Mixed reactions to new university language policies

Following serial protests over the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction, the universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch last month adopted new language policies. The moves have raised the ire of Afrikaans rights groups who accuse the institutions of turning their backs on Afrikaners and their language.

In a statement, the Stellenbosch University council said the new language policy supports multilingualism without excluding students who are not proficient in either Afrikaans or English. The two languages will enjoy equal status from the beginning of next year, it said.

At the University of Pretoria, meanwhile, English has been made the primary medium of instruction and assessment.

George Steyn, Stellenbosch council chair, said the revised language policy recognises the university as a national asset and reaffirms its commitment to the users of Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa – the three official languages of Western Cape province.

“The institution uses its languages of choice to ensure that no student or staff member is excluded from actively participating in its activities,” he said.

The university said the policy confirms that Stellenbosch is committed to engaging with knowledge in a diverse society. It gives effect to the Constitution of South Africa in relation to language usage in the academic, administrative, professional and social contexts of the university, and advances the institution’s own vision of being inclusive, innovative and future-focused.

Practicability versus multilingualism

The Stellenbosch student representative council or SRC said in a statement that the decision fosters inclusivity on the campus.

“The SRC would like to reiterate that it does not believe that this is a decision against any particular grouping, or the death of Afrikaans but rather… the university trying to take a well-balanced decision to tackle the issue of multilingualism in South Africa,” said James de Villiers of the SRC.

“It is our belief that the document strikes a difficult balance between practicability and the need for multilingualism.”

Student movements like Open Stellenbosch led a series of protests last year slamming what was seen as the special treatment of Afrikaans at the university.

Tempers ran high with those opposing the change at Stellenbosch arguing that South Africa’s Constitution guaranteed everyone education in their mother tongue, implying that Afrikaans-speaking communities had a constitutional right to demand tertiary education in Afrikaans.

Equal participation

However, this view has been challenged by Stellenbosch University’s Professor Sandra Liebenberg who said the Constitution puts equal access at the core of education.

“[The Constitution] does not guarantee the unqualified right to mother tongue education. It also doesn’t preclude the existence of single-medium institutions. And, importantly, it sets out very specific factors the state must consider in implementing the right. These are equity, practicability and the issue of redress,” Liebenberg said, according to BusinessTech.

“This means that the right to higher education must be equally accessible to all without any form of unfair discrimination. It must be delivered in a way that allows everyone to participate equally.”

At least one Stellenbosch council member resigned after the new language policy was passed.

University councils at Stellenbosch and Pretoria have in the past resisted moves to force universities to change their main language of teaching to English.

AfriForum, a non-governmental organisation which promotes the protection of Afrikaans culture, is on record as saying it will fight for the right to retain Afrikaans-only institutions, pointing out that any move towards a dual-medium scenario in the past has ultimately led to a school or university becoming exclusively English.

Case of Pretoria

Meanwhile, the council of the University of Pretoria announced that its new language policy, which makes English the primary medium of instruction, will facilitate social cohesion and promote inclusivity.

For students already registered, Afrikaans would be phased out gradually but the implementation date of the new policy would be in line with the Department of Higher Education and Training requirements to change the statute of the university.

“The goal of the new policy is to facilitate social cohesion and promote inclusivity. The university will continue to embrace and encourage multilingualism to foster unity and to provide equal opportunities to speakers of all South African languages,” it said.

The university has also decided that Afrikaans should be maintained as a language of scholarship, while the development of Sepedi to a higher level of scientific discourse would be supported and adequately resourced.

Economic Freedom Fighters Students Command, or EFFSC, welcomed the decision by Pretoria to adopt a new language policy.

“This falling of Afrikaans is a sweet victory for us, for it goes far as validating our aspirations towards a transformed University of Pretoria,” spokesperson Peter Keetse said in a statement.

The EFFSC, which runs the SRC at the University of Pretoria, had been demanding that the university drop Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and change the institution’s name to the University of Tshwane after the metropolitan municipality in which it is located. The EFFSC said its battle was against “institutionalised racism”.

The issue of cost

The University of Pretoria’s branch of AfriForum rejected a report compiled by an independent transformation panel that found that finances played a role in the council’s decision to make English the primary language of instruction from 2017.

“Many arguments have been raised about the council’s decision, of which one focused on finances. The University of Pretoria’s council held the argument that a single language policy would be more cost-effective,” said Henrico Barnard, spokesperson for AfriForum Youth’s branch at the institution.

“Here we have indisputable proof that the university would not have had to incur additional expenses to retain Afrikaans as language of instruction.”

In a statement, Barnard accused the university of turning its back on Afrikaans and Afrikaans speakers by taking a short-sighted decision to meet the demands of a small group of radicals. He questioned the university’s commitment to the development of other indigenous languages and mother tongue education.

Jaco Grobbelaar, coordinator of the same organisation, said the university did not undertake a survey of the language needs of Pretoria students as only one pro-Afrikaans representative served in the university’s language working group. He argued that this resulted in a complete ignoring of the voices of the Afrikaans student community.

Politics and ideology

The FW De Klerk Foundation, established by former South African president FW de Klerk, said the decision by the University of Pretoria did not pass constitutional muster and left it open to legal challenges.

The foundation said the right to choose a language of education should have included present and potential students of the university, not only Afrikaans-speaking students. Even those students who choose to be taught in English exercise this right, it said.

“The fact that there are now political and ideological reasons aired to change the language to English does not render the use of Afrikaans as unreasonable or reasonably impracticable,” the foundation said.

“Neither does the fact (as the vice-chancellor [Professor Cheryl de la Rey] points out in her letter to staff) that the proportion of students expressing a preference for Afrikaans has 'declined sharply' to 18%. Even if this number is taken at face value, it still represents thousands of students who prefer to be taught in Afrikaans.”

Meanwhile, on 20 June, the Bloemfontein High Court reserved judgement in a matter that has challenged the University of the Free State's decision to move from parallel language instruction to English.

AfriForum and its trade union Solidarity – together with amici: the Afrikaanse Taalraad, the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools and the South African Teachers' Union – lodged an application to have the decision of the Free State senate and council set aside. If this is granted it will force the university to go back to the drawing board.