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Rappers update the image of South Africa’s language of apartheid

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Afrikaans, the guttural, gruff language that originated with the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652, has symbolized many things.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Afrikaans, the guttural, gruff language that originated with the Dutch settlers who arrived in South Africa in 1652, has symbolized many things.

At first a patois spoken by white farmers, centuries later it became the voice of apartheid  and inspired an uprising after being forced on black schoolchildren.

These days Afrikaans is one of the country’s 11 official languages, but some Afrikaners say it is being increasingly marginalized to the point where they  fear for the survival of their language and culture.

The one thing it hasn’t been, until recently, is cool.

But a recent boom in offbeat Afrikaans rap and dance music, with artists sending up stereotypes of roughneck Boers, has seen the language embraced by hipsters, transcending boundaries at a time when the Afrikaans language and culture is struggling to redefine itself in post-apartheid  South Africa.

Die Antwoord, the unlikely act that is leading the charge, raps in rapid-fire Afrikaans and heavily accented English and has  found an international following since its “zef rap” — zef meaning “hick” or “common,” and playing on poor working-class stereotypes — became an online phenomenon a few months ago. Last month the group performed at the Coachella festival in California, and later this year it is set to release its debut CD on Interscope, the label of Lady Gaga, U2 and the Black Eyed Peas.

Other acts such as Jack Parow, a rapper with a handlebar moustache described as the “Afrikaans Eminem,” and Gazelle, fronted by Xander Ferreira, who sings about an Afrikaner son ditching farm life for the disco lights, have drawn strong followings.

Afrikaans is spoken at home by 13.3 percent of South Africa’s population of 48 million. The language is spoke by  white Afrikaners as well as the “colored” population, mixed-race people mainly living in the Western Cape area. This compares to 8.2 percent for English, 23.8 percent for isiZulu and 17.6 percent for isiXhosa.

In South Africa, language and cultural representations are still fraught with historical baggage.

While Afrikaans has a “diminished space in the public sphere,” it is starting to develop a new association as a language of culture through its use in theater and music, said Kees van der Waal, a professor of social anthropology at Stellenbosch University, an institution that teaches in Afrikaans.

“It is emerging more and more as something in its own right,” he said. “This is freeing Afrikaans of its baggage and that is exciting.”

Die Antwoord’s videos, which went viral after a post by the website BoingBoing in February, have had millions of hits from an international audience.  For non-South Africans, the Afrikaans accent is a curious one and has a novelty factor, as do the cultural send-ups in the group’s sometimes bizarre videos.

But among South Africans, the videos have sparked discussions about cultural authenticity.  Die Antwoord’s singer, Waddy Jones — who performs under the moniker “Ninja” — is not Afrikaans, but of white British background. Some have questioned whether the group, which also draws influences from the impoverished Afrikaans-speaking Cape Colored community, for example through the use of slang and the lead singer’s tattoos associated with violent Cape Flats gangs, is mocking these people, or at worst, performing blackface.

“There’s a measure of appropriation that makes it uncomfortable,” said Adam Haupt, senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and the author of “Stealing Empire: P2P, Intellectual Property and Hip-Hop Subversion.”

“Are they parodying Afrikaner culture or elevating its status, giving it cool-street cred?” asks Mary Corrigall, in a lengthy article in South Africa’s Sunday Independent that attempts to dissect the cultural significance of the group.

Rapper Jack Parow  told the Mail & Guardian that he is sending up the “zef image” of the Afrikaner because that’s “how I grew up and how I have been classified my entire life, being from behind the boerewors curtain,” he says, referring to the famous Afrikaner boerewors sausage. “So yes, I am making a statement to say that we aren’t as bad as everyone makes us out to be.”