This paper offers a critique of language rights discourse in the context of South Africa's process of democratic transformation. Drawing on Bourdieu (1991, 1997), I argue that language is not politically neutral, but a socio-political mechanism that shapes power relations. Using this framework, I discuss the post-apartheid gap between language policy and practice. I acknowledge the role that language rights activism has played in raising awareness of how this gap creates impediments for democratic transformation, but I argue that a tendency to rely too heavily on negative constructions of English limits the effectiveness of language rights discourse. I identify three metaphoric images that have a lot of currency for constructing the power of English negatively: English is a 'linguistic poacher,' English is a 'gatekeeper,' English is a 'colonizer of the mind'. I discuss the epistemological and political limitations of theories of language and empowerment that use these metaphors to disengage with the notion that the power of English can be harnessed by native speakers of African languages. I conclude with a series of recommendations for creating a discourse that is more effective in challenging linguistic inequality in South Africa.