It is a great pleasure for me to be able to participate in this year’s Woordfees.
The Woordfees – together with festivals such as the Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and others – provides evidence of the vitality of Afrikaans as the language in which seven million South Africans of all races think, speak, create and dream. For us, our language is one of our most precious heritages: it is deeply interwoven with our identity, our human dignity and our membership of the broader mosaic of cultures of South Africa.
It is also the language in which we discuss, debate and negotiate – and it is this aspect of Afrikaans that I would like to celebrate today.
One of the central factors that distinguishes us from all other species is the fact that we can exchange complex ideas with one another. Other living creatures communicate – but only in a very rudimentary manner. The most intelligent species can communicate, perhaps, a maximum of a hundred different ideas.
They do not have the ability to negotiate. If an impala encounters a lion – there is seldom very much room for discussion – it is flight or it is death. When two eland bulls compete to win the affection of a group of eland cows – they do not stop and reason with one another: they do not compromise and decide to settle for three cows each. It is all or nothing.
The development of language among our homo sapiens ancestors opened up all sorts of new possibilities for co-existence. It certainly did not lead to the end of physical conflict – but it did open the prospect for compromise and co-operation.
And so it has been throughout most of human history: there have been those who have favoured conflict, competition and war and those who have preferred negotiation, coexistence and peace. As Ecclesiastes put it, there was a time to tear apart and a time to sew together; a time to be silent and a time to speak;a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
After two devastating world wars during the last century the pendulum finally began to swing toward sewing together, toward speaking and away from hating and from war.