[lg policy] South Africa: OPINION: Why Afrikaans doesn’t qualify for special treatment at universities

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Dec 10 19:53:54 UTC 2015

OPINION: Why Afrikaans doesn’t qualify for special treatment at

The Conversation <http://ewn.co.za/Contributors/The-Conversation> | a day

*A closer look at the actual content of the constitutional right concerning
language in education.*

*This article first appeared on **The Conversation*

*[image: The Conversation] *

There is a fierce debate underway about the language of instruction at
Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Students protested
throughout 2015 against the use of Afrikaans as the institution’s main
language. This culminated in the university management deciding to adopt
as its primary language of instruction.

The Afrikaans language is widely used: it is the third most commonly
<http://www.southafrica.info/about/people/language.htm#afrikaans> spoken of
South Africa’s 11 official languages, after isiZulu and isiXhosa. But it
has a torrid history. It has not, two decades after the end of apartheid,
shaken off its association
<http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/june-16-soweto-youth-uprising> with that
system. Its critics argue that it continues to have a racially exclusionary
impact in, for example
Afrikaans language universities. Its defenders strongly fight
for the language’s place in the South African higher education sector.

Those opposing the change at Stellenbosch have invoked the country’s
Constitution, saying it guarantees everyone education in their mother
tongue. This suggests that Afrikaans-speaking communities have a
constitutional right to demand tertiary education in Afrikaans. This line
of argument also holds that a public university like Stellenbosch must
maintain the privileged status of Afrikaans, or at least afford it an equal
status with English.

In our view, the assumptions underlying these arguments are false. This
becomes apparent when examining the actual content
<http://www.gov.za/documents/constitution/chapter-2-bill-rights#29> of the
constitutional right concerning language in education. It is also crucial
to interpret this right in the context of the Constitution’s overall
purposes and values.

Section 29(1)(2) of the Constitution reads: Everyone has the right:

-     *to a basic education, including adult basic education; and*

-     *to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures,
must make progressively available and accessible.*

It continues:

*Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or
languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that
education is reasonably practicable. To ensure the effective access to, and
implementation of this right, the state must consider all reasonable
educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into

-     *equity;*

-     *practicability; and*

-     *the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws
and practices.*

This provision does not guarantee the unqualified right to mother tongue
education. It also doesn’t preclude the existence of single medium
institutions. And, importantly, it sets out very specific factors the state
must consider in implementing the right. These are equity, practicability
and the issue of redress.

*1. Equity*

Equality and social justice are the Constitution’s founding values. It
defines <http://www.gov.za/documents/constitution/chapter-2-bill-rights#9>
equality as including *the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and

This means that the right to higher education must be equally accessible to
all without any form of unfair discrimination. It must be delivered in a
way that allows everyone to participate equally.

This is not only a constitutional imperative. It is core to the teaching
project of any excellent university. A diverse body of staff and students
enables exposure to a variety of world views and experiences. It is vital
to the creation of new forms of knowledge and learning. If a language
policy in any way undermines the creation of a diverse, inclusive campus
community it impoverishes a university’s academic life.

Educational institutions, whether they are schools or universities, should
not function as static and insular entities. The broader community’s
interests must be taken into account, especially in light of the
Constitution’s values. The Constitutional Court made this clear in an important
judgment <http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZACC/2009/32media.pdf> about
language policy in public schools.

*2. Practicability*

‘Practicability’ in tertiary education includes a range of considerations
like budgetary constraints, the availability of staff to teach in
particular languages of choice, learning infrastructure and students’
language preferences.

Academics and university managements cannot simply ignore the reality that
growing numbers of students choose to be educated in English even when this
is not their mother tongue. In our discussions with students at
Stellenbosch University, two reasons have been offered in support of
English as the medium of instruction.

Firstly, it is a common language which enables shared communication both in
the classroom and in extra-curricular activities, residences and campus
social environments. It is also the de facto language of business,
politics, academia and law in South Africa and globally. A solid command of
English is essential to graduates’ future careers and their ability to
function effectively in a transformed South Africa as well as
multi-cultural global environments.

The second reason may be more difficult for sections of the Afrikaans
community to come to terms with. This relates to the language’s history and
its continued association with the apartheid era. More than 20 years into
the democratic dispensation, black students continue to testify to their
painful experiences of Afrikaans being used on Stellenbosch campus, in
residences and in the town to exclude and marginalise them.

*WATCH: ‘Luister’, a short documentary about black students’ experiences at
Stellenbosch University *

*3. Redress*

This is particularly relevant to Stellenbosch University. The institution,
many of its academics and former students contributed to the ideological,
political and economic underpinnings of apartheid
<http://mg.co.za/article/2013-06-08-rethinking-maties-apartheid-past>. It
did not challenge the injustices of apartheid.

The pace of racial change and redress at the institution has been glacially
slow since democracy dawned in 1994. As far as the Constitution’s demands
are concerned, there is still much to be done at Stellenbosch University to
ensure open and free access to tertiary education. This will not happen by
entrenching the language-dominated patterns of past privilege. It will be
driven through changes and reforms to open up the institution to a diverse
body of staff and students.

The admission of substantially more black students and the appointment of
more black staff must be the highest priority. This is not only to help
create a diverse campus community but because it gives effect to the
constitutional imperative to redress the racial injustices of apartheid.

The university’s language policy must support and promote this fundamental
constitutional objective, not constitute a barrier to it. All indications
are that this objective will not be achieved without a significant shift
towards English as the primary language of both teaching and official
interaction at the campus.

*Support needed*

Stellenbosch University’s management team is trying to create a language
policy that will offer pragmatic, sound solutions to this complex set of
issues. It is working with academic staff who are experts on language and
education, and in consultation with a broad range of student bodies. This
makes sense. Academic staff at a particular institution are best placed to
understand their students' needs, teaching principles in specific
disciplines and institutional constraints.

This is presumably why the Higher Education and Training Act
<http://www.che.ac.za/sites/default/files/publications/act101.PDF> does not
give university councils exclusive jurisdiction to determine language
policy, as is often mistakenly believed. It requires that such policy be
made with the concurrence of university senates - that is, bodies made up
primarily of academics.

Similar work is underway
at another historically Afrikaans institution, the University of the Free

These approaches are by no means perfect. But they are precisely the kind
of reasonable, pragmatic endeavours which we believe deserve support and
further engagement - not the condemnation coming from sections of the
Afrikaans community.

*Sandra Liebenberg is HF Oppenheimer Professor and Chair in Human Rights
Law, Stellenbosch University. AJ van der Walt is Distinguished Professor
Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch University *


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