[lg policy] South Africa: Mixed reactions to new university language policies

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jul 9 10:44:11 EDT 2016

Mixed reactions to new university language policies
Munyaradzi Makoni08 July 2016 Issue No:421

Following serial protests over the use of Afrikaans as a language of
instruction, the universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch last month
adopted new language policies. The moves have raised the ire of Afrikaans
rights groups who accuse the institutions of turning their backs on
Afrikaners and their language.

In a statement, the Stellenbosch University council said the new language
policy supports multilingualism without excluding students who are not
proficient in either Afrikaans or English. The two languages will enjoy
equal status from the beginning of next year, it said.

At the University of Pretoria, meanwhile, English has been made the primary
medium of instruction and assessment.

George Steyn, Stellenbosch council chair, said the revised language policy
recognises the university as a national asset and reaffirms its commitment
to the users of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa – the three official
languages of Western Cape province.

“The institution uses its languages of choice to ensure that no student or
staff member is excluded from actively participating in its activities,” he

The university said the policy confirms that Stellenbosch is committed to
engaging with knowledge in a diverse society. It gives effect to the
Constitution of South Africa in relation to language usage in the academic,
administrative, professional and social contexts of the university, and
advances the institution’s own vision of being inclusive, innovative and

*Practicability versus multilingualism*

The Stellenbosch student representative council or SRC said in a statement
that the decision fosters inclusivity on the campus.

“The SRC would like to reiterate that it does not believe that this is a
decision against any particular grouping, or the death of Afrikaans but
rather… the university trying to take a well-balanced decision to tackle
the issue of multilingualism in South Africa,” said James de Villiers of
the SRC.

“It is our belief that the document strikes a difficult balance between
practicability and the need for multilingualism.”

Student movements like Open Stellenbosch led a series of protests last year
slamming what was seen as the special treatment of Afrikaans at the

Tempers ran high with those opposing the change at Stellenbosch arguing
that South Africa’s Constitution guaranteed everyone education in their
mother tongue, implying that Afrikaans-speaking communities had a
constitutional right to demand tertiary education in Afrikaans.

*Equal participation*

However, this view has been challenged by Stellenbosch University’s
Professor Sandra Liebenberg who said the Constitution puts equal access at
the core of education.

“[The Constitution] 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,” Liebenberg said, according to *BusinessTech*.

“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.”

At least one Stellenbosch council member resigned after the new language
policy was passed.

University councils at Stellenbosch and Pretoria have in the past resisted
moves to force universities to change their main language of teaching to

AfriForum, a non-governmental organisation which promotes the protection of
Afrikaans culture, is on record as saying it will fight for the right to
retain Afrikaans-only institutions, pointing out that any move towards a
dual-medium scenario in the past has ultimately led to a school or
university becoming exclusively English.

*Case of Pretoria*

Meanwhile, the council of the University of Pretoria announced that its new
language policy, which makes English the primary medium of instruction,
will facilitate social cohesion and promote inclusivity.

For students already registered, Afrikaans would be phased out gradually
but the implementation date of the new policy would be in line with the
Department of Higher Education and Training requirements to change the
statute of the university.

“The goal of the new policy is to facilitate social cohesion and promote
inclusivity. The university will continue to embrace and encourage
multilingualism to foster unity and to provide equal opportunities to
speakers of all South African languages,” it said.

The university has also decided that Afrikaans should be maintained as a
language of scholarship, while the development of Sepedi to a higher level
of scientific discourse would be supported and adequately resourced.

Economic Freedom Fighters Students Command, or EFFSC, welcomed the decision
by Pretoria to adopt a new language policy.

“This falling of Afrikaans is a sweet victory for us, for it goes far as
validating our aspirations towards a transformed University of Pretoria,”
spokesperson Peter Keetse said in a statement.

The EFFSC, which runs the SRC at the University of Pretoria, had been
demanding that the university drop Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and
change the institution’s name to the University of Tshwane after the
metropolitan municipality in which it is located. The EFFSC said its battle
was against “institutionalised racism”.

*The issue of cost*

The University of Pretoria’s branch of AfriForum rejected a report compiled
by an independent transformation panel that found that finances played a
role in the council’s decision to make English the primary language of
instruction from 2017.

“Many arguments have been raised about the council’s decision, of which one
focused on finances. The University of Pretoria’s council held the argument
that a single language policy would be more cost-effective,” said Henrico
Barnard, spokesperson for AfriForum Youth’s branch at the institution.

“Here we have indisputable proof that the university would not have had to
incur additional expenses to retain Afrikaans as language of instruction.”

In a statement, Barnard accused the university of turning its back on
Afrikaans and Afrikaans speakers by taking a short-sighted decision to meet
the demands of a small group of radicals. He questioned the university’s
commitment to the development of other indigenous languages and mother
tongue education.

Jaco Grobbelaar, coordinator of the same organisation, said the university
did not undertake a survey of the language needs of Pretoria students as
only one pro-Afrikaans representative served in the university’s language
working group. He argued that this resulted in a complete ignoring of the
voices of the Afrikaans student community.

*Politics and ideology*

The FW De Klerk Foundation, established by former South African president
FW de Klerk, said the decision by the University of Pretoria did not pass
constitutional muster and left it open to legal challenges.

The foundation said the right to choose a language of education should have
included present and potential students of the university, not only
Afrikaans-speaking students. Even those students who choose to be taught in
English exercise this right, it said.

“The fact that there are now political and ideological reasons aired to
change the language to English does not render the use of Afrikaans as
unreasonable or reasonably impracticable,” the foundation said.

“Neither does the fact (as the vice-chancellor [Professor Cheryl de la Rey]
points out in her letter to staff) that the proportion of students
expressing a preference for Afrikaans has 'declined sharply' to 18%. Even
if this number is taken at face value, it still represents thousands of
students who prefer to be taught in Afrikaans.”

Meanwhile, on 20 June, the Bloemfontein High Court reserved judgement in a
matter that has challenged the University of the Free State's decision to
move from parallel language instruction to English.

AfriForum and its trade union Solidarity – together with *amici*: the
Afrikaanse Taalraad, the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African
Schools and the South African Teachers' Union – lodged an application to
have the decision of the Free State senate and council set aside. If this
is granted it will force the university to go back to the drawing board.


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