Ongoing drama in universities and one ‘demotes’ Afrikaans

In a week of ongoing drama in South African higher education, a group of 226 academics from the University of Stellenbosch has thrown weight behind a proposal by management to adopt English as the primary language of communication and administration, with Afrikaans and isiXhosa as ‘additional’ languages.

This followed demonstrations at Stellenbosch and violent protests at some other universities, with multiple arrests. Stellenbosch was riven by protests against the dominance of Afrikaans and lack of transformation earlier this year, soon after the #RhodesMustFall student movement arose at the University of Cape Town and before the mass #FeesMustFall protests shook the country.

The academics’ statement raised concerns over “talk of a backlash” against the management’s proposals and a perceived attempt to retain Afrikaans as the primary language of academic communication and instruction.

Specifically, it called on the Stellenbosch council “not to stand in the way of ensuring that the university is a genuinely inclusive educational environment for all its students and staff”.

The intervention by staff followed a motion by the seven-member executive committee of the Stellenbosch council led by George Steyn, which noted the status of the proposal from the Rector’s Management Team as a “discussion document” rather than a policy statement.

In an apparent effort to assert its authority and the integrity of institutional procedures, the motion noted that any possible future changes in language policy would follow the statutory route, which included wide consultation and “discussion, alteration or ratification” of the final document by the council.

A follow-up statement issued by the marketing department, seeking to clarify the situation, drew a distinction between the university’s language implementation plan and changes to the language policy/plan, and stated that although it had not retracted its statement, management remained committed to due process around changes to the policy/plan.

On the issue of implementation, the clarifying statement said students from 2016 onwards would be able to study in both English and Afrikaans. “Whilst teaching in Afrikaans is continued, mechanisms are implemented to ensure that students who do not understand Afrikaans are not excluded from the teaching offering,” it said.

Ongoing violent protests

The heated debate over language takes place against the backdrop of ongoing violent protests which shut down two other of the province’s universities: the University of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

At Stellenbosch itself, protests by staff and students over the outsourcing of university workers continued last week with the arrest of four workers last Tuesday.

Stellenbosch Vice-Chancellor Wim de Villiers issued a statement in which his management team deplored the “illegal and unacceptable behaviour” and called for calm after protesters “moved about on campus, setting tyres and dustbins alight… causing chaos in the Neelsie Student Centre and trying to disrupt an exam”.

In the afternoon, two vehicles were set alight on campus and police intervened to disperse the crowd. According to news reports, police also used a stun grenade to disperse protesters who rattled the gates of the Stellenbosch police station following the arrests of the four workers.

According to De Villiers, the university has established a task team to resolve the issue of outsourcing, but is awaiting the restoration of stability on campus in order to proceed.

Meanwhile, the Stellenbosch language proposal – tabled by the Rector’s Management Team on 12 November – has predictably drawn mixed responses: praise as a “visionary” move from the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET; and despair from those who see it as a sacrifice of unique cultural heritage and, coupled with increased student populations, a threat to academic standards.

Mixed reactions

Stellenbosch is one of South Africa’s top research universities and featured at number three in Africa on the recently released QS University Rankings of BRICS countries for 2015. It is perceived as the crucible of Afrikaner Nationalist thought in the 20th century – the ideology that gave rise to apartheid.

In a written response to the issue, political science professor and former Stellenbosch University council member Hermann Giliomee described one of the drivers of the demise of Afrikaans at the university as the increase in white English-speaking students “fleeing from transformation at the traditionally liberal universities”.

According to Giliomee, the percentage of English-speaking students at Stellenbosch has grown from 3,039 (20%) in 1995 to 13,316 (44%) in 2015, with 90% of English-speakers being white. In the process, the university had chosen to “abandon” its obligations to Afrikaans-speaking mixed race people in the rural Western Cape.

Jaco Schoeman, chair of Afrikaans grouping the Afrikanerbond, accused management of bowing to political pressure and “taking the easy route of Anglicisation”. He hoped that the Afrikaans community, parents, donors and students – and council – would not accept the decision.

Reservations were also expressed by Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training, the Democratic Alliance’s Belinda Bozzoli, who suggested the move might contravene the constitutional rights of Afrikaans-speaking students.

She also questioned the “haste” with which the policy had been put together and the limited consultation that had produced it. While other student formations had been consulted, the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation had not, she noted.

But from the African National Congress-led government’s side there was only praise.

Parliament’s higher education portfolio committee chair, Yvonne Phosa, described it as “the most tangible illustration of the management’s commitment towards transformation”.

DHET spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana said it was “a right step” towards stopping exclusionary practices, changing attitudes against historically disadvantaged groups, and improving the standing of Stellenbosch as a “valued national asset, inclusive of all South Africans”.

“As the university has noted, the sustainability of Afrikaans as a medium of academic expression and communication can be ensured through a range of strategies, including the adoption of parallel and dual language medium options. The university has committed to the continued development of both Afrikaans and isiXhosa as academic languages.”

However, according to Giliomee, the erosion of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch has already reduced the language to bywoner (Afrikaans word for ‘poor tenant’) status.

Afrikaans had declined in 15 years from “the only medium of instruction, to the default language of instruction, to equal status with English with protection, to equal status without protection, to the secondary language of instruction by the end of 2015”, he said.

Wide condemnation of ongoing protests

Meanwhile, ongoing protest action at Western Cape universities has drawn condemnation from the DHET, the ANC-aligned South African Student Congress at the University of the Western Cape – SASCO UWC – as well as calls for calm by university management and the Council on Higher Education, with most entities pointing fingers at small groups of perpetrators.

The DHET’s Khaye Nkwanyana said the department “condemns in the strongest possible terms the violent behaviour of small groups of protesting students who are bent on derailing the academic activities of others and those of the universities”.

In a written statement, the Council on Higher Education said it was concerned about the implications of the ongoing disruptions for academic performance, and what it called “various independent protest groupings” that have emerged to advance causes such as outsourcing.

While the University of the Western Cape, or UWC, remains closed until further notice, all final-year and postgraduate students have been given an opportunity to write exams either this year or next. More than 400 final-year students wrote exams at an off-campus location on 16 November. That same day, protesters set alight the ResLife Building and security booths on campus, leading to some arrests.

SASCO’s UWC branch issued a statement condemning the violence and destruction of property. Spokesperson Mandlakayise Mahlangu said: “The majority of students at UWC do not support this violence. Instead, a mob of degenerates that has no interest in the welfare of the university and that of students is hell-bent on sowing chaos and instability on campus.”

In addition to the implementation of a 0% fee increase, UWC said registration fees for indigent students were waived weeks ago, and students who were academically performing, but had outstanding fees, would be allowed to register in 2016. A process was also underway to look at the feasibility of insourcing and the writing off of historic debt amounting to over R270 million.

Dr Prins Nevhutalu, vice-chancellor of Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said last week that the institution would remain closed until the New Year. The closures have disrupted end-of-year exams and alternative arrangements for final-year students are being made.

Meanwhile, in a hopeful sign that temperatures in the sector might be cooling down, the University of Johannesburg reached an agreement last week to end outsourcing at the institution after weeks of protests and demonstrations by students and workers.