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from the November 2021 issue

This Language Called Kaaps: An Introduction

Language is more than just a method of communication. It is about the ability to lay down roots, to settle into an identity, to have a place in history, in the present, and in the future. Language is personal, but it is also political. Language is about knowing who you are and where you fit into the social world. People classified as Coloured by the Apartheid regime of South Africa, and now also the Democratic regime of South Africa, have for a long time been without roots, identity, and a language or languages they can claim as their own. This issue presents work by contributors from the Kaaps community, predominantly coming from the Cape Flats in Cape Town, South Africa.

So, what is Kaaps? There are many different answers to this question. Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called Coloureds living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans. Very little information is available on the formation of the language of Kaaps, with some narratives tracing its development to the eighteenth century, when communication became necessary between the Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa, the recently arrived Dutch, and enslaved people shipped in from West Africa and Asia. This resulted in the creation of a pidgin-turned-creole that became known as Cape Dutch, based in Dutch and blending indigenous languages of the Khoikhoi and San, as well as Malay, Portuguese, and Indonesian. However, in the late 1800s a group of Dutch descendants known as the Genootskap van Regte Afrikaners (GRA), or the Society of True Afrikaners, started mobilizing to purify the Cape Dutch language, calling for it to be standardized. The GRA felt entitled to remove the indigenous “filth” from the language, calling the result Afrikaans.

This Afrikaans language was then used as a tool of oppression by the Apartheid government in South Africa, not only against Nguni language speakers, but also against the descendants of the Khoikhoi and enslaved people. The language discarded in this purification process was regarded as not worthy of use in any formal or institutional setting; for generations, those of us who speak Kaaps have been taught that we must instead speak Afrikaans, a language so far from our roots and the histories that make us. With so little academic research on the history and development of Kaaps done by actual speakers and users of the language, it sometimes feels like grasping at straws to create a narrative for ourselves.

Because Kaaps was not considered a proper language, Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy. While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the “White man’s language,” Afrikaans. And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people, with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.

In many libraries in the Cape Flats, or other communities where Kaaps is the predominant language, asking for texts in Kaaps is a futile exercise. Often libraries in these communities still do not reflect the existence of Kaaps in either written or spoken form, viewing it as slang or street language. Many Kaaps speakers have internalized these opinions and feel they must identify as Afrikaans speakers when that language does not represent their roots or identity. The resulting distancing and alienation from the dominant culture can lead to acceptance of the false narratives and negative stereotypes that that culture imposes. And the rejection of those stereotypes takes place in a context where one’s own language and identity are not validated.

A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement, but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Professor Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first of its kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.

In a similar vein, I’ve sought to amplify the Kaaps language and identity through my own work as a writer. After the publication of my first book, which was entirely written in Kaaps, people from so-called Coloured communities all the way to Namibia who considered themselves Afrikaans speakers told me that they relate more to the Kaaps I write than they do to Afrikaans. Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency.

This is the perspective that informed the creation of this issue. The contributors here not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities. 

Khadija Tracey Heeger is a poet, actress, facilitator, cultural activist, and writer who hails from the Cape Flats. Her poem “Children of the Xam” traces the rich and complex ancestry of the region's population, recounting the many generations and peoples that have gone before. As Heeger notes, “the idea of a single bloodline running through a human’s veins is ridiculous, and yet we choose to exclude through this thinking.”

Poet Nashville Blaauw also speaks to identity. His "I Lift My Eyes Up" depicts the council flats of his native Elsies River but captures the entire Cape Flats. The poem alludes to Psalm 121, which speaks about help coming from the Lord; but as Blaauw notes, in the Cape Flats positive influences can be as far away as the mountains and help available only from less positive sources. The influences of the flats are also sometimes a model for young people’s ambitions, and positive role models are often far away like the mountains.

Writer, illustrator, and translator Andre Trantraal also observes township life in “The Wind Blows Where It Wishes and You Hear Its Sound,” the first chapter of his graphic novel Childhood. As Trantraal has remarked, “There isn’t exactly an abundance of stories about children from Coloured townships written by people who themselves know what it is like being a child growing up in a Coloured township.” His portrait of a stubborn young boy in a standoff with his devout grandmother makes a start toward correcting that lack.

Shirmoney Rhode is a writer and performance poet hailing from Elsies River on the Cape Flats. She predominantly writes in Kaaps and is committed to telling, and retelling, stories of marginalized and dispossessed people of color. In "scratch cards," translated by Andre Trantraal, the poet compares lotto cards and childrearing: “they place all their / hopes and dreams / on that one ticket.”

Martin Muller, better known by his stage name SIEP, is a hip-hop artist and community activist using the hip-hop culture as a medium. SIEP is the founder of the production company Ill Major Movement (IMM) and sees himself as a MC, beat maker, producer, and DJ, rhyming predominantly in his mother tongue, Afrikaans. His lyrics blend street culture and slang with comedy, social commentary, politics, real-life issues, and personal experiences in complex rhyme structures. His “Affirm,” from his album SIEP, emphasizes that every person has a soul, echoing his artistic name, SIEP, “Soul in Every Person.” It’s accompanied by the music video.

Olivia M. Coetzee’s “Snake’s Hill” follows a young woman, Sanna, who discovers that the man who raised her is not her real father. Confronting her mother about her father’s real identity, she learns not only that the man is nearby, but that he wants to see her.

For each contributor to this issue, writing is more than just sharing experiences of their world. It is shaping their worlds with their words, with their illustrations, with their music, and shaping the literary landscape and the identity of so-called Coloureds of South Africa. Through this work we are challenging the ideology that writing, performing, singing, and rapping in Kaaps is only for entertainment, and showing that there is more to this world than stereotypes of gangsterism, drugs, alcohol, poverty, and people who have no culture or identity. With every stroke of a pen, every syllable rapped in Kaaps, every word rhymed through poetry, a picture of us is formed, ready to be shared with the world. A picture of a people whose ancestors created this language called Kaaps, and who are continuing to speak and celebrate it today.

© 2021 by Olivia M. Coetzee. All rights reserved.

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