South Africa: Language debate shows TRC's spirit of reconciliation falls short

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 1 14:48:15 UTC 2006

Language debate shows TRC's spirit of reconciliation falls short

By Hanru Niemand

This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the start of the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC has arguably been a defining
moment in South African history, both pre- and post-apartheid. Indeed, the
images associated with it are of the most memorable in recent years,
ranked with Nelson Mandela's 1990 release from prison, the first
democratic elections and the presidential inauguration, both in 1994. Some
would add it stands alongside the moment when Francois Pienaar raised
aloft the 1995 Rugby World Cup. I do not wish to debate the success of the
TRC in terms of how it has dealt with the apartheid past. Instead I
believe another question is pertinent, namely, to what extent has the TRC
influenced the way different cultures live peacefully as one nation (after
years of conflict and division)?

In this regard I believe the present language debate at Stellenbosch
University to be very important. The jump from the TRC to the language
debate is not as big as one might suspect, because the spirit of
reconciliation has much to do with how one comes to a debate. The current
language debate is a prime example of how not to debate. On the one side
the so-called T-optionists argue for a dual medium language policy in the
arts faculty. They characterise their opponents, the A-optionists, as
longing for a disguised form of Afrikaner nationalism. Conversely, the
T-optionists are vilified as selling out Afrikaans in a misguided effort
to stay in the ANC's good books.

Consequently, both are blind to the point the other is trying to make,
unable to address the valid questions and concerns of the other party.
Now, of course there are exceptions to my characterisation of the debate,
but I believe it to be valid in general. And don't think that bad debating
is just an Afrikaner affliction. The English commentary I have read on
this debate has been woefully one-sided. A debate, particularly a serious
debate about issues that are important to those involved, is in essence a
multi-cultural situation.  Both sides are arguing from positions or frames
of reference that are fundamentally indefensible on rational grounds. Yet,
although ultimately indefensible, these positions, these world views are
what we believe in.

They are part of a heritage or culture we buy into, and accept as our own.
This culture can be as specific as the teachings of your father, or as
broad as the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we see issues such as the
language debate as a multi-cultural issue, there are certain implications
on how to handle such debates.  First, accept that the debate is important
to the participants. It is a question of beliefs, which go to the essence
of our existence. And although we cannot rationally justify our beliefs,
they are nonetheless important.

Just because I cannot logically prove that Jesus is my saviour, this
belief (that I, incidentally hold to be true) is nonetheless central to my
life. I sometimes derive the impression that it is no longer fashionable
to believe passionately in something, unless it is in freedom of speech.
This attitude is fatal to any successful multi-cultural approach to
differences. If something is of the utmost importance, it is certainly not
enough to just have the right to be heard. No, what one wants is that
one's view be taken to heart.

Yet this is exactly what the other party cannot do. Thinking from another
background, his interpretation of the other party's point is necessarily
going to be a misinterpretation, a distortion. This is the core dilemma of
a multi-cultural context. Yet perplexing though such a dilemma may be, all
is not lost. How one comes to the debating table can make a big
difference. If one approaches with the humility of knowing the uncertainty
of one's own position, and at least a bona fide willingness to understand,
then one can recognise the similar effort in the way the other party comes
to the table.

Then there is a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation in the light of
the misconceptions and distortions of which both will necessarily be
guilty. Then the issue changes from a conflict to a joint venture in
finding a solution. Why did I choose to discuss the language debate at
Stellenbosch University? Certainly there are other fiery debates raging in
South Africa. I chose it because of its obscurity. One of the worst ways
to come to a multi-cultural issue is not to come at all. I am truly
offended by statements that the Afrikaans language debate is just a white
man's concern. As if the issue as to the place of a language in our
diverse country concerns only the speakers of that language (who,
incidentally, are by no means exclusively white).

As if this issue does not pertain to this country's ideal of respecting
diversity. As if it does not touch on what the new South Africa is really
about. That is, truly being a country for all. The way in which the
language debate has been handled by South Africans in general and
Afrikaans speakers in particular, shows that the spirit of reconciliation
has not trickled down from the TRC. What is needed now is for our
country's leadership to realise the need to start creating a climate of
forgiveness and goodwill in the face of cultural diversity.

In psychology, we know that bitterness and resentment are some of the
emotions that create the most persistent distress in an individual.  I do
not think it is ridiculous to suppose that a country (dare we call it a
nation?) characterised by these emotions will likewise be in distress. If
we do not make a serious effort to literally educate all our country's
people regarding the ethics of multi-cultural issues, then I fear the TRC
could have been in vain. We will have traded our isolation in apartheid
for a country of many small "isolations". Is that a rainbow nation?

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