News & Analysis

Stellenbosch and the Afrikaans racial baggage

Stellenbosch and the Afrikaans racial baggage
  • PublishedJanuary 1, 2016

It is a move that has raised yet more debate and eyebrows in South Africa. Mushtak Parker reports on the recent decision by Stellenbosch University to remove “the language of apartheid oppressors”, Afrikaans, as the official teaching language – 21 years after the demise of racial segregation.

South Africa’s Stellenbosch University is the alma mater of some of the most diehard “apostles of apartheid”, including Hendrik Verwoerd, Johannes Vorster and Daniel Malan. Its roots go back to 1866, but it formally acquired university status in 1918. As such, Stellenbosch University, which is one of the top three  in Africa and ranked 17th in the BRICS & Emerging Markets by the World University Rankings, has been for over 150 years one of the core pillars of Afrikaner life, steeped of course in the Afrikaans language, its main medium of teaching, seen by many black South Africans as “the language of the oppressors”. 

But it seems that Afrikaans-medium universities post-apartheid and now ANC-ruled South Africa, of which Stellenbosch is a notable survivor of white domination, have their days numbered. Unless, of course a compromise is reached between the black-ruled government under president Jacob Zuma, the University Council, and the students.

In November a management team formed by the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch, Prof Wim​ de Villiers, issued a statement regarding language implementation at the university, which was met with widespread and diverse reaction. The reality is that English tuition has always been part of the teaching offering at Stellenbosch as an adjunct to the main Afrikaans one. 

The Rectors’ Management Team (RMT) statement ignited widespread debate, especially the key point which read: “…all learning at Stellenbosch University will be facilitated in English, and substantial academic support will be provided in other South African languages, according to students’ needs …”

The core points from the statement could be given as:

– From 2016 students will be able to study in both English and Afrikaans; and whilst teaching in Afrikaans is continued, students who do not understand Afrikaans will not be excluded from courses.  Instead parallel modules of the same courses will be offered in English to such students; the parallel medium teaching will be accelerated and therefore increase the use of both Afrikaans and English as languages of teaching and learning;

– For the smaller class groups all concepts must be explained in at least English, with learning strengthened by emphasising key concepts in Afrikaans as well in order to increase the use of English, without diminishing the status of Afrikaans as a language of instruction;

– From an inclusivity imperative, the multilingual implementation ensures that students will derive the full benefit of the academic offering.

To the radicals and militants, these points smack of compromise and capitulation against “the decolonisation of education” in the new South Africa.   

But recently, the powers that be at Stellenbosch got a major boost of support from a group of 324 of its prominent but frustrated and unheard academics and professional staff of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

“The choice of English as primary language of instruction with augmented support for Afrikaans and isiXhosa is based on the principles of social justice and inclusivity. This decision will provide the university the opportunity to become a truly South African university that is open and accessible to all our country’s students and staff as well as from other parts of Africa and beyond,” explained the academics in a statement.

The proposed new language policy, the statement continued, is explicitly motivated by a concern to open up access to Stellenbosch University to students from a wide range of social backgrounds (read non-white – blacks, coloureds (mixed race) and Indians) and to make sure that they are not marginalised when they arrive by virtue of their inability to speak or understand Afrikaans.

“This concern has been given particular prominence this year by students and staff in meetings and forms of protest action, and we applaud senior management for taking these seriously.”


Race and racism

Unfortunately, race and racism continues to be a dominant feature of the South African psyche, even over two decades after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) came to power. It is manipulated and exploited by all sides in the cauldron of South African society and politics – fuelled partly by failed expectations of the ANC to deliver jobs, housing and electrification to its core constituents in the townships and rural heartlands in its first two decades of power; partly by resentment of those who have lost past privileges; and further still by those who have become cynical about what they perceive as the corruption and cronyism that has beset the body politic of post- apartheid South Africa.

In the Stellenbosch saga this has resulted in two diametrically opposed manifestations. A recent film documentary, Luister (Listen), which Rector Prof Wim​ de Villiers admitted was “painful viewing”, catalogued the base racial abuse faced by black students on and off campus and alleged that they were excluded from some courses by the institution’s use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction. 

One black student in the documentary poignantly emphasised: “I can’t deal with the constant feeling of feeling unwelcome in my own country.”

South African Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, called for the institutional transformation of Stellenbosch to be “radicalised” and warned that it was wrong that the majority of students at the university were white. The racial profile of Stellenbosch’s 30,150 student intake in 2015 reveals that it remains a bastion of white enrolment at 62.2 per cent, compared with blacks at 17.8 per cent, coloureds at 17.4 per cent, and Indians at 2.6 per cent.

Nzimande argued that while Afrikaans should be used as a medium of instruction, it “cannot act as a barrier to education”, and that English and Afrikaans should be put on an equal footing. 

Audette James, a Matie alumni (Matie is the sobriquet given to Stellenbosch students), maintains that there has probably been ongoing pressure for Stellenbosch University to become an English- medium institution for some time.

“As a student in the early 90s, studying with a number of students who had very limited Afrikaans and having some of my lectures in English, it worked well. Students had the liberty of writing examinations in English. The dual-medium approach seemed to be successful. I don’t see why that needs to change. We have 11 official languages as a country, surely a dual medium university or an Afrikaans one that includes English is a viable option,” she added.

The conundrum is that Afrikaans is a living language with a rich literary and poetry tradition and heritage. It is also a widely spoken language – contrary to popular misconception it is the mother tongue of quite a large percentage of white, coloured and black South Africans.

James stresses that it would be sad and a grave mistake to make such a decision based more on political ideology than progressive educational policy reform. 

“Education in Afrikaans means that many people have the opportunity to further their learning and it would be counter-productive to exclude them from such an opportunity. Some might say that Stellenbosch University’s time has run out, that it needs to change and move forward with the times, but I would argue that perhaps there is greater change and opportunity in being counter-cultural by nurturing an environment of creative thinking and learning in the Afrikaans language.”

The irony is that Stellenbosch University has also produced counter-cultural alumni such as Beyers Naudé, the noted theologian and former imprisoned anti-apartheid activist; Uys Krige, noted playwright, satirist and bane of Afrikaner politicians; James Leonard Brierley Smith, the renowned ichthyologist involved with the rediscovery of the coelacanth; two former Union of South Africa prime ministers, Jan Smuts and James Hertzog; and even the erstwhile England cricket international, Jonathan Trott.


Equality, dignity and respect

There is no doubt that part of the problem is the resistance to the transformation of Stellenbosch University by some sections of Afrikaner conservatism, who have a  laager mentality in the city, which is the second largest to Cape Town in the Western Cape.  Indeed, the group of 324 academics expressed their concerns over a backlash that may ensue against the new proposals: “We call on the Council of the University not to stand in the way of ensuring that the university is a genuinely inclusive educational environment for all its students and staff. A decision to make English the language of meetings, documents and university business enables Stellenbosch to effectively move beyond its political past. Developing an inclusive and shared institutional ethos based on equal worth, dignity and respect would establish our university as a welcoming place for students, academics, and all its workers.”

The academics intoned that they are also fed up of being caught in the middle of this “political log jam about which language is culturally, politically or institutionally preferred.” They also lamented the fact that they have effectively been absent from the debate about transformation at the university.

One of the signatories, Prof Aslam Fataar, Vice-Dean of Research, Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, told the local Eikestad News that the latest proposal from the RMT, “relieves Afrikaans from the burden of political baggage that is understood in an exclusive way by other people and turns it into an academic and teaching language that can be engaged with creatively. This could make Stellenbosch a flourishing multilingual university.”

But will it? NA

Written By
Mushtak Parker

Mushtak Parker is Editor of Islamic Banker Magazine, one of the foremost journals in the industry with a global circulation in the major Islamic Financial institutions.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *