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The supposedly liberal DA’s stance on the Stellenbosch University Afrikaans language policy is perplexing


Dr Matthew Blackman is a journalist and the co-author with Nick Dall of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and lives with two dogs of nameless breed.

Does the DA really think that it will gain traction in any other cultural groupings in the country by supporting white Afrikaans students at Stellenbosch who place Afrikaner language rights ahead of multiculturalism and accessibility?

Just where is the new DA headed? In a recent Opinionista piece in Daily Maverick, Ryan Smith, DA leader John Steenhuisen’s chief of staff, nailed his party’s colours to the mast by arguing that the DA intended to uphold our liberal constitution by supporting Afrikaans language rights. Steenhuisen himself has associated the DA with liberalism. As he recently claimed, South Africa has a choice: a choice between the ANC’s socialism and the DA’s liberalism.

Of course, he seems to have conveniently forgotten that social democratic parties across the world are liberal in outlook. But the real question is, is the new DA really a liberal party?

In some ways this is a strange claim. “Liberal” did, certainly during apartheid, become a euphemism for white English-speaking middle-class racists. A person uncomfortable with the National Party’s abuses but not entirely uncomfortable with the leisure and protection they afforded. But nothing could be further from the truth. The liberals, who defined themselves as such and formed the Liberal Party in 1953 were activists. Many of them were banned, imprisoned or forced to flee the country. Some of them, including Randolph Vigne, Eddie Daniels and Hugh Lewin became saboteurs, blowing up electricity pylons and radio towers.

Liberals in South Africa (and in many other countries) rarely became convinced “party men and women”, they largely took on the roles of moderators, facilitators, organisers and go-betweens. Randolph Vigne and Patrick Duncan both helped to facilitate the PAC’s march into Cape Town in 1960 led by Philip Kgosana. And with the level heads of Kgosana, Duncan and Vigne, another Sharpeville massacre was avoided in the centre of Cape Town.

Liberals were also active in helping Sabata Dalindyebo fight the pro-apartheid Matanzimas in the Transkei and aided Sam Nujoma in creating Swapo in Namibia. Ultimately liberal interventions were largely peppered with failures — the history of the true liberal is one of small cumulative victories followed by large defeats. (And so maybe in this sense the DA of Mmusi Maimane was liberal!)

The DA is supposed, by some, to be the inheritor of this politics. Helen Suzman is often cited as their spiritual leader. Suzman was in many ways the quintessential liberal (although never a member of Alan Paton’s Liberal Party). Suzman took on those recognisable features of the liberal: a worrier, an organiser, a badgerer, a canary in the sulphurous mine shaft. She spoke out on subjects, even when she knew it compromised the Progressive Federal Party’s election campaigns. She stuck to her guns, even when she knew that a movement to the right would be beneficial to the PFP’s electoral cause.

As Tony Judt, one of the great liberal intellectuals of the past 30 years, once put it, the liberal has always stood out against those: “who speak only on behalf of their country, class, religion, ‘race’, ‘gender’, or ‘sexual orientation’, and who shape their opinions according to what they take to be the interest of their affinity of birth or predilection… the distinctive feature of the liberal intellectual in past times was precisely the striving for universality; not the unworldly or disingenuous denial of sectional identification but the sustained effort to transcend that identification in search of truth or the general interest.”

If Judt is right about this, then the DA has come a long way from its liberal roots. For identity politics is precisely the new drum the DA beats on, with its latest focus on Afrikaner language rights. Ryan Smith says in his Opinionista:

“I met students from Stellenbosch University a few weeks ago and heard worrying accounts of university residences banning the use of Afrikaans beyond lecture theatres. A culture of intimidation and fear has set in where Afrikaans is disallowed in hallways, on park benches and even in shared bathrooms.”

Several things can be said about such statements. First is that this is entirely hearsay evidence. Smith offers no substantive proof that this is happening. Here he plays a dangerous game of populist politics. How many people who have read this will now go around quoting this as fact? If he has proof then he must state it clearly.

Smith’s nondescript faceless forces at work at the university is dog-whistle politics of a disturbing variety. Note how “park benches” (a clear reference to apartheid) and “shared bathrooms” (a bugbear of the anti-woke movement at universities) are placed here.

Just who, Smith seems to be asking, is the evil autocratic power in South Africa chipping away at Afrikaans culture? Just who, he seems to be questioning, are those discriminatory forces underlying the university’s 2016 language policy?

Professor Wim de Villiers, the rector of the university, is offered up as the initiator of the policy “to gradually phase out Afrikaans on campus”. But Stellenbosch University’s language policy document in fact states “we commit ourselves to multilingualism by using the province’s three official languages, namely Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.” This, slightly ironically, is a return to Stellenbosch’s multilingual tradition. The university did originally teach in English and Dutch, then Afrikaans was added and finally, with the help of the likes of DF Malan, Afrikaans became the sole medium of instruction.

It is perhaps worth noting too that the National Party was the strongest advocate of home-language education that this country has ever had. In fact, it was the whole premise of Bantu Education. Its policy was to divide South Africa as much by its languages as by its colours.

When Gelyke Kanse took the university’s 2016 policy all the way to the Constitutional Court, the court acknowledged that the university could constitutionally “adopt a preference for English in certain circumstances to advance the university’s goals of equal access, multilingualism and integration while also maintaining and preserving Afrikaans, subject to demand and within the university’s available resources.” The court found that “the university’s obligations under section 29(2) of the Bill of Rights are limited to providing Afrikaans education where reasonably practicable and through reasonable educational alternatives.

Smith seems to express, rather alarmingly, just where the DA’s politics now lie. The once defenders of Constitutional Court rulings are now seemingly in the same leaky boat as Jacob Zuma, crying foul and demanding “justice” outside of the courts. The DA is ready to support white Afrikaans students who feel culturally threatened by the university’s multiculturalism and its stand on fair accessibility to all races. Although Smith rightly claims that Afrikaans is not only a white language, he goes on to say that “the real victims of Afrikaans stigma are most certainly its white speakers.” And there, front and centre, is the DA’s current politics.

Interestingly the more nuanced argument, that Afrikaans might lose its academic vocabulary as a result of the 2016 policy, is almost entirely lost in the DA’s scramble to hold ground in the culture war. The liberal, and South Africa’s first Minister of Education, FS Malan, argued that the Nationalists made a fetish out of the Afrikaans language. This is something the DA should perhaps take note of.

Smith does, to be fair to him, try to then extrapolate that if this is happening to Afrikaans then, what must be happening to the other languages and other cultures? That is a fair point. But why doesn’t he find out? And why is the DA starting with Stellenbosch, one of the original seats of apartheid? What about the troubles at Fort Hare? A university whose multiracial and multitribal culture was destroyed when it was forced into becoming a Xhosa “Bush College” by Verwoerd (the once professor of sociology at Stellenbosch).

Does the DA really think that it will gain traction in any other cultural groupings in the country by supporting white Afrikaans students at Stellenbosch who place Afrikaner language rights ahead of multiculturalism and accessibility? If so then it, in its reassembling of the party after Mmusi Maimane’s dismissal, has had its heads screwed, not on to its top, but into its opposite end.

Has the DA simply given up on the pretence that it is a liberal-leaning party? Seemingly it is now, certainly in the national structures, becoming simply the dialectical opposite of the EFF. It is presently rooting itself in an identity politics that will no doubt gain traction in a certain cultural grouping, but where else? With this, it is entirely giving up on the liberal’s universalist cause and is ceding the liberal ground to Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC faction. Cyril must be thanking his lucky stars that he can now hold the centre ground in a manner not afforded to the ANC for many years. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anton van Niekerk says:

    How does forced anglicization promote multiculturalism? Maybe the author should step put of his Cape Town bubble and realize that the majority of people in the WC who ‘prot the tall’ are not white. He deserves a medal, though, for his impressive collection of dog whistles.

  • Johan says:

    “(T)he more nuanced argument” promise so much; the article seems brass. Just shows how difficult this discussion is. Consider also language (L) demographics, UNESCO on the science of L of instruction, L as thinking, L as culture, English lingua franca, promote indigenous Ls, resources, prejudice…

  • Desmond McLeod says:

    I often wonder if these commentators ever actually think about their opinion pieces or just think about the word count and remuneration?

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    This article is full of accusations, prejudices and vitriol. It’s very funny when authors are guilty of exactly the things they complain about. A pity, as a balanced view minus the political opinion might have been helpful.

  • Francois Rabie says:

    Mr Blackman is part of a privileged, elite group of people; white, English speaking South Africans. The only cultural-linguistic group in our country that is guaranteed language security and superiority. Must be easy to lecture the rest of us from his anglicized soap-box.

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