During apartheid, indigenous identities and languages were discouraged and a process to promote the use of Afrikaans and their assimilation resulted in the loss of most indigenous peoples’ languages. Apart from a few indigenous peoples situated in very rural and remote places, the majority of indigenous groups adopted Afrikaans as the language of communication. As well, since indigenous languages were not taught in schools or used anywhere officially most became extinct or completely forgotten. In fact, it is reported that ‘children using Khoekhoe or San languages in state and church schools received corporal punishment and were forced to recant their identity’. Today indigenous peoples are still concerned that despite the gains of a democratic state, the fact that their languages and identity are not officially recognized continues to hamper their capacity and efforts to enjoy socio-economic development as well as other fundamental human rights and freedoms.
In the South African context, Khoekhoegowab have long attained moribund status (a term originating in the field of medicine), as a languages which are no longer being learned as a mother tongue by children, capturing the notion of a language well beyond the stage of ‘mere’ endangerment, because it lacks intergenerational transmission. Through determined language policies, it has been proved that an endangered, moribund or even extinct language can be saved as in the case of Japan where only eight people spoke Ainu on the island of Hokkaido in the late 1980s, but today it is being revived after years of ostracism and decline. An Ainu museum has been opened there and the language is being taught to young people, who are rediscovering it. Sometimes languages that have actually died out have been “raised from the dead,” such as Cornish, in England, which became extinct in 1777 but has been revived in recent years, with nearly 1,000 people now speaking it as a second language.
Although indigenous peoples are still not officially recognized as such in South Africa, the 1996 Constitution, for the first time, included constitutional reference to Khoe and San people. Article 6 (2) states: “Recognizing the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages”. Here the word “indigenous” is used in reference to the majority of the languages recognized under apartheid, which became the 11 official languages of the Republic in 1994, but it does not include the Khoe-San languages. However, article 6 (5) indicates that “A Pan South African Language Board established by national legislation must promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of … the Khoe, Nama and San languages”, thus opening a whole new constitutional chapter by recognizing the presence of Khoe and San people and their endangered languages.