South Africa: Taking the Taal to Task

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Dec 16 15:56:57 UTC 2006

Taking the taal to task

David Macfarlane

15 December 2006 09:09

For a man about to step into the torrid glare of the top job at
Stellenbosch University, Russel Botman exudes a surprising degree of
genial serenity. But then this is also the man of whom the Christian
magazine Lig said: Russel ry in die Here se kruiwa [Russel rides in the
Lords wheelbarrow]. God decides where I go next, he says, explaining the
magazine's metaphor, and he starts chuckling mid-sentence, even if I don't
want to go there. It clearly matters to him that, as he stresses, he was
nominated for the vice-chancellorship and only then submitted the
necessary documentation to the selection committee. That's how you know
the way you're going is the real way -- when others tell you to apply. And
He [God] will tell you, and others, more than you can yourself about where
next to go. This is high-level assistance indeed, and Botman will need all
the support he can get when he takes over the position Chris Brink vacates
next month.

Brink's surprise announcement in July that he had accepted the
vice-chancellorship of Newcastle University in England fuelled immediate
speculation that the fiery language debate at Stellenbosch had finally
taken too great a personal toll. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian at the
time, Brink conceded that the searingly emotive debate did contribute to
his decision to leave, but insisted that there was no single reason for
his departure. It is a measure of how central the language debate remains
at Stellenbosch that Botman himself raised it within minutes of starting
his interview with the M&G. He said he is due to report to the council on
Friday on how to re-open the process of revising the universitys language
policy, which had been halted during the search for Brinks successor.

The storm started in 2002, when Stellenbosch resolved to teach certain
programmes in English as well as Afrikaans. This looked like a politically
and pragmatically wise move, aimed especially at drawing more
non-Afrikaans-speaking African students to this traditional stronghold of
conservative white Afrikanerdom. But for precisely that constituency, the
policy looked like it would deal a mortal blow to Afrikaans. It was all
the more difficult to swallow because it came from a university that, in
the minds of Afrikaner conservatives, has a near-sacred mission to
preserve Afrikaner identity, which has been increasingly embattled since
1994. For the more worldly at the university, however, insisting that all
staff and students be proficient in Afrikaans would have been the
beginning of the end for Stellenbosch: the student intake would shrink
drastically, and the university would find it impossible to attract enough
top-quality academics. In June, the senate voted against insistence on
Afrikaans as the only teaching language.

Ominously, the entire issue will now be re-opened. Botman said: The very
basics will be debated again ... and I don't know how the issue will play
itself out. One thing that worries me is that people have not been talking
to each other, they've been talking past each other, often in newspapers.
Botman is no stranger to reconciliation. He is an ordained minister in the
Uniting Reformed Church, and he stresses the word uniting as he speaks. He
also observes that this church arose from the union of the once separate
Dutch Reformed churches for coloureds and Africans respectively -- and
were still hoping for unity with the white Dutch Reformed Church.

Another key factor in his background that should equip him to navigate the
minefield of race and politics in the language debate is his time at the
University of the Western Cape (UWC). As a student there he was active in
the SRC, and his CV notes his leadership role during the 1976 Soweto
uprising. It was also at UWC that he completed his bachelors, masters and
doctoral degrees, all in theology. He became dean of UWCs religion and
theology faculty in 1999, before joining Stellenbosch in 2002 as professor
of theology. For the past four years he has been deputy vice-chancellor.

Acutely aware of being Stellenbosch's first black vice-chancellor, he talks
of being dissatisfied with an institutional culture that is not welcoming
to blacks. I intend to tackle the existing dominant culture to make it
more inclusive, he says. This is likely to be only one of many uphill
struggles: currently 72% of students are white and only 14% coloured, 12%
African and 0,02% Indian.  The academic staff profile is even more
lopsided -- 86% white, 8% coloured, 2,6% African and 1,4% Indian. Says
Botman: We have to address black despair regarding higher education -- its
not an obvious choice for significant numbers, partly for financial
reasons and partly because black pupils often don't take school subjects
that get them into university. One of his first moves will be to establish
a first-year academy next year to identify those who are academically
vulnerable because of their disadvantaged backgrounds.

But for now the language debate looms. Whether in hope or in faith, he
observes: There must be a rational way to resolve it, as with any other
issue about university policy. And then, laughing: Academics are supposed
to be rational -- thats why they're there. He must be hoping that God is
holding his wheelbarrow very steady indeed.


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