[lg policy] South Africa: BOBROSKE: Apartheid Lingers in Language Division

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Oct 2 15:20:22 UTC 2015

 BOBROSKE: Apartheid Lingers in Language Division
Oh The Places You'll Go

Language is the foundation for community and culture. It allows us to
communicate, learn and collaborate with one another, but it can also be
exploited as a means to enforce segregation. The case of Stellenbosch
University in South Africa shows the power language can have as a tool or
as a weapon. Over the past few months, Stellenbosch has been ground zero in
the South African language war in terms of both emotion and even violence.
Until the fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, Stellenboch University
was a predominantly white Afrikaner university. While the Afrikaner
language was originally weaponized to uphold apartheid, the country
eventually adopted 11 official languages. Over the past two decades, the
university has slowly been integrating English with the goal of it
eventually reaching equal academic footing with Afrikaans. For example,
some classes are offered on parallel language tracks and others are offered
as bilingual.

Unfortunately, many primary and secondary English-speaking students —
blacks, whites and Indians — feel Stellenbosch University is moving too
slowly to institutionalize English equally. Instead of using language as a
force for progress, they feel the university is using Afrikaans as an
apartheid relic that obstructs their academic opportunities.

Open Stellenbosch, an organization pushing for change, regularly organizes
protests on the Rooiplein — the equivalent of Georgetown’s Red Square. It
created a documentary in August called “Luister” (Listen) highlighting
stories of more than 30 students and faculty members who have faced
discrimination. In academic settings, some students cannot understand the
professor while other professors do not translate their Afrikaans lecture
slides to English. Because classes are only 50-minute periods, every moment
of confusion takes a toll. There are also stories of discrimination in
everyday life, such as being subjected to racial slurs, or excluded at bars
by bouncers for not being white. These serious allegations caused a
national and political thunderstorm as both of South Africa’s major
political parties called for investigations at the university and demanded

Reform is a popular buzzword, but it is much easier said than done.
Reconciling and building a diverse nation after a half century of apartheid
— literally, apartness — to include 11 national languages in education,
business and government is not an easy task. To ensure that diverse
identities are complementary identities under one unified South Africa
rather than competing identities that split the country apart is an
incredibly difficult domestic task for a country to face.
Stellenbosch University’s administration must use its finite resources to
carefully prioritize which classes should receive more professors
instructing in different languages. It must determine how to change
curriculums to make classrooms a place for discussion and learning, leaving
room for flexibility in the case that someone can’t understand everything
said, rather than adhering to a model of lecturing all the course material
so that one must understand everything said to pass exams.

Most importantly, the language policy at Stellenbosch cannot be seen as a
battle of good versus evil. This is a dangerous path, but it’s one that
some students have already taken. Afrikaans being institutionalized to
uphold apartheid is a form of racism, but Afrikaans being spoken in an
academic setting and not being systematically used to exclude students is
not apartheid.

Violent exploitation of issues like language to appease political ideas is
not new to South Africa. The Economic Freedom Fighter is a radical Marxist
political party known for its bright red uniforms and disruptive protests.
Following “Luister,” EFF members and student supporters blocked
predominantly white students from entering a testing site at another
college in Stellenbosch. They proceeded to violently assault students with
whips. The result? White students, especially Afrikaners, were in fear.
These acts impede reconciliation and dialogue in South Africa.

While abroad, I’ve had the opportunity to make friends from all different
ethnicities and language backgrounds, and I’ve heard diverse opinions on
Open Stellenbosch and transformation at the university. Some feel it is
completely necessary to allow students of all backgrounds to reach their
full potential. Others, including English speakers, quite frankly believe
Open Stellenbosch is just making unnecessary noise.

Clearly the language policy and transformation at Stellenbosch go far
beyond signing a decree on paper to properly ensure students of all
backgrounds receive an equal education and an equal opportunity to unlock
their potentials.

What’s happening in Stellenbosch can serve as a learning experience here at
Georgetown. For example, I have heard an argument against Casa Latina that
creating a house for Spanish-speaking Hoyas to converse in their native
tongue will lead to self-segregation. Is it not possible to have multiple,
complementary identities? Do you yourself not feel various amounts of
salience and loyalties to overlapping communities — your family, community,
school and nation? Is it seriously not possible to be a Baptist and a
Democrat? Gay and Republican? A Spanish speaker and a patriotic citizen of
the United States?

If Stellenbosch is to achieve the transformation it aims for, and if
Georgetown is to be a welcoming home for Hoyas of all backgrounds, we all
must adhere to the virtues of patience and dialogue. It is the only way we
will unlock the potentials in ourselves and in one another.


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