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Afrikaaps takes centre stage, and spawns its own dictionary

A language long overlooked as marginal even though it is intrinsic to Cape culture is getting deserved recognition

16 December 2021 - 10:43
Though marginalised under apartheid, Kaaps was celebrated on occasions such as Tweede Nuwejaar, when the Kaapse Klopse perform.
Though marginalised under apartheid, Kaaps was celebrated on occasions such as Tweede Nuwejaar, when the Kaapse Klopse perform.
Image: Esa Alexander

To celebrate our great content from the past year, Sunday Times Daily is republishing a selection of good reads from both our print and online platforms. Below is one of those pieces.

Quintin “Jitsvinger” Goliath wrote his first rap in Afrikaaps on a typewriter at high school in 1996.

Words like jits (cool), dala (do it), ghuftie (huge) and poenas (cute) captured the language distinctive of the working class on the Cape Flats.

In 2021 words expressed by this popular hip-hop artist and poet are among those being collated for the first Trilingual Dictionary of Kaaps.

The dictionary is about more than Kaaps vocabulary. It is the latest step in the “Afrikaaps” movement to free the language from the strictures imposed on it by suiwer (pure) Afrikaans and to celebrate the culture and history of Kaaps, which is spoken from Cape Town to Namaqualand.

Support for the dictionary has exceeded expectations, says professor Quentin Williams, director of the Centre for Multilingualism & Diversities Research at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).

Quintin ‘Jitsvinger’ Goliath performs in ‘Afrikaaps’.
Quintin ‘Jitsvinger’ Goliath performs in ‘Afrikaaps’.
Image: Newton Stanford

“When we invited submissions, our phones lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Day one of the trilingual dictionary project was July 28. By Friday, the team had about 150,000 words for possible inclusion.

“We started by compiling words from texts written in the language and idiomatic expressions used by authors, and moved on to words from performers, poets, pastors and other sources. They are diverse and quite different to those of the Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal,” says Williams.

The UWC centre and the NGO Heal the Hood are driving the project with support from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Film & Media Studies.

UCT centre director, professor Adam Haupt, says that excitement about the dictionary spread like wildfire.

Heal the Hood co-ordinator Shaquile Southgate says the first formalised dictionary of Kaaps “will instil pride in the language”, one of the first features of identity.

The NGO focuses on youth development on the Cape Flats through the hip-hop culture.

“Children do not feel comfortable speaking their home language of Kaaps at school, but also not speaking formal Afrikaans or English has disenfranchised them,” he says. “Recognising the Kaaps language will be empowering for them.”

Afrikaaps sounds different to what is traditionally associated with “Pretoria Afrikaans”, according to Kaaps rapper, actor and activist Simon “HemelBesem” Booi.

The “icons of success”, the sports and arts celebrities portrayed in the media, are expected to sound like this suiwer, or pure, version, he said in a TEDx talk at Stellenbosch University.

“This is a problem for us, this is the suiwer thing, how we should sound.”

The portrayal of Kaaps is the opposite of this beautiful, suiwer sound, being “rough, onsuiwer” and derogatory”, says HemelBesem.

“If those are the only two examples of Afrikaans for our kids, that tell us suiwer Afrikaans is what success sounds like, then we have a big problem in South Africa.

“Most people who speak Afrikaans are people from my demographic.”

If a student arrives at university with Afrikaans sounding different to the Pretoria version, they will get told one of two things, he says. “They will say: ‘My bru, you’re a skollie. Don’t talk that skollie language, that gangster language.’ That’s the one.

“Secondly, it will be: ‘Jy’s van die plaas af, you’re from the farm. Don’t speak like that.’

“These are the two things that take away the confidence of our kids.”

Words for the new Trilingual Dictionary of Kaaps

Jits: cool

Haloep: to run really fast

Doep: to be baptised at sea, in a river or at church

Veskrie: to shout loudly at someone

Daait/dyte: refers to food

Taanie (plural: taanies): refers to mother/ma/mammie

Bontas: refers to Bonteheuwel, a community on the Cape Flats

The denigration of Kaaps to elevate suiwer or pure Afrikaans was masterminded by the architects of apartheid who, in the ’50s, broke up mixed-language and diverse communities like District Six in Cape Town while banishing the vernacular from classrooms.

Even today, Kaaps-speaking children at school are taught in English or textbook Afrikaans, which sound foreign to them, says Williams.

In 1976 the imposition of teaching in Afrikaans sparked the uprising in Soweto and, ironically, 45 years on, language barriers still stifle learning in Cape Flats schools. Williams says they want the school curriculum to open up for learning in Kaaps.

This would include cognitive subjects like maths, and to offer content for students and pupils in their mother tongue.

Universities should allow students to do postgraduate degrees and write their theses in Kaaps, says Haupt, who has written two academic books and co-edited another related to post-apartheid counterculture and hip-hop, in collaboration with hip-hop artists.

“The idea of the dictionary is to be a resource for speakers, for educators and for policymakers, for them to understand and respect Kaaps and not to dismiss it as slang,” he says.

Formalising the language will help to debunk the stereotypes perpetrated for decades against “Afrikaans speakers who are not white”, such as Kaaps being a gangster dialect, says Williams.

Children on the Cape Flats are born into three languages, Kaaps, English and Sabela (the language of the number gangs), he notes. With the steady rise of Kaaps and publications in the language since 2000 — about 100 books at the last count by Williams — children are getting wider exposure to it.

The Kaaps-speaking mothers of babies at Tygerberg Hospital are given a storybook in their mother tongue, Hoo vi Mammie, to read to their newborns.

Haupt says: “At an emotional level, when you stop telling students their vernacular is wrong and signal respect for it, they become more confident to write and perform, and this validates them.”

The trilingual dictionary is a major advance in the journey for the recognition of Kaaps as a language in its own right, with a uniform structure and grammar, says Williams.

For example, a TV channel wants to broadcast news in Kaaps but to do this it needs a lexicon to which it can refer.

That’s never been a requisite for theatre, where Kaaps productions have been staged for more than half a century.

The ’70s collaboration of musicians David Kramer and Taliep Petersen led to the hit District Six with Kaaps songs, and to other musicals that were successful in SA and overseas.

Kaaps takes the spotlight in contemporary shows too, like those by stand-up comedian Marc Lottering. “I have never ever consciously thought about ‘Afrikaaps’ while onstage,” he says.

“The way I speak onstage is the way I’ve spoken all my life. I would think that for the audience, there’s some authenticity in this.”

Even outside of Cape Town and SA, audiences “love to hear a bit of Cape Town”, says Lottering.

His stand-up shows are not neatly scripted, so the popular comedian has given the green light to Williams to select words from filmed shows for the dictionary. Students should be exposed to multiple language options, Lottering suggests.

“I would like for young people to experience the best of both worlds, so to speak. In other words, don’t ditch Charles Dickens.”

The movement to embrace Kaaps has encouraged performers, particularly hip-hop artists, to avail themselves of a wider range in which to express themselves. Goliath, who grew up listening to hip-hop crews like Prophets of da City and performing in talent shows, realised there was not much content in Kaaps.

Professor Quentin Williams is compiling the first 'Trilingual Dictionary of Kaaps'.
Professor Quentin Williams is compiling the first 'Trilingual Dictionary of Kaaps'.
Image: Esa Alexander

In matric he adopted the name Jitsvinger, founded a crew and “decided to start the new millennium with a journey into Kaaps”.

After school he worked in a factory in Blackheath, then semirural on the False Bay coast, and would rehearse while walking to work.

“So many songs I would rehearse with my feet. When I was at work, I would rap to the sound of machines.”

When Jitsvinger heard Godessa, the first all-women hip-hop group in Cape Town, it inspired him to write more lyrics in his vernacular. As the Godessa opening act in Long Street at that time, he realised that partygoers at the late-night gigs loved his stuff even though they didn’t understand the words.

Performing internationally, he got the same positive reception to Kaaps tracks. For Jitsvinger, joining the theatre production of Afrikaaps and being one of the stars of the eponymous film deepened his understanding of his heritage. The acclaimed 2010 show and film — with an award-winning cast of hip-hop and jazz musicians — traces the origins of Kaaps, thereby liberating it from suiwer Afrikaans.

On this theme, Jitsvinger says: “Imagine your language being wiped out and removing words that belonged to your community, trying to wipe out your understanding and knowledge of your land ... that is what the colonisers did.”

Afrikaaps goes back to the time of the Khoi and San and enslaved people, and the Creole language that developed around the 16th century between themselves and Dutch, Portuguese and English settlers. For example, the word Ai comes from the Khoisan language and soebat from old Javanese, according to Williams.

The multilingual activist and revolutionary Neville Alexander met the cast during the process of developing Afrikaaps and discussed this history with them. Williams says that Kaaps is “not a dialect of Afrikaans” — as some Afrikaans academics have said — but instead a distinct language that predates the Kaaps-Hollands that gave rise to Afrikaans.

Kaaps was first written down in Arabic script and taught in madrasas in the 1820s, before the Society of True Afrikaners in 1875 sidelined it. The Kaaps language was steadily marginalised under apartheid, but still feted at carnivals like Tweede Nuwejaar where the Cape Minstrel troupes, or Kaapse Klopse, sing and perform.

Even in 2010, the cast of Afrikaaps did not know what to expect when appearing at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn, despite their success in Cape Town. As the film reveals, they were a hit there too.

That was the year SA brimmed with Soccer World Cup optimism, but the transformation towards a true multilingual society has been slow. “South Africa has a lot of rights but many of them are paper rights only,” says Haupt.

The dictionary could be a catalyst in validating the Kaaps language, a process that has been a long time coming, according to the academics.

“We wanted to move the needle,” says Williams.

“We want the project to be a model for other languages on how to do a dictionary in post-apartheid South Africa.”

'Barakat', released in May, is the first full-length feature film in Kaaps. Directed by Amy Jephta, it tells the story of an ageing widow who brings together her four sons over Eid-al-Fitr to break the news about her romance with a Christian man.
'Barakat', released in May, is the first full-length feature film in Kaaps. Directed by Amy Jephta, it tells the story of an ageing widow who brings together her four sons over Eid-al-Fitr to break the news about her romance with a Christian man.
Image: Supplied

The speakers of Kaaps and their communities will have to decide which words are included, since that decision is political, not linguistic, he says.

The dictionary’s editorial board is determined to avoid the apartheid trap of being exclusionary and centralising decisions when it comes to the selection of words. But that’s a future challenge.

The core team, of about seven people, is being trained in the rigorous process of lexicography, translation and transcription. Building the initial corpus of the dictionary involves more than a word list, says Williams.

“We have to define parts of speech, plurals, how you pronounce the word, and illustrate their meaning and use.”

By collaborating with the Heal the Hood project, the team benefits from their expertise in the genre of hip-hop that propelled Kaaps into the limelight.

“If you are not in hip-hop, you would not get the nuances and cadences,” says Southgate.

The origins of the old and new Kaaps words will be included in the dictionary, which will be translated into standard Afrikaans and English. Williams hopes that in three years the team, which is expected to double in size, will have a working dictionary with about 70,000 words. This will be published online and free to use, and a hard copy will be published.

Traditional Afrikaans intellectuals have sounded the alarm that their language, which shows a slight decline according to 2018 statistics, is threatened in the democratic SA with its 11 official languages.

But the thriving language being reclaimed by the Afrikaaps movement challenges this view, says Williams.

Of the trailblazing dictionary, which officially puts Kaaps into the academic world, Williams says: “This is not about coloured nationalism but about words and how we use them every day.

“In Parow, where I live, there are black, white and coloured speakers of Kaaps. This has been a long time coming.”


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