South African-born Hollywood star Charlize Theron has called Afrikaans a “dying” and unhelpful language, despite advocating it on several occasions in Hollywood. Charlize got tongues wagging when she joked on the SmartLess podcast that “there’s about 44 people still speaking” Afrikaans and called it “a dying language”. “It’s not a very helpful language,” she added. She claimed to have not spoken English until she was around 19 and only focused on learning the language when she left home for America. However, she has spoken the language with pride in Hollywood, often to the delight of audiences. However some of the millions in South Africa who do speak Afrikaans were not happy.

Steve Hofmeyr, who sings in Afrikaans, says the language boasts some of the best swear words and tells TimesLive that the “last university has just been wrenched from us”. South African website News 24 quotes another critic, the actor Tim Theron, saying Afrikaans is “not dying… there are new songs and poems being written every day, movies made etc”. Some commenters on Twitter accused have Charlize Theron of being “ashamed of her roots” or seeking validation from black people, while others welcomed her words because “Afrikaans has a strong association with apartheid” and was “once used to oppress Africans”. Afrikaans is highly politicised in South Africa because of its role during the decades of white-minority rule, or apartheid.

The imposition of the language in schools was the main reason behind the 1976 Soweto uprising against the apartheid regime, in which at least 170 people were killed, mostly schoolchildren. It is the mother tongue of 13% of South Africans – mainly white South African descendants of Dutch, German and French settlers who arrived in the 17th Century – as well as mixed-race people, who are known as coloureds in the country. During apartheid only English, Dutch and Afrikaans were official state languages and indigenous languages were suppressed, but when white-minority rule ended in 1994 South Africa adopted 11 official languages. These are Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenḓa and Xitsonga.