[lg policy] South Africa: Black students’ dissent on Afrikaans campuses is about more than just language policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Nov 3 16:01:49 UTC 2015

Black students’ dissent on Afrikaans campuses is about more than just
language policy

in Opinion <http://www.thedailyvox.co.za/category/blogs/>, Slider
<http://www.thedailyvox.co.za/category/top-stories/> 3 hours ago

*The student movements that emerged at Tuks, NWU-Pukke and Stellenbosch
University (SU) in the days before #FeesMustFall protests, challenged the
privileges of whiteness at campuses where Afrikaans is a medium of
instruction. The tendency was to reduce students’ dissent to just a matter
of language. But this would be an injustice, writes PONTSHO PILANE.*

A while ago, I interviewed an Afrikaans-speaking student from
NWU-Pukke who *felt
that it was unfair for black students at the campus to demand
transformation on the campus*
She said there are many universities in South Africa that have English as a
medium of instruction and that those who don’t want to learn in Afrikaans
should go there.

The perspective that Afrikaans-only spaces should continue to exist is not
the problem – it is the expectancy that these spaces should exist at the
cost of the inclusion of black students that is a cause for concern.

These language policy debates are nothing new; they have been happening *since
the early days of our democracy*
Speaking at Stellenbosch University in 1996, Nelson Mandela said, “The real
issues is not the extermination or preservation of Afrikaans as an academic
medium.” Rather, he said, the question is:

   - how to create and maintain an environment for Afrikaans to continue
   growing as a language of scholarship and science, while
   - ensuring that non-Afrikaans speakers are not unjustly deprived of
   access within the system, and that
   - the use and development of a single language medium should never,
   either intentionally or unintentionally, be made the basis for the
   furtherance of racial, ethnic or narrow cultural separation

Scrapping Afrikaans as an exclusive medium of instruction at universities,
in order to make them more accessible to all South Africans, would not mean
the death of the language or the culture. If this were the case, there
would already be nine other dead languages and cultures in this country.

This fear is unwarranted and it is a distraction from the bigger issues of
white privilege and how it lingers on even in universities, the very spaces
where young South Africans are told they are equal, regardless of their
race, class or gender.

*RELATED:** NWU VC: “Transformation is not aiming at killing Afrikaans”*

There is an experience that every black student has in common – the subtle,
but very real presence of your blackness. We are the ones whose parents
don’t have university degrees and the ones who often don’t have lecturers
that look like us. I am a student at a predominantly black university yet
whiteness still seeps through and reminds me of my place –  in addition
to the financial burden of university, I have no academic support from my
family because my parents never went to university. Imagine what it must be
like for black students at Stellenbosch and Pukke, where they are in a
minority? I can only imagine how suffocating that environment is.

I would love to learn in my mother tongue, but because of the imperialist
and colonialist way this country was set up, I am not afforded that
privilege. There are no universities where I can be taught in Setswana.

If black people, who are the majority and the most disenfranchised people
in this country, can forsake their own languages to learn in English, then
white Afrikaner people, who benefitted and continue to benefit from their
disenfranchisement, can do the same. And they should.

To reduce the experiences of the SU and Pukke students to an attack on
Afrikaans is lazy and arrogant. But it’s easier to do that than to honestly
consider how one would have benefitted and continues to benefit from their

The students behind movements like #RhodesMustFall, #TransformWits and
#OpenStellenbosch, and the nascent Reform Puk are tired of empty promises.
I guess the beauty of youth is that impatience comes with it.

To ask the students at Stellenbosch, UCT, Wits, the university currently
known as Rhodes and now Pukke to express their hurt and anger in ways that
will make the system that oppresses them comfortable is the highest form of
violence. Yet there is an inherent expectation that the process of
transformation should happen at no cost to whiteness. This cannot and will
not happen.


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