The Oscar Pistorius trial – and the language Apartheid it reveals

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South Africa is a country that likes to reveal itself to the world all in one go. There are no half-measures with us. If you want the one place that's held the biggest gathering of political leaders outside the United Nations, it's us. No one else could manage to turn a fairly boring football tournament into a global party, or a tawdry murder trial into a global sensation. And like all the other big global events on our shores, this trial, the Oscar Pistorius story, is telling us much about ourselves: our power dynamics, who has political power, and who has economic power. But the biggest, least-heard lesson is about the language that now overwhelmingly controls our thoughts.

For a country with a brutal history of white domination, there can be no more potent symbol of how things have changed than the current blow-by-blow image of the High Court in Pretoria. You have a white, male defendant, with money, means, and, as we may yet discover, opportunity. When it comes to guns, he also has attitude. We have white male lawyers; those on the defence team are paid rather well by the hour. And those for the prosecution are there because they have had the education and the opportunities to be the best prosecutors in their jurisdiction.

But presiding over it all, literally on a higher plane, is a black woman judge, the most important person in all of this. Judge Thokozile Masipa may have an annual income substantially less than Barry Roux, but she is the person with all the power in this game. And with that gavel comes the power to send Pistorius to jail for life. Even, should the mood take her, to jail someone for behaving badly in her court.

There is no telling the power of that in the minds of young girls around the country, that they can be large and in charge; that it is possible for someone who looks like them to become the person in control of the biggest global sensation in years. To be the person whose mind is the focus of endless speculation, as well-paid people around the planet discuss which way you will go.

There is something very dignified to it all. Particularly when compared to, say, the OJ Simpson trial. And to be the person who embodies that dignity must surely be the best advertisement we have seen to lead to more black women judges.

That is really an expression of the political power in South Africa. It shows who is in charge in a political way; who arrives at the top of our political system.

Go to the next level, and it’s clear that the money is still in the hands of white people, out of all proportion to their numbers. It’s in control of the Pistoriuses of the world.

And then there’s the way people are treated. We know now Pistorius and his friends took a gun into the Melrose Tasha’s and let it off. They simply apologised to the manager and left. As someone tweeted immediately after that testimony in court, imagine if a group of young black men had done the same in the same place. The police would have been called. It would have featured heavily in news bulletins around the country's urban areas.

But when we consider what this really tells us about our country, the answer actually lies in language.

There was simply no question that this trial would be heard in any language other than English. Right from the very beginning, it was simply assumed by everyone that English it would be. And so it was proven. And yet, no one actually acting in this trial has English as their first language. Judge Masipa doesn’t; both Roux and Gerrie Nel seem to speak Afrikaans as a first language. And yet English it is.

It is a strange quirk of our country that very few people have English as their first language, but it is fast removing Afrikaans from our courtrooms. This means that very few people will be tried in the language that speaks to their heart. And while the proceedings are interpreted, we all know that that can come with associated problems. Involving paranoid schizophrenia, sign language, and booing.

In 1994 there was what some call the “historic compromise”. Language was a big part of that, in the end it was decided to have eleven official languages. At the time it was hailed as a massive step forward for language, everyone would be accommodated, and everyone would be happy. Boy, was that wrong. What’s odd about our language compromise is that instead of creating no winners and no losers, it created a winner in English, and a loser in every other language. From Afrikaans to Zulu, they have all lost.

English is now the language not just of commerce (as it was before 1994), but also of education, government, entertainment, general life in South Africa in the fast lane. If you want to get ahead, you have to speak English. To the point where language Apartheid could almost be more important than the urban/rural split in our economy.

This reaches to the highest levels of our society. President Jacob Zuma is a man acknowledged to be one of the finest public speakers of Zulu in the world today. And yet when he speaks as president, he almost always speaks in English. In a way that most people would accept is not nearly as powerful. There is no legal reason for him to not use his home language when delivering say his State of the Nation Address. But as the ANC has pretty much picked English as its language as a compromise, he has no choice. To use Zulu would be to anger the Eastern Cape ANC, with what analysts would refer to as a massively negative political consequence.

It’s easy to understand how this has happened. When a country or a party has to make a choice about language in a place where many different languages are spoken, the language that controls the economy rules. And so the language of a country that once ruled the seas has managed to inflict its language upon all of us. And certainly upon you who are reading this.

Some of the power dynamics revealed by this trial will change. It won't be long before we have a black female judge, and black female advocates appearing in front of her. Economic Apartheid will be with us for some time to come, but hopefully, one day, it will actually end. But the language of English, it seems, will always be with us. It will not go away, it will only entrench itself further, within our society, and within our minds. 

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Grootes studied at Rhodes University