CHE10 A South African university caught in a conflict between English and Afrikaans
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Aug 6 13:22:37 UTC 2004
>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education issue dated October 25, 2002
The New Boer War?
A South African university is caught in a conflict between English and
By HENK ROSSOUW
Stellenbosch, South Africa
A grinning student beckons to passers-by to sign his petition. He is
wearing khaki shorts and a bush hat, the uniform of a Boer, a white
19th-century pioneer. He has a pipe in his mouth, a comb stuck in his
socks pulled up to his knees, and a toy rifle slung over his shoulder. His
petition on a table near a campus food court asks that the University of
Stellenbosch continue to teach in his language, Afrikaans.
That may depend on which students the university admits. "It's about
numbers," says Maritz Buitdendag, taking the pipe out of his mouth. "The
more English-speaking students who come here, the more the university will
have to adapt."
"We don't want to adapt," says Isolde Joubert, an Afrikaner student
standing next to him, wearing a black lace shawl, typical dress for a
Since the release of an audit in July stating that teaching in Afrikaans
at Stellenbosch is diminishing, South Africans have been fiercely debating
what the university's future will hold. The government has been pressuring
the university to offer more courses in English to accommodate black
students, but the university council -- the equivalent of a board of
trustees -- has the final say. Although Stellenbosch is a public
institution, the government has not yet threatened to cut the university's
The pressure to use English comes from many sources other than the
government. Black students are attracted to the Afrikaans institution
because of its reputation for high educational standards, but often prefer
to hear their lectures in English. Some Afrikaans students also want to be
taught in both Afrikaans and English, and Stellenbosch graduate schools,
which draw students from around the world, use English as a lingua franca.
But students say that the impression the audit created is, in part, wrong:
Some courses were considered bilingual, but that often meant only that
students were allowed to ask questions and get their notes in English.
Bilingual classes are often taught mostly in Afrikaans.
In South Africa, as in many other countries, issues of identity,
and race are stirred into language conflicts. The University of
Stellenbosch carries a historical stigma as having been the intellectual
home of apartheid, but under a new liberal university president, it is
beginning to escape that perception. Some faculty members fear that in the
process of making over the university's image, they will lose Afrikaans, a
language that has been shaped by 350 years of South African history.
Afrikaans originated in the Dutch spoken by sailors on merchant ships that
landed on the southern tip of Africa in 1652. Over the years, as the
isolated descendants of the Dutch, called Afrikaners or Boers, colonized
the interior and lost touch with Europe, their language became less
formal, adopting vocabulary from the Indonesian slaves in their kitchens
and the native Khoi herders conscripted as farm laborers.
During Britain's wars against Napoleon, the British took control of the
Dutch colony. To escape British rule, which abolished slavery, many of the
Boers trekked deeper into the country. By 1902, the Boers had lost two
bitter wars against the British. Impoverished, many Afrikaners had to go
to the city and work alongside black Africans in the gold mines the
British had captured.
To compensate for their humiliation, Afrikaner intellectuals began a
movement in the 20th century to standardize and develop the Afrikaans
language. They formed academies and persuaded the government, now
independent from Britain, to recognize Afrikaans as a separate language.
The base of this movement, the University of Stellenbosch, became a center
of Afrikaner nationalism, teaching science, medicine, and law in the new
When the Afrikaner-dominated National Party won the 1948 election,
Afrikaans became the official language of the state. Before becoming
apartheid's most influential prime minister in 1958, Hendrik F. Verwoerd,
an Afrikaner, studied and taught psychology at Stellenbosch, where he
honed his theories on white supremacy. All subsequent prime ministers
under apartheid were either Stellenbosch alumni or served as ceremonial
heads of the institution.
The life of one Afrikaner academic neatly illustrates the conflicts facing
Stellenbosch since the end of apartheid.
Hermann Giliomee was 10 years old when the National Party came to power.
He heard no English growing up in the farming town of Porterville, where
his father was a schoolteacher and a member of the Broederbond, the
secretive Protestant fraternity that all ambitious Afrikaner nationalists
belonged to at the height of apartheid.
In 1956, Mr. Giliomee came to study history at Stellenbosch. The
university town, surrounded by acres of vineyards, had oak-lined
boulevards, and the campus buildings blended in with the thick,
whitewashed walls, curling gables, and green shutters of the 18th-century
Cape Dutch architecture.
He spent 16 years teaching history at his alma mater. Despite his father's
expectations, he broke with tradition for an Afrikaner boy from an elite
family and did not join the Broederbond. He went abroad for fellowships at
Yale University, the University of Cambridge, and the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, in Washington.
In 1987, when Mr. Giliomee was a professor of political studies at the
University of Cape Town, he traveled with a group of Afrikaner academics
who had risked arrest by the apartheid government when they flew in secret
to Dakar, Senegal. For the first time Afrikaner intellectuals talked
freely with the banned African National Congress, the black liberation
movement in exile.
At the talks Mr. Giliomee argued that Afrikaners shouldn't put all their
trust in black majority rule, and told fellow Afrikaner academics that
they needed to find ways to preserve Afrikaner culture. When they
returned, crowds of Afrikaners fearing the loss of their language and
economic privileges gathered at the airport to vilify the academics for
talking to the ANC, but the disintegration of apartheid had already begun.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela, the long-imprisoned ANC leader, was freed.
In 1996, Mr. Mandela, now South Africa's president, accepted an honorary
doctorate at the University of Stellenbosch. At the ceremony, in perfect
Afrikaans, he said: "This institution has left its unmistakable imprint on
our country's troubled history, a history whose scars still show." But Mr.
Mandela also assured his audience that, as long as black students weren't
shut out, he wanted to protect Stellenbosch's right to teach primarily in
The Language Bull
In the years since Mr. Mandela stepped down as president, the minister of
education, Kader Asmal, has often expressed his fear that black students
cannot enter Stellenbosch because they cannot speak Afrikaans. Xhosa,
Zulu, and Sotho students, who usually cannot speak the language, make up
only about 4 percent of freshmen. Black students who have mixed-race
ancestry, part slave or native Khoi and part white, who are about 13
percent of freshman, usually do have Afrikaans as a mother tongue. But
this year, 82 percent of Stellenbosch freshmen are white in a country
where 86 percent of the population is black or mixed race. Mr. Asmal has
put public pressure on Stellenbosch to offer more courses in English.
Mr. Giliomee ridicules Mr. Asmal's request. The reason so many African
universities have failed, he says, is that they became replicas of the
culture of the elites in government, who believe in one party, one
history, one language. In recent years he has been promoting the use of
Afrikaans throughout South Africa, earning himself the nickname taalbul,
or language bull, in the Afrikaans newspapers where he is a prolific
Other Afrikaner intellectuals who were with Mr. Giliomee at Dakar don't
feel their language has been threatened by English speakers since the end
of apartheid. Indeed, Afrikaans literature and theater are widely regarded
as flourishing. Andre Brink, a Afrikaner novelist and a professor of
literature at the University of Cape Town, says that so often the passion
of Afrikaner academics about their language is really a concern with lost
power. Even Mr. Giliomee recognizes that political weakness: "Our struggle
for language rights is seen as nostalgic Afrikaner nationalism."
After a 20-year break, Mr. Giliomee began teaching again at Stellenbosch
in 1999. He is dismayed by the language audit conducted this past July
that found that only 12 percent of graduate courses and 42 percent of
undergraduate courses were still taught strictly in Afrikaans, mostly on
the upper levels. Half of graduate courses and 11 percent of undergraduate
courses were taught only in English.
The rest of the courses are offered in both languages or are taught in
Afrikaans with some English permitted.
Faculty members are divided on the language issue. Many of them are
Afrikaans and would prefer to teach in their mother tongue, and
translating notes into English uses up time that they would rather spend
on research. But over the last 10 years, teaching in English has made it
easier to recruit students for cash-strapped departments and graduate
schools, helping to keep faculty members employed.
Mr. Giliomee's only course is for a group of international history
students, whom he must teach in English. His office on campus looks out
onto a square with a statue of the university's Afrikaner founder in the
center. Drawing on a study of Canadian universities by the French-Canadian
academic Jean A. Laponce, a professor emeritus of political science at the
University of British Columbia, Mr. Giliomee states that bilingualism in
South African universities will inevitably lead to all courses being
taught in the dominant language, English.
"Afrikaans will be wiped out as a medium of tertiary education in 10
years," says Mr. Giliomee, his hair wispy and pure white. "It is like an
A Student's Struggle
A black student also feels strongly about language at the university but
has different views about the fate of Afrikaans. Almost half a century
after Mr. Giliomee arrived on campus, Kgabo Phillip Mokoti enrolled at the
University of Stellenbosch. Walking the oak-lined avenues at night -- he
had no car -- he was frequently stopped by the police for the first two
years of his studies.
His father grew up on a white-owned farm in Pietersburg, in the far north
of South Africa, and went to school for four years before the white farmer
told him he was now old enough, at age 10, to work on the land. He got
paid in food, not wages.
Mr. Mokoti's father kept his family of seven children going during
apartheid by reupholstering cars. More than anything, his father wanted
his youngest son to have what he did not -- the right to vote and a
During his senior year of high school in 1999, Mr. Mokoti sent
applications to study business at the three best institutions in South
Africa -- the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Cape
Town, and the University of Stellenbosch. Only Stellenbosch responded to
his letter. He couldn't afford the fees, but the university offered him a
loan. Stellenbosch admits black students who cannot speak Afrikaans,
despite a longstanding policy that states that the university mainly
teaches in Afrikaans. That policy is now under review. However, the
discrepancy between language policy and admissions is not new: Large
numbers of white English-speaking students willing to learn in Afrikaans
have been admitted to the university since 1975.
He knew the university taught in Afrikaans, which he couldn't speak. If he
wanted the best, he remembers thinking, he had no choice at all, he had to
try and learn. Sometimes white students didn't want to sit next to him or
people raised their voices as if it would help him to understand what they
His father told him that he shouldn't care how he got treated, as long as
he got a good education.
Rise of a Politician
In his first year he took a course in Afrikaans, because he expected that
by his second year he would be taught only in Afrikaans or in bilingual
courses where Afrikaans would be dominant. No university in South Africa
offers courses in his mother tongue, Sepedi, except to teach the language
He doesn't foresee regular college courses being taught in any other black
language either in his lifetime, he says.
In a management accounting course, he makes notes in English while his
lecturer speaks in Afrikaans. She makes a joke, the class laughs, but he
doesn't get it. He doesn't understand a lot of the terminology, so he
concentrates on matching the right calculation to the right word, even if
he doesn't know what it means. At home he goes through his textbook with a
Mr. Mokoti is doing well and tries not to be bitter, but sometimes
studying in Afrikaans, the language that reminds many black people of
their humiliation under apartheid, gets to him.
"I pay the same fees," he says, "but I work twice as hard."
Black students tend to keep their heads down here, he says, but not him --
he talks too much. When he walks around campus, many white students
recognize the short black guy they know by the common Afrikaans nickname
his grandfather gave him, "Oupa." "I feel good here," Mr. Mokoti says.
Older Afrikaans students and faculty members encouraged him this year to
go into university politics. For the election he put up campaign posters
with a photograph of him posing next to a statue of a revered Afrikaner
alumnus with the caption: "Two Stellenbosch legends."
He has campaigned for at least 50 percent of courses to be in English
only, not just bilingual, because he worries about the large number of
black students who have dropped out because they couldn't cope with
studying in Afrikaans. Despite that stand, large numbers of white students
voted for him. He is now the first black member of the Stellenbosch
student council in the history of the university.
At first he almost failed his Afrikaans subjects, but he has made it to
his third and final year and is a few months away from graduation. An
accounting firm has already offered him a job.
Afrikaans' Last Stand?
Chris Brink, president of Stellenbosch since this past February, says
students like Mr. Mokoti are an example of how teaching at his university
in a fully developed academic language like Afrikaans can give black
students who can't find places in the top English universities another
chance rather than shut them out of quality higher education.
Mr. Brink heard no English when he grew up in the parched, desert town of
Upington, and he studied at Rand Afrikaans University, in Johannesburg.
One of South Africa's top mathematicians, he spent two years as a deputy
president focusing on research at the University of Wollongong, in
Australia, before being appointed president of Stellenbosch.
As in his own career, Mr. Brink wants undergraduate Stellenbosch students
to be taught as much as possible in Afrikaans. "We should have confidence
in Afrikaans," he says. He wants the students to be able to work and study
anywhere in the world, but the university can prepare them for that, he
says. Critical-thinking skills can be taught in any language, he says, and
are the most essential component of a good education. He realizes that
Stellenbosch is an Afrikaans university but says that graduates need to be
fluent in English to compete in the international job market, so he is
encouraging both Afrikaans and English students to become fluent in the
Mr. Brink is pragmatic and clear. Out of the four former Afrikaans
universities, Stellenbosch is the only one where Afrikaans is still in the
majority. He wants to keep it that way, while clarifying exactly what will
happen in classes. He often gets letters from parents saying they didn't
know the university taught in Afrikaans.
"Confusion worries me," he says.
A language committee Mr. Brink has appointed is trying to clear up the
confusion, and has produced a draft plan, now under debate. The draft plan
recommends that undergraduate courses continue to be taught chiefly in
Afrikaans and that undergraduate subjects now taught only in English
should be scrapped, unless a course on the same subject can also be taught
in Afrikaans. But in general, the committee recommends that the university
become more bilingual, with all lecture notes and examination questions
available in both languages.
Some of the black students now enrolling at Stellenbosch are descendants
of mixed parentage, part slave or native Khoi and part white. Such
"colored" students are 9 percent of the country's population, and speak
Afrikaans at home. As a mostly working-class, inner-city, or rural
minority, these students have the least access to higher education.
A black Afrikaans-speaking man who teaches high school in a town near
Stellenbosch, where many of its white students come from, says he can
count on his fingers the number of his colored students who, in his
18-year career, have gone to Stellenbosch.
"We must open the gates of paradise," Mr. Brink says of diversity on
campus, "Not just to let those outside come in, but also let those inside
Unlike the older Afrikaner generation, he says, current Stellenbosch
students have little angst about loss of power: All they ask for is a
system that works.
But emotions among alumni and others who fear that usage of Afrikaans is
dwindling are running high. At a campus debate over language use recently,
one member of the Pro-Afrikaans Action Group was carrying a bundled-up
flag with the orange, white, and blue colors of the old apartheid state.
Mr. Brink noticed the flag, but he let the man speak. Sitting next to the
Afrikaner nationalist, a black journalism student said he didn't feel
threatened by the anachronistic symbol. When the Afrikaner spoke, he did
not unfurl his flag.
Volume 49, Issue 9, Page A42
Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
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