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Ryanair critics call European airline racist for ‘colonial’ flier test

The airline says a questionnaire written in Afrikaans helps it screen for passport fraud in the U.K.

A Ryanair plane takes off. (santirf/iStock)
4 min

Ryanair, Europe’s largest airline, is facing accusations of racism for requiring South African customers to prove their citizenship by taking a written test in Afrikaans, a derivative of the Dutch language developed by European colonists.

Officials at the Dublin-based airline say they are using the test to avoid transporting passengers to the United Kingdom on fake passports. But some South Africans have criticized the policy as racist, saying that the nation officially recognizes 11 languages and that many in the country do not speak Afrikaans. The U.K. High Commission in South Africa tweeted Friday that the test “is not a UK Government requirement.”

The testing policy has caused anger among travelers after reports circulated online. South African language authorities have also denounced the questionnaire.

Ryanair says the Afrikaans test helps the company protect itself from transporting people who use fake passports. The airline does not operate flights to South Africa. The policy applies to South African nationals traveling within Europe.

“The South African Govt has already warned passengers (and airlines) of the risk of syndicates selling fake SA passports, which has substantially increased cases of fraudulent South African passports being used to enter the UK,” the budget airline said in an emailed statement Wednesday. “In order to minimise the risk of fake passport usage, Ryanair requires passengers on a South African passport to fill out a simple questionnaire in the Afrikaans language.”

If passengers cannot complete it, they will not be permitted to travel and will be issued a refund, the statement said.

Ryanair said airlines that allow passengers to fly on fraudulent visas are subject to a fine of roughly $2,500 per offender. “This is why Ryanair must ensure that all passengers (especially South African citizens) travel on a valid SA passport/visa as required by UK Immigration,” the statement said.

Andries W. Coetzee, a professor of linguistics and the director of the African Studies Center at the University of Michigan, said Afrikaans has strong ties to South Africa’s colonial history and an apartheid regime that institutionalized white supremacy.

Coetzee said the majority of South Africans do not speak Afrikaans, “so, it makes absolutely no sense to use that as a measurement of whether you are South African or not.” In 2011 census data shared by Statistics South Africa, 13.5 percent of the population said Afrikaans was their first language, trailing IsiZulu (22.7 percent) and IsiXhosa (16 percent) in that year’s data.

In 1925, the South African government made Afrikaans an official language, Coetzee said, and it became the language of politics to a large extent, a status that was reinforced after apartheid became the “official political system of the country” in 1948. While the language was at one time required in schools, he said, the majority of students who take the language now are those who speak it at home or those of European descent who speak English at home.

“If you are a Black citizen of South Africa who came of age and went to school after 1994, chances are that you don’t know Afrikaans because you don’t have to know Afrikaans,” Coetzee said. He called Ryanair’s policy “colonial, discriminatory and just unjustified.”

Coetzee noted that there are two socioethnic varieties of Afrikaans and that about half of the Afrikaans-speaking population are non-White.

“It would be inaccurate to say only White people speak the language,” he said.But what would be accurate is to say 80 percent of the population do not speak Afrikaans, and that 80 percent are basically all non-White.”

Anne-Maria Makhulu, an associate professor of cultural anthropology and African and African American Studies at Duke University, said, “I think that there’s a language politics here, and that that language politics is insensitive to what underlies it, which is a race politics.”

Makhulu added that the fact that Zulu is more widely spoken in the country also highlights the implications of the test. “There’s a latent assumption there about what represents South African authenticity,” she said.