South Africa

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Lost in (mis)translation: Probe into alleged ban on Afrikaans at Maties residences hears starkly conflicting arguments

Matthew du Plessis, of the South African Human Rights Commission noted that there was a clear disparity between 'two seemingly well-justified positions' in the language tensions at Stellenbosch University. (Photo by Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

Deep-seated language issues at Stellenbosch University are popping up again as the SA Human Rights Commission continues a probe into allegations that Afrikaans in some residences has been prohibited. Last week’s hearings were marked by vastly contrasting testimonies.

“The irony is not lost on me; maybe we are dealing with something that is being lost in translation here; maybe we are dealing with something more sinister,” Matthew du Plessis, of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), said to Jethro Georgiades and Jason Reid of the Stellenbosch University private student organisation, Capri, who appeared before the commission last week.

Du Plessis noted that there was a clear disparity between “two seemingly well-justified positions” in the current language tensions at the university, and he wanted to know why. 

He was on the panel at the SAHRC’s inquiry – chaired by Chris Nissen – into the alleged prohibition of the use of Afrikaans that was reported in at least four residences in March. 

Several allegations were lodged to the commission by students who had said they were similarly not allowed to speak Afrikaans in their residence spaces.

What happened during March? 

Earlier in 2021 it was reported that first-year students were prohibited from speaking Afrikaans in formal and informal settings during their welcoming period. 

Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, at the hearing into the university’s language policy on 10 May 2021. (Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)

The allegations that have placed residences under scrutiny came as the university began a five-year review of its language policy – a point of controversy for the university for years (read here and here). When the university opened its revised draft policy for public comment until 12 April 2021, some political parties and Afrikaans lobby groups responded with dismay, claiming the university was phasing out Afrikaans.

The second draft of the policy will be released at the end of July.

Besides the SAHRC inquiry into the alleged prohibition in residences, the university proposed an internal investigation alongside an independent one conducted by Deloitte.

According to a 14 June email to students from Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, the deputy vice-chancellor for learning and teaching, the Deloitte report showed that there was no instruction from the university management or residence leadership to prohibit the use of Afrikaans and that instruction from residences to speak English, for reasons of inclusivity, was largely misunderstood or misused. 

The allegations against the student communities Capri and Irene were not supported by evidence, the email stated. 

On the same day that the summary of the Deloitte findings was sent, the SAHRC inquiry into the allegations continued in Stellenbosch. 

The university appeared at the SAHRC inquiry on 10 May and held that there was no ban on Afrikaans in lecture halls, in residences, or anywhere else on campus. 

Among those representing the university was Professor Wim de Villiers, rector and vice-chancellor, Ramjugernath, Dr Choice Makhetha, senior director for student affairs, Dr Leslie van Rooi, senior director for social impact and transformation, Desmond Thompson, acting director for corporate communication, and Dr Antoinette van der Merwe, senior director for learning and teaching enhancement 

Chris Nissen chaired the SA Human Rights Commission’s hearing into Stellenbosch University’s language policy on 10 May 2021. (Photo by Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais)

After the hearings it was clear that at the heart of the incidents that triggered the language tensions are residence leaders trying to create an accommodating and welcoming environment for a diverse cohort of students, and Afrikaans-speaking students who feel their right to speak their mother tongue has been infringed and their language watered down. 

Inclusivity or linguistic diversity is at stake.

A SAHRC report will come in due course but may take some time if the commission, which is still open to receive submissions, needs to go back to parties who submitted allegations or gave testimonies, said Nissen.

Off guard 

At the hearings, commissioner Andre Gaum read out an allegation directed at the leadership of Huis Francie van Zijl, a Tygerberg residence: 

“The use of any Afrikaans has been completely banned from any informal and formal communication… enforced by an atmosphere of condemnation against those who accidentally revert to their mother tongue that counts for informal settings and threats of disciplinary hearings.” 

The allegation, to which residence leader Cailin Thorp responded “we would never”, followed a similar pattern of allegations that were read out to the residences, including Minerva, Irene and the private student organisation, Capri. 

Most of the leadership who appeared were caught unawares, listening in disbelief to the submissions to the SAHRC.

Across the board, it was said that the use of English during the welcoming programme was encouraged in the name of inclusivity, but never enforced. 

If someone cannot converse in English, they speak in their mother tongue and residents help translate for understanding, said Thorp on behalf of her residence. 

All residence leaders also agreed that they had no authority over what language students speak in informal and social spaces. 

The head of Minerva, Mariëtha Lemmer, admitted that their house committee had not been explicit enough with first years about their full intent in encouraging English to be spoken during the welcoming period. 

This had caused confusion and hurt among residents and the leadership. “The atmosphere was heavy in the koshuis [residence],” said Lemmer. 

But it was later cleared up in the programme, she noted, adding that there was wrongful malice towards the house committee and its efforts. 

There was agreement between the residence leadership that ample and open opportunity is made available for students to come forward with concerns. 

But the allegations read at the commission were largely unknown to the leadership, except for the Minerva case. 

“We were at a point where we felt scared and a bit intimidated to speak Afrikaans because we didn’t know when we should speak Afrikaans,” said first-year Minerva student Milda van Dyk, who approached the house committee and residence head. 

Theory and practice 

It appears to be a case of mistranslation, but Afrikaans lobby groups and political parties argue that there must have been an issue that had upset the students.

“If there was nothing wrong here, then why this case?” said Leon Schreiber of the Democratic Alliance. “Clearly we know that something happened. Something was wrong.” 

On the first day of the hearings, Verna Stuurman, director of the Afrikaans lobby group DAK Netwerk, told the commission they needed to “determine to which extent there [has] been an injustice committed to students and staff”.

“There is a particular sense that an injustice has been made – this is what we want to see investigated,” she said. 

Stuurman was among other Afrikaans lobby groups, including StudentePlein, as well as the DA and Freedom Front Plus and the university’s Afrikaans and Nederlands department. 

According to Schreiber, there is a problem with a policy that in its practicality unfolds in such a way that says one must speak English “so that no one ever feels left out”. 

Policies are important because they render practical steps on the ground, he said. 

Likewise, Frederik van Dyk, who represented StudentePlein, argued that there was a disconnection between the policy in theory and in practice. 

“Management believes its policy shapes outcomes in reality… Us, Afrikaans students, only know a reality where English domination is enforced with the smile of inclusivity and the stick of fear and sociocultural shame,” he said. 

Van Dyk, along with the FF Plus and the DA, argued about inconsistencies in the university’s response compared with other transgressions. 

An independent forensic report by Deloitte reportedly cleared the institution’s management of instructing the prohibition of the use of Afrikaans, as well as residence leaders of banning communication in the language. (Photo by Gallo Images/ER Lombard)

FF Plus leader Dr Pieter Groenewald pointed out the university’s “swift action” in favour of the #OpenStellenbosch movement that gave rise to a revision of the 2014 language policy – which called for tuition to be 50% Afrikaans and 50% English – within a year. 

 “In the case of complaints of victimisation, bullying and microaggression towards Afrikaans students, the institution dragged its feet and the issue was only given some degree of attention after extensive media coverage,” he said. 

But on 10 June, rector and vice-chancellor De Villiers told the inquiry that “when the allegations came to the fore, we expeditiously started looking into them. And we took action.” 

These had been dealt with internally and resolved satisfactorily. 

According to Groenewald – who was also speaking in the face of allegations of political opportunism – “this issue must be approached, not through a political lens, but through a human lens within the context of a diverse and multicultural society brought forth by an extremely complicated history. Afrikaans does not belong to the FF Plus or the DA… Afrikaans belongs to the people who speak it, from the cradle and in their homes to schools, lecture halls, residence rooms, park benches and boardrooms.” DM 

Rebecca Pitt is doing her master’s in General Linguistics at Stellenbosch University.

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  • My alma mater keeps on making the news for the wrong reason. Whatever the (good?) reasons are for the language and cultural changes that are being implemented, the way in which Wim de Villiers and his cohorts are managing it, leaves a lot to be desired. The US relies to a large degree on donations from alumni as a source of funding, and I’m sure this will be negatively affected by the continued controversies and management’s inability to manage these. Prof De Villiers, ons het voorheen gesien wat in SA gebeur wanneer een groep (ras of taal) ‘n ander vertrap – leer ons (geleerdes) dan niks uit die verlede nie? Is dit rerig nodig om op hierdie manier met die US om te gaan? Is dit rerig nodig dat die universiteitsgemeenskap so aktivisties moet word, met soveel onderlinge afkeer? Is dit die beste wat jy en jou span kan doen?

  • Afrikaans has flourished since its liberation from the burden of National Party dominance, and the University of Stellenbosch had the opportunity after 1994 to develop into a deliberately planned example of high-level mother-tongue education that would not only have cut across ‘racial’ definitions but could also have assisted and inspired some other South African universities to do likewise (cf the unstinting and continuing collegial assistance provided by the Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal in helping to develop the lexicography of other South African languages). What a bold and powerful cultural affirmation of our cultural diversity that would have been!

    This opportunity was however frittered away by a combination of feeble thinking on the part of the university and the political slanging-off of Afrikaans as ‘the language of the oppressor’ (English, of cpurse, is spotless in this respect!).

    Sadly, we are left with the current half-baked muddle, which doesn’t really please anybody.The University of Ottawa, in Canada, is an explicitly bilingual (French/English) institution which seems to work. In their day the apartheid ideologues learnt valuable lessons from the ‘Indian reservations’ in Canada; perhaps it’s time to go back there and learn something a bit more useful.

  • Sad that a University becomes a political tool, especially one that has a rich cultural history and strong Afrikaans roots. By all means, be inclusive, but do not alienate ANYONE, whatever their culture or language. This is what can make us great as a country, rising above these issues and working/learning together to build a better future than what our current KAKISTOCRACY is aiming for.

  • “Language most showeth the man” – remember Sharpville!
    This university was inspired by Afrikaaners, built by Afrikaaners for Afrikaaners who have now graciously accepted and invited people of all languages to participate and benefit from this surperb institution. I think that this is their call.

  • “If there was nothing wrong here, then why this case?” said Leon Schreiber of the Democratic Alliance.
    Luckily this rational genius isn’t a judge. “I find you guilty, because otherwise you wouldn’t be in the dock”.

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