Newsletter 02/11

South Africa's languages

It is generally accepted that language began to develop with the emergence of Homo sapiens between 170,000 and 200,000 years ago in Africa, cradle of humanity.

The syntax that provides the structure for modern language is thought to have emerged gradually between 90,000 and 60,000 years ago. Recently, however, specialists have come to believe that we may need to look much further back in time to start tracing the history of language.

The birth of language on the African continent gives particular weight to the languages that have been spoken there for millennia.

Article 5 of the South African constitution recognises the nine African languages present in the country, none of which had any legal standing prior to 1994. They have now acquired the status of official languages, alongside the languages of European origin, English and Afrikaans (derived from Dutch), hitherto the only languages to enjoy such status.

The oldest of these languages (Khoi, Nama, San) also enjoy special protection, being taught in schools and having dictionaries published; the Khoi and San National Language Body was specially set up for this purpose in 1999.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 people belong to these cultures, once threatened with extinction and which almost disappeared in the wake of European colonisation.

It is to these cultures, whose representatives were often referred to pejoratively as “Bushmen”, that we owe the magnificent cave paintings to be found at over 2,000 sites across South Africa.

The nine official African languages are all of Bantu origin, their roots lying in the Western Congo and thus linking South Africa to one of the continent's major linguistic families.

Within these languages, two major groups are to be distinguished: the Ngnuni language group (IsiZulu, IsiXhosa and IsiNdebele) and the Sotho language group (Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa and Sesotho).

South Africa is a Commonwealth country, and English predominates in the business world.

French, long confined to an elite nourished on the great authors of French literature, is now seen as essential in forging new economic, institutional and cultural relations with French-speaking Africa.

The welfare system in South Africa

Since 2004, the South African government has introduced a welfare system for the country's poorest and most vulnerable citizens, fulfilling a commitment written into the 1996 constitution.

Welfare benefits are paid out of public funds to the elderly, the disabled, ex-soldiers and children and minors under the age of 18.

The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) is responsible for managing the allocation of benefits to some 14,464,521 recipients.

The annual budget of €10 billion represents 3.40% of South Africa's GDP.

This is clearly a massive system of solidarity and redistribution of wealth that has been introduced, even if the benefits represent only a minimum wage (1,080 rand a month, equivalent to €117, for the elderly or the disabled).

Photographer David Goldblatt in Paris

David Goldblatt, the famous photographer and outspoken critic of the apartheid years, is showing his works in Paris at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation (2, impasse Lebouis – Paris 14ème) until 17th April 2011.

The photographs cover the period 1950-2010 and offer a bittersweet view of the city of Johannesburg, to which the photographer is still deeply attached.

Franco-South African summit in Paris

The Presidents of South Africa and France are to meet in Paris in March 2011, on the occasion of a state visit to France by President Jacob Zuma.

The meeting takes place against a background of sharp focus on the issues of democratic governance and fundamental freedoms in Europe and in Africa.

New discoveries reveal more of human history in Africa

According to Science magazine, modern humankind (Homo sapiens), born in Africa some 200,000 years ago, expanded from its birthplace by not one route but two.

Until now, it was generally accepted that the migration route out of Africa followed the Nile before leading into the Middle East.

Now another route has been discovered.

This second route apparently crossed the south of the Arabian peninsula, some 125,000 years ago. It would have been made possible by the existence of a land bridge between Africa and Arabia, starting from where the city of Djibouti now stands.