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Opinionista

Afrikaans has a painful history and was used to degrade millions

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Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar was born in Cape Town and raised by his determined mother, grandparents, aunt and the rest of his maternal family. He is an admitted attorney (formerly of the corporate hue), with recent exposure in the public sector, and is currently working on transport and infrastructure projects. He is a Mandela Washington Fellow, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, and a WEF Global Shaper. He had a brief stint in the contemporary party politic environment working for Mamphela Ramphele as Agang CEO and chief-of-staff; he found the experience a deeply educational one.

This week, the Democratic Alliance and the Freedom Front Plus sought to defend Afrikaans by suggesting that it is an African or South African language, and that it is the “third largest language in South Africa”. The DA explained that Afrikaans belongs to “millions of so-called coloureds, most of whom are from poor or working class homes, it is the only language they speak” and that “it was developed locally.”

Today it is all about a zero-sum game where fools get to make decisions and then claim to be acting in the interests of the country. We can see through the farce and contrived attempt to deceive us. The work of nation building has been left to the ghosts of our past as many of our leaders appear to be concerned only with themselves.

The zero-sum game is a pervasive and ever consuming mind-set that has taken root beyond those who are elected into office. The danger, however, is that too often our disillusionment in our leaders will see their behaviour being mimicked, and we will go through a vicious cycle of perpetuating the same wrong we are forced to accept. The risk is that the abused often becomes the abuser. We will have to have many more conversations to challenge our own approach to change, as too often others are seen as expedient and blind loyalty is desired above all else.

Space remains a contentious issue especially since the Apartheid regime was hell-bent on confining the majority of South Africans to the edges of society and opportunity. The system was designed to destroy, and to make people less. Space across our cities and university campuses remain contentious as we are unwilling to confront the destructive and exclusionary construct that continues to make people feel less.

The language policy at Stellenbosch University is one clear example of this conflict. The medium of instruction policy (Afrikaans) continues to make students feel alienated and marginalised. Context is critical to this debate. Apartheid was carefully designed to make citizens of this country feel less, and it remains a lived experience that they must contend with from our towns, cities, schools, universities and workplaces. This lived experience is often denied by those who do not appreciate that our democracy and Constitution is designed to balance competing interests, and not simply to entrench the status quo. To claim that a shift in the language policy is unconstitutional is short-sighted, and also deeply offensive when the context of the issue is simply ignored.

The university Rector’s management team this week indicated that there would be a shift at Stellenbosch as to how it approached the medium of instruction. However, in a matter of hours, the symbolic move to reconsider the use of language was undone when the University’s Council indicated that “any possible future changes in the language policy/plan shall follow the statutory route” in other words, the status quo must remain.

This week, the Democratic Alliance and the Freedom Front Plus sought to defend Afrikaans by suggesting that it is an African or South African language, and that it is the “third largest language in South Africa”. The DA focussed their energies on stating that Afrikaans belongs to “millions of so-called coloureds, most of whom are from poor or working class homes, it is the only language they speak” and that “it was developed locally”.

Afrikaans has a painful history in our country, and was used by the Apartheid regime to degrade millions, and that past cannot simply be ignored. Defending Afrikaans can be done without ignoring the fact that there is a need to transform the language policy at Stellenbosch and that the real issue is that we need to transform our society. #OpenStellenbosch in a painful and honest account highlighted why the medium of instruction is critical to addressing transformation and to reclaim the space. Blindly defending Afrikaans without remembering the context and impact of that policy is problematic, which has no place in our society.

Importantly, our Constitution was designed to balance competing interests, but ultimately to transform our society from a divided and broken past. The blind defence of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch is unnecessary. The blind loyalty symbolises the problematic nature of privilege, as it will often will rely on the system to protect the status quo without understanding that what is at issue is that South Africans today feel excluded and that is unacceptable.

Surely, we cannot have a policy that excludes black South Africans from accessing a national resource? The discussion at Stellenbosch is not about whether the Afrikaans language is spoken by a majority of people in the Western Cape. We cannot simply make decisions by this statistic devoid of context, and we should focus our energy on addressing a language policy that excludes and is discriminatory. DM

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