way to Paarl. Although the town itself is somewhat similar to Luton in terms of loveliness, there are nonetheless two historically significant things about the area that make it worth the half-hour trip from Stellenbosch.

While these points of interest may be symbolic of oppositional political forces, they have undoubtedly helped to shape South Africa and make it the country that it is today.

The first is the Taal (or "language" in Afrikaans) Monument, which was erected on top of Paarl Mountain in 1975 to mark the town's status as the birthplace of the official Afrikaans language movement.

This made it, at one time, as important a place of pilgrimage for nationalistic Afrikaners as the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. It is the only monument specifically dedicated to a language anywhere in the world.

The second point of interest, however, is Groot Drakenstein Prison, formerly known as Victor Verster. It is here that Nelson Mandela stayed for two years in the warder's cottage while negotiating the end of apartheid. He then walked free from incarceration for the first time in 27 years under the glare of the world's media spotlight.

To mark the occasion, a wonderfully lifelike statue of Madiba raising his right fist in the 'Viva ANC' position was erected just before the security barriers of this still-operational jail - and through which it is possible to glimpse the strangely familiar avenue that he walked down on that fateful day on 11 February, 1990.

The setting is quite odd in a way though. Surrounded by abundant vineyards, upmarket wine farms and hazy mountains, it's not the usual place that you'd expect to find a prison. In fact, we almost zoomed past it.

Important symbolism

Back at the Taal Monument, there are truly excellent panoramic views. On a good day - which luckily this was - you can see vast expanses of the Cape winelands in one direction and the breathtaking sweep of Cape Peninsula and False Bay in the other.

Sitting outside the coffee shop for lunch, we even got to see the always-magnificent Table Mountain shimmering in the distance, while little Cape gerbils kept their beady eyes on us as they scurried busily among the bushes.

The thing with the Taal Monument itself, however, is that, while its soaring, undulating spires may look magnificent from a distance, close up - and apologies to any of its fans out there - I found it to be a hideous, modernist carbuncle, as Prince Charles would say.

While I loved the symbolism built into it by architect Jan van Wijk, which is all about the rise and fall of different cultural and linguistic influences on the language, for me the abstract concepts were way better than the concrete reality.

The point is that Afrikaans eventually emerged as a language independent from Dutch, with which it still shares about 85% of its vocabulary, mainly through the interaction of the settlers, their slaves and the native KhoiKhoi.

As a result, it effectively became the language of the people, while Dutch - and later English - remained the language of officialdom and the elite. But changes started appearing between the two early on simply in order to enable communication.

For example, while the pastoralist Khoi-Khoi of the region initially communicated and traded with the Europeans using a simplified form of pidgin Dutch, by the 18th century, they had adopted it as their home language.

Making it official

As an aside, although the Khoi-Khoi were, unfortunately, either exterminated or assimilated particularly into present day coloured communities, some 60,000 of their descendants still survive today in the shape of the Nama people in Namibia.

Another key influence on the language, meanwhile, was the influx to the Cape of slaves from Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Mozambique and Madagascar between about 1658 and 1808.

Not only did they change and simplify Dutch grammar to make communication easier in what was the lingua franca of the time, but words, especially in relation to food and household items, were also added from their own Malay and Portuguese creole languages.

It was these people, found today predominantly in the Western Cape, who would eventually be classified as coloured under the apartheid regime and who still form the largest group of Afrikaans speakers to this day.

The next big milestone in the development of the language, however, was the creation in 1875 of the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (the Society of Real Afrikaners) in Paarl.

Under the leadership of Dutch Reformed Church minister, Stephanus Jacobus du Toit, a key goal of the Society was to establish Afrikaans as an official, written language rather than simply as a 'Cape Dutch' dialect, which had been illegal to employ in public life since the British took control of the Cape Colony in 1795.

Another important and related aim of the movement though was, of course, to boost an Afrikaner sense of identity in order to encourage them to mobilise against British political, economic and cultural hegemony.

And within 50 years, at least some of their objectives had been met. Afrikaans gained its rightful place as an official language alongside English and Dutch, both of which had enjoyed such status since the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910.

Reframing the past

The fact that the language could now be used for educational purposes in schools also helped a lot of poor, white Afrikaners scale the economic ladder.

Between 1948 and 1994, however, the role of Afrikaans changed drastically. Rather than being the language of a minority that felt itself oppressed by the British, it became instead the language of the oppressor itself, coming to symbolise the power of the ruling National Party and its apartheid regime.

By 1976 though, that same regime had made the fatal linguistic error of attempting to impose its language as a medium of instruction in black schools.

The Soweto uprising and violent suppression that resulted were later seen as a watershed in the anti-apartheid struggle and would eventually lead to the government's downfall under the weight of national resistance and international outrage.

But despite this difficult chapter in its history, the Afrikaans language has so far managed to survive, and even prosper - even if some in the coloured community have actively chosen to abandon their mother tongue due to its political connotations in favour of English.

So while there may be real and present fears among the Afrikaner community that political pressure will see the language dwindle in importance once again in public life, it doesn't seem set to die out any time soon.

Bodies such as the Afrikaanse Taalraad (Language Board) have worked hard to try and disentangle it from its apartheid connotations and reframe it as a language belonging to anyone who speaks it - a move that has, in turn, led to a revival of Afrikaans music, drama, literature, film and TV over recent years.

And long may it continue. As it says on the pathway leading up to the Taal Monument, "Dit is ons erns" (We take this seriously) - and it's important that they do.


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Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband