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30 June 2016 07:06 (South Africa)
Opinionista Mmusi Maimane

Afrikaans is no longer the language of the oppressor

  • Mmusi Maimane
    Mmusi-Maimane.jpg
    Mmusi Maimane

    Mmusi Maimane is leader of Democratic Alliance. See his Wikipedia profile here.

South Africa is a diverse society. Along with this diversity comes a geographic concentration of languages. The Eastern Cape has a majority of isiXhosa speakers, in KZN it is isiZulu, in the Free State it is Sesotho and so on. In the Western Cape, more people speak Afrikaans as a first language than any other language, and the majority of these people are not white.

The 1994 Consensus, and the vision that Nelson Mandela had for South Africa, was about embracing diversity and building diverse institutions. We would do well to reflect on this as we debate the use of Afrikaans as language of instruction at the University of Stellenbosch. Before we dismiss the rights of Afrikaans students to continue receiving mother tongue instruction, we should ask ourselves what effect this would have on diversity, as well as access to education at the institution.

The Stellenbosch language debate has proven to be a hugely polarising issue. Right up front, I would like to make my own, and the Democratic Alliance’s position clear, because this has been repeatedly misrepresented over the past two weeks. In a classic straw-man fallacy, it is usually claimed that the DA wants Afrikaans to remain the dominant medium of instruction at the university, and then we are attacked on this basis. We have never said this.

The DA supports the use of both English and Afrikaans as primary and equal languages of instruction at Stellenbosch; in other words, completely dual-medium. We do not advocate for the status quo, where certain courses are exclusively offered in Afrikaans, and we also do not agree with reducing Afrikaans to a mere support language at the university. We certainly do not want classes that are racially divided. There are several good reasons why Afrikaans should remain one of two primary languages at the institution. But it is hardly surprising that the DA’s position in the University of Stellenbosch language debate has been construed by our opponents – and by certain voices in the media – as an attempt to protect privilege. This could not be further from the truth, but it is low-hanging fruit for those who want to exploit what is known as a “wedge issue” in politics. Because the DA is such a diverse party that brings people from all walks of life together around ideas and values, rather than constructs like race or language, we have to deal with far more wedge issues than any other party.

The expedient way to deal with these wedge issues would be to either withdraw from the debate altogether and let it blow over, or to weigh up the pros and cons and then side with the least damaging view. I am not prepared to do either of these things. I will not lay low on an issue that has far-reaching repercussions for millions of South Africans, simply because it is tricky territory, and I will not automatically adopt a majoritarian position simply because it is politically expedient. It is more important to side with (and protect) the Constitution than to bow to the will of those who make the most noise.

The DA’s position on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch is based on inclusivity, diversity and increased access to opportunities. It may not roll off the tongue like “Afrikaans Must Fall”, but it is a carefully considered solution for a complex and highly nuanced issue. Like so many debates these days, Twitter hashtags and protest slogans have reduced the issue to a binary “for” and “against” choice. If you do not support the simplified majoritarian and politically correct view, then you are vilified as anti-transformation, pro-privilege, and even racist. But I will not get drawn into this type of populism contest.

We live in a plural society that brings with it incredible social complexities, but this plurality is also what makes us such a rich and diverse people. We should embrace this diversity and make it count in our favour. Along with this diversity comes a geographic concentration of languages. The Eastern Cape has a majority of isiXhosa speakers, in KZN it is isiZulu, in the Free State it is Sesotho and so on. In the Western Cape, more people speak Afrikaans as a first language than any other language, and the majority of these people are not white.

Over the better part of a century, Afrikaans has developed into a highly capable academic language in fields that range from arts and the humanities, to complex science and medicine. The language has a rich academic vocabulary, it has journals and libraries of published literature, and Afrikaans academics are respected across the world. This is not something you discard simply to appease those who happen to shout the loudest.

Our Constitution promotes a spirit of diversity and inclusion. It goes as far as to say that every person has the right to be taught in the language of their choice, where reasonably practicable. Given the demographics of the Western Cape and the history of Stellenbosch, it is “reasonably practicable” to receive instruction in Afrikaans there. Surely our efforts should now be to develop some of our other local languages to this level of academic capability rather than diminish the one language that is already there.

This will involve hard work over a long time, but our energy will be far better spent supporting the development and use of, for example, Sesotho at the University of the Free State, Setswana at the University of the North West and isiZulu at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, than destroying Afrikaans at Stellenbosch. If it is truly about expanding access, then surely the more quality dual-medium universities we have, the better. This way, a student in Potchefstroom would have a choice of her likely mother tongue, Setswana, and English. In Durban this would be isiZulu or English. And in Stellenbosch it would be Afrikaans or English. This way, no one would be denied the opportunity to study at any given university because of their language.

Four years ago a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Zinhle Nkosi, was awarded her PhD in Education. She had completed this, along with subsequent peer-reviewed papers in isiZulu, despite a lack of research methodology, academic papers and other literature in the language. It is currently also nearly impossible to find a journal willing to publish academic work in isiZulu, which makes her achievement all the more remarkable. But pioneering students like Zinhle are proof that all our languages have the potential to develop into fully-fledged academic languages. Today, more than a dozen students at the university are conducting their master’s degrees in isiZulu. This is what we should be embracing and encouraging, as far as it is practicable.

But perhaps we should ask ourselves what is really being debated at Stellenbosch. This is meant to be about expanding access to opportunities through higher education. But when you listen to many of the anti-Afrikaans arguments being put forward, there seems to be far more at play. Images of the 1976 Soweto uprising are invoked. Afrikaans lectures at Stellenbosch are likened to forced Afrikaans instruction in schools during Apartheid. Afrikaans is called the language of the oppressor. One gets the sense that, for many, this is not just about removing Afrikaans from Stellenbosch, but from wider society.

This a very slippery slope. I understand very well that Afrikaans was used in the past to oppress black people. But Afrikaans today is not the enemy, and neither are those who speak it. Precisely because of our plurality, our Constitution protects the languages and cultures of minorities to prevent them from simply being swept away by a wave of majoritarianism. It is critical that we guard against this, particularly given the recent tendency towards extreme populism from certain political players.

It is perhaps useful to ask this: If we were dealing here with a university that had a fifty year-old tradition of academic excellence in another African language – say isiXhosa – would we be having this debate? Would the same critics be vocal in their opposition of this language as a primary medium of instruction? Would they call it exclusionary and discriminatory and call for it to be demoted? I think we all know the answer to that.

Inclusion in South Africa cannot be a zero-sum gain. We cannot adopt the approach that one language has to be selected at the expense of another. We also must be careful not to speak of achieving diversity when what we really mean is grey uniformity. The bottom line is we need to broaden access to universities. Removing Afrikaans as a primary language of instruction at a university with such a rich Afrikaans academic history, and which services a predominately Afrikaans community, will do the exact opposite. In these circumstances it is both practicable and beneficial to run the university as a completely dual-medium institution. But this must always happen alongside, and not at the expense of English. We live in a global society and it is crucial that our universities become globally competent and produce graduates who are globally competitive. So the objective should not be to develop a dozen academic languages, but rather to offer a diversity of languages that allow for more students to study. If increasing this diversity results in more graduates, more PhDs and more research papers, then it is surely a good thing.

It is important that we have this conversation, but at the end of the day we must respect the autonomy of the University of Stellenbosch. They will ultimately make their decision, as they are entitled to do. DM

  • Mmusi Maimane
    Mmusi-Maimane.jpg
    Mmusi Maimane

    Mmusi Maimane is leader of Democratic Alliance. See his Wikipedia profile here.

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