[lg policy] SU's turn against itself
haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue Sep 18 11:06:49 EDT 2018
Stellenbosch U's turn against itself
Hermann Giliomee |
18 September 2018
Hermann Giliomee replies to Prof Wim de Villiers' dismissive attitude to
the university's history
*University Stellenbosch turns its back on Afrikaans and the
The future of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at university level is
to be decided shortly when the Constitutional Court is to hear arguments
about the dispute over the language policy of Stellenbosch (SU), in which
English enjoys a dominant position. If the ruling goes against Afrikaans
only one of 37 campuses in the country, namely the Potchefstroom campus of
North Western University, will provides students the opportunity to
complete their undergraduate studies in the medium of Afrikaans.
By co-incidence the centenary edition of *Matieland*, the SU magazine for
alumni, has just appeared. It contains a message from the Vice-Chancellor,
Prof. Wim de Villiers, under the heading "Saam vorentoe" (Forward
together). One would expect of him to offer a balanced reflection of what
US had accomplished during its first century. However, there are only a
couple of cursory remarks, mainly with negative drift.
De Villiers writes:
"Maties began as a "volksuniversiteit" (a university for the Afrikaner
people). That was the "idea" that Stellenbosch stood for at the time -
upliftment through higher education, but only for some, not for all.
Clearly this idea was way too narrow. But this does not mean we are against
Afrikaans. Afrikaans is one of our languages of instruction - but on the
basis of sound pedagogical principles, not fomented by ideology or ethnic
Here the Vice-Chancellor is treading on thin ice. He is violating the most
important principle when one is dealing with history, namely to judge every
action within the framework of the time during which it took place.
The Union constitution of 1909 made provision for the effective equality of
two official languages. Initially, however, this granted rights only on
paper. Within the economically-dominant English community there was the
strong expectation that English would soon supplant Dutch (and later
Afrikaans) as the public language. As an observer expressed it at the time:
“English methods and the English language are bound increasingly to win
their way and permeate the whole structure of society.”
The financial means of the new South African state were so meagre that it
could only establish one independent university, and even this single
university would require substantial support from the private sector. The
Botha-government embarked on a plan to transform the South African College
in Cape Town into the University of Cape Town (UCT).
In the spirit of the constitution's stipulation that the two official
languages should enjoy equal status F.S. Malan, the Minister of Education,
wanted both English and Dutch as languages of instruction at the envisaged
university. However, the mining magnates who were willing to provide huge
sponsorships were strongly opposed to Dutch being used as medium of
instruction. They wanted UCT to attract high quality English speaking
academics from foreign shores.
It was in these circumstances that the idea of Stellenbosch University was
born. Jannie Marais, a Stellenbosch farmer who had made a fortune on the
diamond mines, donated a substantial sum for the founding of a university
at Stellenbosch on condition that at least half the lectures were given in
Dutch or Afrikaans.
To come back to the Vice-Chancellor’s message to alumni in 2018. One
wonders what he means when he writes that the development of SU as
university that would serve predominantly the Afrikaner community was "too
Surely it is naïve to think Afrikaans could have developed as a language if
it had to compete on equal terms against English right at SU from the
start. In 1915 only 15% of Afrikaans children progressed further than
Standard Five, and only 4% were fluent in English.
In 1915 Langenhoven wrote this satirical poem about Afrikaners pleading for
"peaceful co-existence" of the two official languages at SU.
"Friends, let's make peace and keep the peace/ let the lion and the lamb
graze together/ the lamb on the grass and the lion on the lamb/ you can be
the lion and I will be the lamb/ soon I will become part of the lion/ to
the credit of the lamb…and the pleasure of the lion."
The Vice-Chancellor gives the assurance that neither he nor US is against
Afrikaans and then continues: "Afrikaans is one of our languages of
instruction - but on the basis of sound pedagogical principles, not
fomented by ideology or ethnic identity.
The Vice-Chancellor is clearly unaware of the consensus in literature about
language maintenance: A sectional or national language cannot maintain
itself against a world language such as English, without speakers of the
former language regarding it as an important part of their social identity.
In the book *Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance* (Routledge
2002) Stephen Wurm defines the iron-law of language preservation as
follows: “One of the most important factors for the maintenance and
reinvigoration of a threatened language is the attitude of speakers towards
their own language and the importance they attach to it as a major symbol
of their identity.”
One does not know what the vice-Chancellor means with the words that the US
should not be driven by any “ideology". One cannot help but think of the
dictum formulated by the American economist Joan Nelson, "One’s ideology is
like one’s breath; one can't smell it."
Is there any university without an ideology? Is the Vice-Chancellor trying
to say that a university like University of Cape Town has not been driven
by any ideology? In the volume commemorating the SU centenary Prof. Bill
Nasson, a celebrated historian with ties to both SU and UCT, writes that
UCT was never really driven by a demand for racial integration, but rather
by an "anti-Nationalist feeling" which enabled it to position itself with
the “besieged anti-apartheid front”.
What astonishes me most about the Vice-Chancellor's review of the SU's
first century is that not a single word is uttered of what can be seen as
the SU's greatest accomplishment during its first century, namely its
resistance against British Imperial ideology, and the establishment of an
indigenous intellectual tradition.
In 1918, when SU opened its doors, J.F.W. Grosskopf wrote that SU must keep
abreast of humanity’s intellectual heritage and traditions. At the same
time it should guard against idolising that which is international, at the
cost of what is uniquely South African.
One of the most notable contributions by Stellenbosch University was its
key role in developing Afrikaans as a literary and intellectual medium of
communication. The German scholar Heinz Kloss expressed this achievement as
follows: "In the whole world Afrikaans is the only non-European/non-Asian
language to have acquired full university status, and that is used in all
branches of life and in the world of scholarship."
Not only was it universal knowledge that was domesticated in the Afrikaans
universities but they also incorporated some vital aspects of the cultural
heritage of the continent of Europe in their syllabi. One thinks here
especially of Roman-Dutch law and of the Dutch/ German tradition of history
writing based on primary sources, and the striving to discover “wie es
eigentlich gewesen” (how it actually was). Invariably history written in
Afrikaans stress cultural as well as economic forces.
In 2017 Mahmood Mamdani, one of Africa's most highly rated intellectuals,
said that universities elsewhere in Africa did not represent any specific
intellectual tradition. The only exceptions were the Afrikaans universities
that transformed Afrikaans into the vehicle of a domestic intellectual
tradition. He deplored the fact the South African government does not
attempt to emulate the achievement of Afrikaans but keeps on stressing
education through the medium of English.
In 2015 the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town reported
that the under-achievement of black children at school is such that by the
end of secondary school they are at least five years behind their
In 2016 South Africa’s Statistician General Pali Lehohla expressed “horror”
about the failure rates of blacks. They had been taught in their second
language, while whites had generally received mother tongue instruction.
SU and other Afrikaans universities transformed racially far too late but
they were never institutions that welcomed only Afrikaners. In the
mid-1970s the Afrikaans universities attracted more English students than
the other way round.
The Vice-Chancellor speaks about a SU which "wants to continue in the
provision of the great need for instruction in Afrikaans”, but
significantly does not mention a single figure to quantify the current
offer of Afrikaans courses at SU. My information is that in the Social
Science faculty the departments of History, Sociology, Political Science
and Social Anthropology use virtually no Afrikaans. In the Law faculty
Afrikaans is for all practical purposes absent.
Back in 2016 when it had become clear where SU was heading with its
language policy Prof. Marius de Waal of the law faculty said in Senate:
“It is very clear what the English student can expect in the context of
this formulation. The question is what can the Afrikaans students expect?
Students who want teaching in Afrikaans. What are their rights, what are
their expectations? The cynical or literal interpretation would mean that a
few words, a few token words in the course of a lecture, would be in
compliance with this formulation.”
This is precisely the policy the law faculty follows today but the
Vice-Chancellor keeps on talking about how much value SU attaches to
Afrikaans. In his *Matieland *article he talks about “the great need for
tuition in Afrikaans” and declares that this need is the reason which why
SU continues to meet the demand for tuition in Afrikaans. Unfortunately the
words have no meaning.
In his article the Vice-Chancellor offers an explanation for SU’s virtual
abandonment of Afrikaans as a language of tuition. He states that instead
of a "volksuniversiteit" SU wants to become a "world-class university".
A rush to climb in the world-rankings is indeed one of the important
reasons why SU has anglicised so rapidly. This attempt seems to have been
futile. The international Centre for World Universities Rankings which
assigns rankings to a thousand universities shows that SU dropped from
330th (third in South Africa) in 2017 to 448th (fifth in South Africa) in
Philip Altbach and Ellen Hazelkorn have sounded a warning in this regard:
the ranking system perverts the true function of the university; namely to
transfer the knowledge and skills the graduates would need in the
communities they would one day serve.
The Afrikaans-speaking community in the Western Cape, which makes up more
than half of the people in the province, requires a university where they
can be trained in the language with which they can one day serve this
community. This applies especially to the training of teachers and legal
When SU reviewed its language policy in 2017 the Federation of Governing
Bodies of South African Schools which, together with the South African
Teachers Union, is the most representative body in Afrikaans education,
submitted a memorandum. It declared: "Our members are unanimously in favour
of retaining Afrikaans as a fully-fledged language of instruction at US.
This means that the use of Afrikaans must in no way be diminished at US.
The US should continually promote and develop tertiary education in
The US management and council ignored this appeal, thereby drawing a line
through a century-old relationship.
It was especially the brown Afrikaans-speaking community that was left in
the lurch by the SU not providing Afrikaans tuition. In 2013 the Council
for Higher Education conducted a study to determine the success rate of
different population groups that enrolled for a B-degree in the period 1970
-2010. The percentage of white and Indian students who received B-degrees
climbed from 18% to 29%. The figure for blacks dropped from 11% to 9%, and
the figure for brown students dropped from 10% in 1970 to a disastrous 6%
During the past 15 years the number of brown Afrikaans undergraduate
students at SU has remained stagnant at a range of 1300 to 1400. Black
numbers rose slowly from about 1000 in in 2010 to 2 336 in 2017 in a
undergraduate student body of just below 20 000. The home language of three
quarters of them is not English.
By contrast the number of brown English-speaking students multiplied five
times from 512 to 2 588, while that of white English-speaking students
doubled from 2 384 to 5 458. From this should be clear that the great
beneficiaries of SU’s language policy are the white and brown
In 2016 the movement Gelyke Kanse/Equal Opportunities took SU to the Cape
Supreme Court for violating its own language policy of 2014 which accorded
equal status to Afrikaans and English as languages of tuition. In the court
proceedings SU admitted that one fifth of its lecturers could not teach in
Afrikaans and that the university violated its own language policy in 268
My proposal for SU is to implement both an Afrikaans-medium stream and an
English-medium stream. It has been calculated that it will cost 4% of the
budget. Whether SU will easily follow this route is doubtful. In recent
times US has become known for simply following the easiest path when it
comes to the matter of language.
In 2005, when the *taalstryd *(language struggle) erupted at SU, Koos
Bekker, MD of Naspers and a SU Council member, made a telling remark in an
article that was published in *Die Burger* If SU becomes anglicised it
would signal that the university has chosen he road of *papbroekigheid*
(spinelessness). I fully have subscribed to that sentiment all along
*Hermann Giliomee is a historian who received his training from SU. This is
an extended version of an article which first appeared in the paper
Children’s Institute, University of Cape Twn, “Child Gauge Report, 2015.,
“Why universities should quit the ratings game,” *University World News,*
issue 442, Janauary 2017.
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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