Language advocacy groups outraged over airline’s Afrikaans language test

Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline by number of passengers, has come under a wave of criticism after forcing UK-bound travelers flying with a South African passport to prove their nationality by taking a test in Afrikaans. The South African government said on Tuesday it was astounded by the move, calling it a “backward profiling system.”

South Africa is a country with 10 official languages in addition to Afrikaans: Zulu, isiXhosa, Sepedi, Setswana, English, Sesotho, Xitsonga, Siswati, Tshivenda, Ndebele. A language that has its linguistic roots in the Dutch spoken by the Boers, Afrikaans was spoken by South Africa’s early settlers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Today, descendants of the Boers are commonly referred to as Afrikaners, and Afrikaans is often associated with apartheid and white minority rule. 

Afrikaans as a language developed from 17th-century Dutch, sometimes called Netherlandic or Cape Dutch by the descendants of European colonists. Although very similar to Dutch, Afrikaans differs from it and is clearly a separate language from Standard Dutch in its sound system and loss of gender and case distinctions. During apartheid it was made a mandatory official language alongside English in schools. Nowadays it is no longer mandatory, and many speak one or more of the 10 other official languages. 

In a BBC interview, Dinesh Joseph, a South African man who was flying from Lanzarote to London, said that he had his passport and boarding pass taken away before being presented with the language test. The Ryanair staff told him: “This is your language.”

“I was seething, I felt really triggered … there was a sense of anxiety and anger inside of me,” Joseph testified.

“It’s callous and insensitive to force people to write a test which would evoke so much emotion around it — the language of apartheid was Afrikaans,” Joseph continued, saying he felt “oppressed” and insisting that speaking Afrikaans has nothing to do with how South African someone is.

Ryanair defended the test and said in a statement that it required passengers traveling to the UK to fill out the questionnaire in Afrikaans due to high prevalence of fraudulent South African passports. The airline continued: “If they are unable to complete this questionnaire, they will be refused travel and issued a full refund.”

Just how the company decided to base their test on the language — only spoken by around 13% of South Africans as their first language, according to a 2011 census — is unclear and caused outrage online as well. 

The CEO of the Pan South African Language Board, Lance Schulz, confirmed his organization expressed its displeasure with Ryanair’s Afrikaans test because many South Africans do not understand the language.

“Our view is that the decision is quite reckless and reminiscent of the apartheid systemic subjugation of speakers of other languages, mainly black people. And, in essence, our concern is that it creates racial as well as linguistic discrimination. We believe that not just is it in contravening our constitutional democracy as well as linguistic diversity, but it’s an ignorance of the UN Declaration of Human Rights,” he said. “Ryanair must find other non-discriminatory means to test South African passports.”

The CEO of the Afrikaans Language Council, Conrad Steenkamp, also wrote directly to Ryanair and explained how absurd he felt the test was: “Many South Africans would fail a test given in Zulu or one of the other official languages. We hope Ryanair will see the error of its ways.”

“Thus far Ryanair has not responded to us about our comments,” he added. “We advised them to, one: Immediately stop using the profiling; two: They need to start apologizing to people. People were turned back from flights as a result of this, and they are in serious jeopardy this could end up in court cases.”

Clayson Monyela, a South African foreign affairs spokesperson, indicated on Tuesday that the airline has now stopped the practice.

Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


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