This past weekend the budget airline, Ryanair, has come under fire for requiring South African passport holders to prove their nationality by completing a quiz.
This test is only provided in Afrikaans- one of eleven official languages in the notably diverse country.
Ryanair issued statements regarding this decision explaining that due to a recent rise in passengers attempting to use fraudulent South African passports, the airline believed that a questionnaire would be the least invasive method to meet their responsibility of ensuring that passengers present the correct documentation.
Ryanair defended their decision to only provide the test in Afrikaans saying that it is “one of South Africa’s most prevalent official languages”.
Prevalent it may be, but Afrikaans is most definitely not spoken by all South Africans.
The three largest languages spoken outside of the home in South Africa are: isiZulu, English and isiXhosa. Afrikaans falls in at fourth place alongside Sepedi.
A 2018 South African Government Household Survey found that only about 9.7% of South Africans speak Afrikaans outside of the home and 12.2% speak it at home.
This leaves a great deal of South Africans excluded by the airline’s “safety measures”.
For many South Africans, the exclusionary nature of the quiz harkens back to the country’s divisive past in which the enforcement of language was especially prevalent.
The 1976 Soweto Uprising in particular saw Apartheid police forces open fire on black school children protesting the decision to make Afrikaans and English the only languages of instruction in schools. The 16th of June is now a public holiday commemorating the tragedy and thus tethers past and present generations together.
In a BBC article regarding the Ryanair scandal, news correspondent Nomsa Maseko elaborated on how a good deal of South Africa’s majority black population still view Afrikaans as an unfriendly language of the oppressor or of white racists.
She recounted how after finishing high school, where she was taught Afrikaans, she vowed never to speak it again.
Thus, she, like many other South Africans would have failed the exam.
Those attempting to change such perceptions of the language, consider the test to threaten their efforts to do so. Conrad Steenkamp, CEO of the Afrikaans Language Board, called the test “absurd”.
Thus, language remains a sensitive matter for South Africans, especially with the way it is being implemented by Ryanair.
South Africans residing in the UK who have been impacted by this quiz spoke to the Financial Times about their experiences and feelings on the questionnaire.
Zinhle Novazi, who does not usually speak Afrikaans, described the airline’s decision as “extremely exclusionary” given South Africa’s past and that it “definitely does amount to indirect racial discrimination”.
Dinesh Joseph recounted how he was told he would not be able to board his flight home from Lanzarote without the quiz – even when he explained that he did not speak Afrikaans. On the issue he told the Financial Times: “We have quite a strong past. I’m a person of colour. There’s a certain unconscious triggering that happens,”
Joseph said: “It is super callous and insensitive of them to pick one particular language.”
Nomfundo Dlamini went as far as to label the policy as “Apartheid 2.0.” In addition, she questioned the quiz’s ability to fulfil its security purpose as “any non-South African could answer those questions.” Joseph called the whole debacle bizarre, ludicrous and genuinely offensive.
This is not Ryanair’s first time in hot water for matters of racial discrimination either.
In 2020, in an interview with the Times, Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, gave comments encouraging the profiling of Muslim men.
O’Leary explained: “You can’t say stuff, because it’s racism, but it will generally be males of a Muslim persuasion. Thirty years ago it was the Irish. If that is where the threat is coming from, deal with the threat.”
The Muslim Council of Britain described these comments as “racist and discriminatory”.
With his foot in his mouth, O’Leary issued an apology for any offence caused, whilst Ryanair clarified that O’Leary was “only calling for more effective airport security checks”.
In an email to the BBC on Monday, June 6, Ryanair made no mention of ceasing the questionnaire requirement for South African passport holders, leaving many to wonder when Ryanair will begin to understand the impacts of their policies and public statements on the well-being of their passengers.
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