Afrikaans as hoftaal: Should it have a place? Ukuhlaziya

April 1st, 2017

Afrikaans as court language: Should it have a place? An analysis

By Bouwer van Niekerk

Ek is gek na Afrikaans. Dit is nie net die taal waarmee ek groot geword het, geleer lees het in en in geleer het hoe om te skryf nie, dis ook die taal waarin ek dink. Dis my taal. Dis ook die taal van taal towenaars soos Ingrid Jonker en André P Brink, die taal van intellektuele soos NP van Wyk Louw en Willie Esterhuyse en die taal van pioniere soos Chris Barnard en Anton Rupert. Dis ’n taal wat ek praat sonder voorbehoud of verskoning, en ek koester die gesprekke wat ek met vriend en vyand daarin kan hê. Dit is die taal wat ek my driejarige seun leer praat, en waarin ek wil hê hy sy primêre en sekondêre onderrig in moet ontvang. Afrikaans is, in kort, ’n taal wat ek lief het, en ek sal altyd baklei vir die algemene behoud daarvan. Ek meen ook dat dit ook reg is dat alle mense só oor hulle taal moet voel; jou taal dra immers tot ’n groot mate by tot jou identiteit. 

Dit gesê, kan ek nie help as om te wonder of dit in die jaar 2017 steeds ’n plek behoort te hê as ’n algemeen erkende regstaal in ons howe nie. Wat maak Afrikaans dan so spesiaal om saam met Engels die tale van ons regspleging te wees? 

Hokaai, hoor ek klaar die taal bulle bulk. Vir wat nou híérdie saak ter berde bring? Hoekom gaan staan en krap jy nou waar dit nie jeuk nie? My antwoord hierop is eenvoudig: Ek jeuk. En as ek – ’n gebore Afrikaanssprekende, wit man – jeuk, is ek seker dat baie van my mede landsburgers ’n bietjie meer as net jeuk. Want Afrikaans het (eufimisties gestel) ’n komplekse geskiedenis in hierdie land. En ek meen dit is maar slegs een van die bydraende faktore wat veroorsaak dat Afrikaans se plek in ons professie – een wat gereeld daarvan beskulding word dat dit nie vinnig genoeg transformeer nie – in oënskou geneem moet word. Want, soos die doringboompie in Totius se boeiende gedig met dieselfde naam, meen ek dat alhoewel die wonde wat Afrikaans in ons geskiedenis gelos het tog gesond word as die jare kom en gaan, het dit tog ’n merk gelos, en daardie merk groei maar aldeur aan. 


I am crazy about Afrikaans. It is the language that I grew up in, the language in which I learnt how to read and write, and the language in which I think. It is my language. It is also the language of language wizards such as Ingrid Jonker and André P Brink, the language of intellectuals such as NP van Wyk Louw and Willie Esterhuyse, and the language of pioneers such as Chris Barnard and Anton Rupert. It is a language that I speak with pride and without apology, and I cherish the conversations that I can have in it with both friend and foe alike. It is the language that I teach my three-year-old, and the one in which I want him to have his primary and secondary education. In short, I love Afrikaans, and will always fight for its general preservation. I believe that it is correct for all people to feel this way about their mother tongue; your language plays a big part in your identity.

That being said, I cannot help but wonder whether, in 2017, Afrikaans should still have a place as a generally accepted court language. What makes Afrikaans so special that it, together with English, should be the languages of our legal system?

I can already hear the Afrikaans camp fighters: Slow down. Why bring up this topic? Why scratch where no itch exists? My answer thereto is simple: I am itching. And if I – a born Afrikaans speaking, white man – am itching, I suspect that many of my fellow countrymen and women are more than just itching. Afrikaans’s place in the history of our country is (euphemistically put) complicated. And I believe that this history is but one of the factors that needs to be considered in considering Afrikaans’s place in our profession – a profession that is often accused of not transforming at an acceptable pace. Because, like the thorn tree in Totius’s poem entitled Die Doringboompie, Afrikaans has left an indelible mark on our history, and, even though the accompanying pain may be subsiding, the mark continues to grow.


There are many arguments to make why Afrikaans should no longer enjoy its status as a generally accepted court language, and we all know what most of these are.

First and foremost, the historical, emotive arguments come to mind. Afrikaans is the language of the oppressor. It is undeniably the language of the architects of Apartheid – a system that was designed to disenfranchise, humiliate and under-educate the majority of the people of this country, and one which legacy we continue to be confronted with. How can we possibly even attempt to argue that this particular language should continue to be generally recognised as one of only two of our 11 official languages that are allowed to be used in our courts in the same manner that English is allowed to be used?

Then there is the purely social argument. Even if we ignore the past and look at the current language regime cold, why is it that it is generally accepted that attorneys may draft pleadings in Afrikaans – only (at best) the third most commonly spoken language in the country – and not in Zulu, the most commonly spoken language in the country?

The counterargument hereto is predictable, and not entirely without merit. Afrikaans is an academic language, and our law reports – the primary source of authority for a judiciary that is to a very large extent bound by legal precedents – are filled with Afrikaans judgments, making it an indispensable part of our legal system.

The counterargument thereto is as predictable, and equally (if not more) meritorious. South Africa’s substantive law is to a large extent founded in Roman Dutch law. But that does not mean that it is generally acceptable for attorneys to correspond with their colleagues or to argue matters in court in Latin or in Dutch.


Ngokubona kwami impikiswano enesigqi yileyo mpikiswano eyenzekayo ngqo. Ngaphandle uma uphiwe unobunyoningcu bezilimi, ngeke ukwazi ukufunda yonke lendatshana ngazo zontathu izilimi ebhalwe ngazo. Abafundi abaningi bebengeke bazihluphe ngokuqala nokuqala nje ukufunda lombhalo, bebezoyeka ukuwufunda esiqeshini sokuqala nje noma bebengeke bawuqonde ngokuphelele lombhalo uma bekungekho ukuhunyuswa kwawo. Nami uqobo lwami angikwazi ukubhala ngalezi zilimi zontathu – kumele ngithembele kummeli wami osaqeqeshwa ukuhumushela lo mbhalo olimini lwesizulu, kanti futhi angikwazi ukuhluza okubhaliwe. Ukungakwazi ukusibhala, ukusikhuluma nokusifunda isiZulu, akusiyo into engiziqhenya ngayo, angikwazanga nokuqiniseka ukuthi lokhu akubhalile kuyikona na; ngenxa yokuthi anginabo ubuchwepheshe bokuhlaziya lombhalo. Kodwa, futhi akusiyo into enginamahloni ngayo; akungikhathazi neze ukuthi angisazi isiZulu ikakhulukazi ngokohlangothi lomsebenzi njengommeli osesebenze isikhathi ngoba akukho lapho umsebenzi wobummeli uphoqa khona ukuthi ngikhulume, ngibhale noma ngifunde isiZulu. Impikiswano yami ilele kulombono wokuthi kungani iningi labammeli eNingizimu Afrika bephoqwa ukwazi ulimi olungakhulunywa iningi lwabantu, futhi ulimi abangeke baludinge emsebezini wabo?

I am of the opinion that the strongest argument is the practical argument. Unless you are linguistically gifted, you will in all likelihood not be able to read this entire article in the three different languages that it is written in. Many readers would either not have bothered to start reading this article, would have stopped reading it at the beginning of this paragraph or would not have understood the whole article, had it not been for the translations. I myself am not able to write in three languages – I had to rely on my capable candidate attorney to translate this paragraph into isiZulu, and I am likewise not able to proofread the accuracy of the translation. I am not proud of the fact that I cannot speak, read and write isiZulu, but I am also not particularly ashamed of this fact, nor am I worried about it, at least not from a professional point of view – as an admitted, practicing attorney, it is not required of me to be fluent in, or even understand, isiZulu. And this is the point: Why should so many (if not the majority) of practicing attorneys in South Africa be forced to understand a language – one that I am sure many do not understand, and have no inclination of learning – in order to ply their trade?


Let me be plain: I am the last person that wants to throw Afrikaans as a language into the dustbin of history. That being said, if one wants to be intellectually honest, it is difficult to argue that proffering one language (and this is true for all languages, not just Afrikaans) above another, where that language is either not the most widely used language in a profession, or (worse) a language that is studied by only a select few on tertiary level and not at all understood by many, is not tantamount to some form of racism. And let me be plain once again: Racism is something that should be thrown into the dustbin of history.

Bouwer van Niekerk BA (Law) LLB (SU) Post Grad Dip Labour Law (UJ) Cert Business Rescue Practice (UNISA & LEAD) is an attorney at Smit Sewgoolam Inc.
Sinenhlanhla Mtshali BSocSci (Rhodes University) LLB (UNISA), who wrote the Zulu translations, is (at the time of writing) a candidate attorney at the same firm.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (April) DR 18.

De Rebus