[lg policy] South Africa: Jonathan Jansen: Reaction inflames situation
haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Jan 25 10:46:12 EST 2018
Jonathan Jansen: Reaction inflames situation
January 25, 2018
[image: Prof Jonathan Jansen]Jonathan Jansen
By the time the protesters outside Hoërskool Overvaal lobbed a petrol bomb
at the police, it was clear that something as simple as a school’s language
policy could still inflame deadly passions 41 years after the Soweto
uprising against Afrikaans in black schools.
I could not help thinking: what is it about Afrikaans that brings out the
worst in us?
The technical merits of the case are simple enough.
Apparently 55 black English-speaking pupils had been turned away from the
school because it was full.
In addition, the language policy of the school is Afrikaans, as decided by
the school governing body.
The solution, in the meantime, is straightforward.
There are English-medium schools in the surrounding areas and so it would
be easy for these children to be accommodated outside of Overvaal.
Judge Bill Prinsloo, hearing the case, ruled that an instruction by one of
the district directors that the school admit these pupils regardless of its
language policy “offends against the principle of legality”.
The political merits of the case are more complex.
In a scathing attack on the judgment in one of the Sunday papers, Gauteng
Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi called the language policy of this Vereeniging
school racist and exclusionary.
His language was inflammatory: “The total suppression of one language in
favour of another is inconsistent with and detrimental to a non-racial
(Only 5% of South African schools are in fact single-medium Afrikaans).
One of his directors was even more extreme, speaking of Afrikaans as once
being “a tool of segregation and discrimination . . . whose legacy is
sorrows and tears to the majority”.
So extreme in fact that the judge suggested that one of her peers “consider
investigating her conduct”. So who is right in this case? It depends which
newspaper you read.
The main Afrikaans Sunday paper of course took the side of the school with
the argument that this was a storm in a teacup and that only eight out of
the 55 pupils wanted to be at Overvaal in the first place.
This was simply a capacity problem, not a race issue.
For the English Sundies Overvaal is against transformation and if only they
did what other Afrikaans schools did – allow for dual-medium English and
Afrikaans classes – everyone would get along just fine.
The truth is that when language rights come head-to-head with the right of
access to education, access wins every time.
That is because of political memory.
This country has a long history of using language to exclude and humiliate
The Soweto Uprising of 1976, and the immense suffering that followed,
remains seared into the consciousness of black South Africans – and that is
why the Afrikaans language policy of a school, regardless of its supposedly
legal merits, will always be perceived as an instrument of racial exclusion.
And that explains the violent reaction on the part of the protesters.
The real and enduring damage to Afrikaans, I say again, was done by white
nationalists in the 1970s.
By the way, there is something else that is less obvious when Afrikaans is
pitted against access in South African schools.
The controversy always erupts in rural or working class white schools.
By virtue of their class status, these schools are the most vulnerable to
black nationalist revolt against their language policies; they also have
the most to lose as the poorer white cousins.
Not once have these protests centred on the prestigious big-city schools
which are solidly Afrikaans and unapologetically white like Affies (the
collective name for the large Afrikaans Boys and Afrikaans Girls high
schools) in Pretoria or Jan van Riebeeck (no, really) high school in Cape
I have little doubt that higher courts, responding to an appeal, will
eventually rule in favour of the provincial department of education on
grounds that no child should be denied access to education.
Overvaal will, over time, become a dual-medium school (at best) or more
likely an all-black English medium school if the white parents withdraw
their children and place them in those upper middle class schools which
remain untouched by these anti-Afrikaans protests.
I have seen such patterns of desegregation before in working class white
Afrikaans schools of Gauteng.
The tragedy is that we will get to that point through a spectacular failure
of leadership on the part of the politically ambitious MEC for education in
Instead of lowering the temperatures around the school and bringing the
parties together for a solution, he inflames passions on the streets with
Where he could have kept working-class Afrikaans schools within the project
of nation-building through skillful political arts where black and white
could learn together, the path chosen by this intemperate leader has closed
down the space for the achievement of two equally important goals – justice
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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