[lg policy] South Africa: Defusing Jansen language bomb

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Oct 6 19:47:54 UTC 2013

Defusing Jansen language bomb

October 5 2013 at 03:23pm
By Jacques du Preez

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Professor Jonathan Jansens remarks on the need for instruction in English
only was a potential threat to the countrys racial relations, says the
writer. Picture: Doctor Ngobo

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*We accept the explanation that Prof Jeremy Jansen was misquoted as
exclusive use of English poses a threat to racial relations, writes Jacques
du Preez*

Johannesburg - Remarks by Professor Jonathan Jansen – rector of the
University of the Free State – in the Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture to
the English Academy of South Africa on September 18, have caused a furore
in Afrikaans cultural and educational circles. They have been widely
interpreted as a call for English-only education and as a claim that
“Afrikaans-exclusive or even Afrikaans-dominant white schools and
universities represent a threat to race relations in South Africa”.

Jansen said “one major solution to the long-term resolution of the crisis
in education” would be to “instruct every teacher and every child in
English from the first day of school rather than add to the burden of poor
instruction in the mother-tongue in the foundation years to the trauma of
transition to English later on”.

Jansen has insisted that “his careful argument on language in education has
been distorted to create a media hype”.

Nevertheless, it may be helpful to remind participants in the debate about
what the constitution says regarding language and education.

Section 6(1) of the Founding Provisions of the Constitution enshrines
English – along with 10 other languages – as one of the official languages
of the republic. No one disputes that it would be unconstitutional for any
school (or academic institution) to implement exclusivity on the basis of
race and, similarly, if it was unfair, on the basis of language. Neither
does anyone dispute the idea that English is the lingua franca and thus, as
Jansen proposes, should be the language of reconciliation.

However, Jansen’s proposal that a long-term solution to the education
crisis would be exclusive English education – from the foundation phase –
cannot be reconciled with the constitution’s provision for multilingualism
and for the space that it clearly provides for education in any of our
official languages – also in single-medium education institutions.

It can also not be reconciled with UFS’s language policy – which is based
on recognition of the language provisions in the constitution.

Section 29(2) of the Bill of Rights states that everyone has the right to
receive education in public educational institutions in the official
language or languages of their choice, where that education is reasonably

Consequently, the state must consider all reasonable educational
alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account
equity, practicality and the need to redress the results of past racially
discriminatory laws and practices.

Section 29(3)(a) of the Bill of Rights is clear: Everyone has the right to
establish and maintain, at their own expense, independent educational
institutions, as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race.

The South African Schools Act of 1996 – which applies to all school
education in the republic – defines in clear terms [Section 6(2)] that the
governing bodies of public schools determine the language policy of such
schools, subject to the constitution, the Schools Act and any other
applicable provincial legislation. The caveat on school governing bodies’
prerogative to determine such language policy can be found in Section 6(3),
which determines that no form of racial discrimination may be practised
when a language policy is established according to this article (of the

Where a governing body fulfils its duties and powers in a legal manner
concerning the determination of a language policy and the policy is
consistent with the constitution, it can hardly be said unfair
discrimination will follow.

Poor mother-tongue education is indeed a problem (but this is seldom the
case in Afrikaans schools). It has also been shown – fairly conclusively –
that mother-tongue education during the first six to seven years of
schooling achieves far better outcomes than education in a second language
– even with regard to learning the second language (English) in high

The poor state of mother-tongue teaching could be addressed by carrying out
the provisions of Section 6(2) of the constitution, which “because of the
historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our
people” requires the state to “take practical and positive measures to
elevate the status and advance the use of these languages”. Mother-tongue
education in these languages and the development of infrastructure in this
regard could be viewed as a form of practical and positive measures to
increase the status and use of those languages.

Also, the root of the educational crisis is not primarily the language of
education, but the failure of policy. If we hypothesise that only English
were to be used in our education system as the medium of education, it
still would not help with the education crisis in the long term.
Particularly if pupils are without textbooks halfway through the academic
year, without computers or electricity, without basic sanitation, without
proper classrooms – and with teachers who do not have basic reading or
writing skills – whether in English or any other language. In this regard
Jansen is correct: a race and class-based system of exclusion is
detrimental to poor, black students. This (and other problems within the
education system) touch on the failure of education policy and have nothing
to do with language in a constitutional order in which all South Africans
enjoy equal language rights.

We cannot accept that it was Jansen’s intention to express views that are
so much at variance with the constitution, his own university’s policy and
with his own laudable record in promoting reconciliation and positive
relations between our communities.

Surely, in the light of the tragic experience of 1976, he did not mean that
schoolchildren should once again be forced to study in a language they do
not regard as their own? We must accept his explanation that “he was
misquoted” and that “media hype” is to blame.

* Advocate Jacques du Preez is a director of the FW de Klerk Foundation.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent


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