[lg policy] A court decision with consequences for languages in HE

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 8 10:23:28 EDT 2018

English Class
A court decision with consequences for languages in HE
Published May 8, 2018

The 26 April decision of the Gauteng High Court in Pretoria upholding
English-only courses at the University of South Africa is yet another sign
that Afrikaans is losing its status in post-apartheid South Africa. It
remains to be seen whether the court’s multilingual turn and conciliatory
tone will influence university policies and future court decisions on
language rights.

Language has long been a  contested terrain in South Africa. In recent
years, some of the fiercest battles have been fought in universities over
attempts to eliminate Afrikaans instruction in favour of an English-only
programme. The rights group, AfriForum, has repeatedly charged that these
policies violate the South African Constitution. The group met a major
defeat in December 2017 in a Constitutional Court ruling supporting the
decision of the University of the Free State  to provide all instruction in

Significant programmatic differences left open the possibility of a
different judicial outcome in the case against UNISA. The Pretoria court,
however, thought otherwise, but under an unexpected line of reasoning with
potential policy implications.

A unique parallel programme

UNISA is a ‘distance learning institution’. Students from all over South
Africa and beyond take courses online. Responding to decreasing student
demand, beginning in 2010, the university incrementally limited the number
of courses in Afrikaans until it totally eliminated them in 2016.

As in other universities with parallel language programmes, English-taught
courses have typically been the choice of black students who view English
as the language of emancipation and Afrikaans as the language of
oppression. Though many of them may have attended English-language primary
and secondary schools, English is not necessarily their home language.

An increasing number of Afrikaans-speaking students, who may be white or
coloured (mixed race), have also chosen English instruction for better
access to jobs in the global economy. A shrinking number still clings to
Afrikaans for ideological or sentimental reasons as part of their core

To get a sense of what UNISA intended in adopting the new policy, a look at
the ‘preamble’ is useful. Here the policy talks about “mother-tongue-based
multilingual education” as “an ideal that must be the ultimate goal”. And
though the policy recognises that the “time span to achieve that goal”
might extend into “future generations”, the University had to take
“practical steps … now … to start on that road”. Among the stated
principles shaping the policy are “human dignity”, “equality” and the
“recognition that indigenous African languages have been historically

While all instruction in undergraduate courses would be in English, the
university would provide supportive services like multilingual glossaries,
tutoring and translations for basic study materials in all remaining
official languages, including Afrikaans. Moving forward, it would offer a
“selected number” of modules and programmes in more than one official
language based on “capacity”.

Postgraduate research students would be allowed to write their proposals,
theses and dissertations in any official language so long as appropriate
supervision is available. Students already in the programme would have
until 2019 to complete their coursework in Afrikaans.

*Constitutional principles*

AfriForum has claimed procedural irregularities in the way UNISA approved
the policy, which could or could not prove persuasive on appeal. The
court’s resolution of the substantive constitutional claims and its
underlying reasoning, however, are especially compelling and potentially

The 1996 South African Constitution is considered one of the most
progressive in the world on language rights and language use. It designates
11 official languages including English, Afrikaans and nine indigenous
African languages, which “must enjoy parity and esteem and be treated

It also grants to all “the right to receive education in the official
language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions”.
Yet that right is not unqualified. Learning in the language of choice must
be “reasonably practicable”, taking into account “equity, practicality and
the need to redress the results of past discriminatory laws and practices”.

Though this sounds like a tall order for a country with such a troubled
past, the Constitutional Court has added a contextual gloss that leaves
some discretion in the hands of education officials though subject to
judicial oversight.

The South African Constitutional Court on several occasions has interpreted
these provisions, most recently in the UFS ruling, which the Pretoria court
used as its “starting point”. Critical differences in the facts, however,
gave the court space to chart a rationale that focused less on “redress” of
past wrongs, while acknowledging them, and more decidedly on “equity” and
“practicality” in allocating limited resources across all African languages
and favouring English as chosen by an overwhelming majority of students.

At UFS the parallel programme arguably separated students on the basis of
race. Primarily black students enrolled in the English stream, while white
Afrikaners as well as coloured students enrolled in the considerably
smaller Afrikaans stream.

The majority opinion weighed heavily on the physical separateness of the
programme. It was all about the harms of racial separation and the implicit
force of English as a unifying neutral language. The subtext was about the
symbolic association of Afrikaans with the racially motivated wrongs of


 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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