M.T. Steyn's crucial intervention
The Cape Times continued its long tradition of publishing letters from readers that denounced Afrikaans as ‘a mongrel’, ‘kitchen’, ‘hotchpotch’, ‘degenerate’ and ‘decaying’ language, fit only for ‘peasants and up-country kraals.’
Unexpectedly language became one of the critical questions at the National Convention of 1908–1909 that drew up the constitution for the new Union of South Africa. General J.B.M. Hertzog, a leading Afrikaner nationalist from the OFS, proposed ‘equal freedom, rights and privileges’ for Dutch and English. Every appointment in the new government had to be made ‘with due regard to the equality of the two languages.’ He insisted that the constitution had to guarantee the right of every citizen to claim English or Dutch ‘as the medium of communication between himself and any officer or servant in the Union.’ According to an account of the Convention debates, the English-speakers were so appalled by the proposal that the debate had to be postponed.
The most dramatic moment of the Convention was the intervention by Marthinus Theunis Steyn, ex-President of the OFS. Referring to the Afrikaners and the British as different races, as was the custom at the time, he asked delegates to expunge ‘the devil of race hatred’ that had plagued the country for so long. The way to do that was to place the two languages on a footing of ‘absolute equality in Parliament, in the Courts, in the schools and the public service – everywhere.’
As a result of the speech, Article 137 of the Union Constitution was accepted without a dissenting vote. It decreed:
Both the English and Dutch languages shall be official languages of the Union and shall be treated on a footing of equality and possess and enjoy equal freedom, rights and privileges; all records, journals and proceedings of Parliament shall be kept in both languages, and all Bills, Acts and notices of general public importance or interest issued by the Government of the Union of South Africa shall be in both languages.
Writing in The State, Gustav Preller, a leading protagonist of Afrikaans, which had begun to challenge Dutch as public language, described the promise to place the two official languages on a footing of ‘most perfect equality’ as essential to Afrikaner support for the Union.