Charlize Theron has prompted anger in her native South Africa after suggesting that Afrikaans, a language descended from Dutch colonial settlers, was heading for oblivion.
“There’s about 44 people still speaking it … it’s definitely a dying language, it’s not a very helpful language,” the 47-year-old Oscar-winning actor said this week on a US podcast “Smartless.”
Her comments prompted some South Africans to speak out in defence of the language, which is one of 11 official languages in South Africa and commonly used by around 12% of the population of nearly 60 million.
Laws imposing Afrikaans played a role in the oppression of black citizens during the apartheid era, and the language remains controversial in some sectors of society today.
A lawmaker from the opposition radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party tweeted in support of Theron’s remarks, but the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus), a small rightwing and predominantly white Afrikaner party, said she was misguided.
“She is not up to date with what is going on in her country of birth,” it said in a statement.
Jawaahier Petersen, an actor in a long running Afrikaans-language soap opera in South Africa told local News24: “I wouldn’t say that the language is dying. I think we are in a beautiful place in our country now where there is so much inclusivity for the diversity of Afrikaans and the roots of Afrikaans. Varied roots of Afrikaans. It’s almost like we have rebirth of Afrikaans.”
Theron was born in Benoni, a suburb 40km (25 miles) east of Johannesburg, and moved to the US almost 30 years ago.
She said she didn’t speak English until she was 19 because “nobody” in her predominantly Afrikaans neighbourhood spoke it.
Afrikaans, a mixture of old Dutch spoken by settlers who began to arrive in South Africa in the mid-17th century, some French and local languages spoken well before the colonial era.
Its complex history in South Africa has sparked debate as to whether it should be considered an indigenous or imported language, though it is the country’s third most spoken language after Zulu, which is used by around 25% of the population, and Xhosa, spoken by nearly 15% , according to official statistics.
In 2020, a court overturned a decision by one of South Africa’s largest universities, the University of South Africa (Unisa), to abolish classes taught in Afrikaans.
During widespread unrest in South Africa in 2021, Theron described her native land as “extraordinary in so many ways – diverse, resourceful, proud, accomplished, and so incredibly strong”.