Before he could board a recent Ryanair flight to London, Dinesh Joseph, a 45-year-old South African leadership and management trainer, had to pass a test about South Africa to prove his nationality.
The test was in Afrikaans, a language once imposed by the former white-led apartheid government and one that many South Africans do not even speak today. When Mr. Joseph asked to take the test in English, he said, a Ryanair customer service agent told him: “No, this is your language.”
Mr. Joseph, who is an Indian descent and grew up in South Africa speaking English, said he thought he was a target of prank. “What on earth is this?” he asked himself
But Ryanair now requires South African passport holders traveling to the United Kingdom to fill out what the company described as a statement in “a simple questionnaire” in Afrikaans. Those unable to complete the questionnaire are not allowed to travel and have been issued a refund, the airline said in the statement.
The UK High Commission in Pretoria, which heads Britain’s diplomatic mission in South Africa, said on Twitter That test was not a UK government requirement.
In social media postings, South Africans have accused Ryanair of racism and ignorance for failing to grasp the historical connotations of the language. During the height of the struggle against white minority rule, Afrikaans was a crucial point of tension.
In its statement, the company, based in a low-cost airline in Dublin, cited a “high prevalence of fraudulent South African passports” and did not respond to questions about its choice of African or when it implemented the policy.
South Africa has more than 10 national languages today, but Zulu is the most widely spoken household language, with 23 percent using it. Afrikaans is third at 13 percent. (Second is Xhosa at 16 percent. English is the home language of 8 percent of South Africans.)
South African officials were disturbed by the move. “We are taken aback by the decision of this airline,” Siya Qoza, a spokeswoman for South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs, said in a statement.
South Africa has recently made some public cases of passport fraud, and Mr. Qoza said the government was working to put an end to this abuse. It has also given airlines access to systems that allow them to screen travelers and authenticate South African passports, he said.
“It is not clear to which extent the airline has used these services before resorting to this backward profiling system,” Mr. Said Qoza.
The questions on the airline’s nationality questionnaire, which has been seen by The New York Times, asked travelers the name of the president of South Africa, the phone code, and its national animal, flower and colors. “Name three of South Africa’s official languages,” one question reads.
With the help of Google translate, Mr. Joseph, the South African leadership trainer, managed to fill out the form and board the plane from the Spanish island of Lanzarote.
“But the indignity of pulling them out is a marking sheet, I just felt so small. I felt embarrassed, “he said. “They’ve taken no effort to understand South Africa as a nation.”
Sihawukele Ngubane, a professor of linguistics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said that Afrikaans originated with Dutch colonizers who arrived in the 17th century.
In the 20th century, he said, the African-speaking National Party government, which enforced apartheid, turned it into an official language, along with English, and imposed it on nine Indigenous languages that were spoken by the majority in South Africa.
Assessing South Africans by their knowledge of Afrikaans is unfair, Mr. Ngubane said, adding that a minority of South Africans speak it even as a second language. He said many still regard it as the language of the oppressor. “That connotation still exists.”
Word of Ryanair’s policy has emerged just ahead of the June 16 national holiday in South Africa that commemorates the 1976 Soweto uprisings. About 20,000 Black schoolchildren marched that year to protest the government’s effort to require all instruction be made in Afrikaans. They were dead with force by the police.
“How in 2022 are we having the same fights?” asked Petronia Reddy, a 36-year-old South African who missed her Ryanair flight from London to Dublin on June 1 because she was told she had “failed” her test in Afrikaans. (In his statement, Ryanair said the questionnaire was for those traveling to the UK)
“You can’t tell what a nation that has been through it has been and a brown person from South Africa that makes this form you South African” Ms. Reddy, who is an Indian descent, said in an interview. She made her documents available for the Times for review.
After she explained to staff members that South Africa has many official languages other than Afrikaans, the company eventually put her on the next flight, she said, but the humiliation stuck with her.
“You start thinking about every other time you’re discriminated against,” she said. “It’s just triggering. “
John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.