#LanguagePolicy – Some languages more equal than others

The distinction between race and language in South Africa is a fine one, and given historical racial politics the line is blurred in many places. Student protests against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in universities have sparked racial tension that cannot be categorised as strictly ‘black’ or ‘white’.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa and alongside English, Afrikaans is the only language that is used as a medium of instruction at university. In a democratic society that aims to promote equality and integration, its preferential position over other languages granted the same recognition and equality under section 30 of the Constitution is unjustified.

#LanguagePolicyMustFall protests

Student protests against the use of Afrikaans are not a racial attack on Afrikaans culture. They are a stand, firstly, against Afrikaans privilege in post-apartheid South Africa and, secondly, the racial exclusion and systematic racism it upholds.

Afrikaans is the mother tongue to 13.5% of South Africans, according to official statistics, against 22.7% for isiZulu and 16% for isiXhosa. English is mother tongue to fewer than one in 10 people, but it is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial life.

Aside from Afrikaans- and English-speakers, no other racial or cultural groups have the privilege of being taught in their home language.

The preservation of the Afrikaans language and culture is possible without preferential recognition in tertiary institutions where other languages are given no formal recognition. The neutrality of English as the only medium of instruction is essential for equality.

In the second instance, although the protests against #LanguagePolicy have played out as being racial, they are merely reaction to the systematic racism that has been allowed by tertiary institutions. Afrikaans should not be given a preferential position at public tertiary institutions that are meant to be open to all people who qualify to attend.

Privileging Afrikaans

Afrikaans language policy excludes other races that make up the majority. It perpetuates racial exclusion not only in the sense of black or white students; it segregates students based on language where race is an inevitable subsequent segregation, and where non-Afrikaans speakers of all races are denied access and are subject to Afrikaans privilege.

The privilege that Afrikaans is given doesn’t start at universities. In my experience, I learned English and Afrikaans from as early as grade three – at the time there were no other options among the other official languages, although there are now at many schools.

When I got to high school, we continued with Afrikaans until grade nine. isiZulu, as an alternative, was at the time only available as an option in grade 10 when selecting subjects for senior year, with no previous exposure to the language as a subject.

So on the surface, it seems that one has a choice, but in actual fact one is conditioned to make a predetermined choice – Afrikaans. The entitlement is derived from the social conditioning that all languages are equal before the law under section 30 of the Constitution, but Afrikaans is more equal than others in tertiary institutions.

Occupying space

In Afrikaans heritage universities, the language is not merely imposed through the culture, it is also occupying space.

In faculties that offer degrees in Afrikaans, the space and capacity of the university to accept students from other ethnicities is capped by the reservation of space exclusively for Afrikaans speakers.

An example is where a university can accept 600 students for an undergraduate law degree, 300 in Afrikaans and 300 in English. The 300 seats in Afrikaans reserve a place for Afrikaans speaking students only, while the 300 seats in English are shared between white non-Afrikaans speaking students, other racial majorities and international students who do not speak Afrikaans.

The discriminatory effect also concerns allocation of resources. When weighing the use of resources to accommodate Afrikaans versus the practicality of allocating those resources fairly across all races, the more prevalent the need to change language policy becomes.

Even the basics may involve an unfair allocation of resources – the resources of paper and ink when printing a 10-page exam paper written in English and Afrikaans, versus the five pages if it were printed in just English, and the labour resources of hiring exam invigilators that speak Afrikaans and English, as opposed to providing the job opportunity for any racial group that speaks just English.

So preserving Afrikaans as a language of instruction perpetuates inequality in allocation of university seats and resources. These same resources could be better allocated to the #FeesMustFall movement for the betterment of access to education.

Line between race and language

The racism expressions in Afrikaans heritage universities – such as the universities of Pretoria, Stellenbosch, the Free State and North-West – are not just surfacing as isolated experiences sparked by the protests against language policy.

Racism has been a reality at Afrikaans institutions and the stand against the privilege of one language over others has provided a platform for expression of years of aggravated micro-aggressive racism from all parties.

Subsequent to the #RhodesMustFall movement of early last year – a movement aimed at inclusive post-colonial education in universities – the documentary Luister (‘listen’ in Afrikaans) relayed commentary on the racial condition at Stellenbosch University, which made it clear that language was still used as a systematic tool in justifying racial expression by students.

Eight years ago, four white students at the University of the Free State went on trial for crimen injuria after a video of them humiliating black workers reached the public eye. Last month, video surfaced from the same university showing black protesters assaulted by white spectators after the protestors had interrupted a rugby game.

Unlike the #FeesMustFall movement of October last year which united students of all races, it seems the protest against language policy has divided us as students.

When protestors were met with police brutality during #FeesMustFall, white students formed a barricade around black students because it was known that the police would not attack white students. This spoke volumes about the societal condition in universities and the objectives of police brutality when it comes to student protests even today.

Subsequent to violent protests at the University of Pretoria, the campus became uncomfortable with a heavy security and police presence.

The university, which had begun reviewing its language policy, has not yet addressed a way forward regarding #LanguagePolicy. It has instead addressed the violence that erupted from the protests by employing extensive private security and stringently restricting the access and movement of students around campus.

Group gatherings of students are attentively monitored by the head of security. The university made an announcement that it would take civil or criminal actions against any social media posts where students have tagged, liked, or reposted posts that the university feels ‘incite violence’.

Between the restrictions of freedom of association, freedom of movement and freedom of expression, the campus feels fascist-like with a very fine line between our protection and our suppression. And as #LanguagePolicy still stands, the pain of students has been neutered, the cries against inequality silenced, and the prejudicial system maintained.

Kitso Rantao is a final-year law student at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and an aspiring academic in the field of legal philosophy. Email: