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Political agendas, not language diversity, fuelling the furore over Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University

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Dr Simthembile Xeketwana is a lecturer in Curriculum Studies, Faculty of Education, at Stellenbosch University. His research interest is language and education, particularly in schools. He is also the residence head of Huis Francie van Zijl on Stellenbosch University's Tygerberg Campus.

Is the question about Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University really about language as a tool for learning or is it about advancing political agendas? Will those who are now taking the university to the SAHRC be there when these languages are being implemented or are we going to see them again in the next language policy review or election year?

It feels like yesterday when I was in that room full of students and staff members in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU). It was 2015, and we felt that we could not breathe any more because of Afrikaans at the institution.

I can still remember the fear, anguish, animosity and anger in the room. These feelings were not just written on the faces of those gathered there, but were expressed in the discussions that ensued on that hot summer’s day.

In the zeitgeist of #RhodesMustFall, it was said that the problem SU needed to address most was not visual redress (statues and building names on campus), but its language policy (the 2014 version was then in force). It was seen as exclusionary and hostile towards the students who were unable to speak Afrikaans or not competent in it. The use of Afrikaans in the classroom was regarded as a stumbling block to facilitate learning.

At that time, unfortunately, no Freedom Front Plus or Democratic Alliance (DA) stepped up to take the university to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). The students and staff collectively fought for what they believed was right and just.

And yet on 15 June 2021, just a day before Youth Day, we found ourselves sitting in front of the SAHRC being asked if we have ever denied anyone the right to speak Afrikaans in our SU residence. Is this a coincidence for me, as a black academic and residence head at SU?

How I wished that this occurred in the days of #OpenStellenbosch, a group that was formed in 2015 to challenge the hegemony of white Afrikaans culture and the exclusion of black students and staff at SU. That an SAHRC hearing would take place six years later, from this angle, felt surreal.

Over the past couple of months, our residence, Huis Francie van Zijl on the Tygerberg Campus, has been embroiled in a dispute about allegedly denying Afrikaans students the right to speak in their mother tongue in the corridors or private spaces.

It is time that I as a resident head speak out about this seemingly politically motivated and spurious allegation towards Huis Francie. As I have said in all the investigations and in response to all the questions, I had no knowledge of any student(s) in our residence lodging a complaint of being denied the opportunity to speak Afrikaans.

In Huis Francie, students speak any languages they wish, as they should. It is right that they engage as they please in the corridors and rooms of the res, and even in their private spaces. I have never been instructed by anyone to limit any student from speaking Afrikaans in our community.

It is a pity that when people are being asked to be inclusive and accommodate those who don’t understand Afrikaans, some view it as an attack on Afrikaans speakers. This becomes misconstrued even more when parents, who are not residents, take it out of context and run to the media.

We have been hearing for months now from those who are appalled by the perceived attempts by the university to prevent students from speaking Afrikaans. However, it is important to point out that a lot has happened over the past five years since SU changed its language policy (in 2016) to make it more inclusive.

Since I have been in Huis Francie (from September 2017), I have seen our residence grow and become more in tune with the diversity of our country. House committee members have always shown integrity, compassion and dignity in their leadership in a manner that in no way appeared forceful to their constituencies.

In fact, Huis Francie uses all 11 of South Africa’s official languages in signage. Is that enough? It is not, but it is a good start in the right direction. Imagine a student who has travelled all the way from Limpopo and sees signage in their language upon their arrival. How will that shape that student’s view about SU, the residence and the community that they will be part of for the next three or four years?

Our aim is to offer all students a transformative experience, not just a selected few. Our “sin” is that we do not always run to the media when we get it right. Our mandate has always been about inclusivity and opening SU to those who never thought they would be welcome.

And we should do more. In my career as an academic, I have worked on a number of projects where I have argued that the 2016 language policy was indeed a good start for SU, but we are not quite there yet. I have made it clear that we are in a diminishing university when we say we are multilingual but in reality English and Afrikaans dominate. Yes, isiXhosa is mentioned in the 2016 language policy, but is not used as much as the other two languages.

If we want to claim that we are a multilingual institution, then we need to move beyond two languages to three. This would be a good start, and I believe the new language policy currently being revised with a view to submitting a draft to Council by the end of 2021 will achieve that.

We added translanguaging as a teaching strategy in multilingual classrooms to the policy under review. For that to work, we need to be receptive to the idea as lecturers first. Students can be permitted to interpret concepts on their own in the classroom environment, with their peers interpreting on the spot.

My Afrikaans is very limited but when teaching, and if a student struggles, I have permitted them to speak in Afrikaans and allow their peers to interpret in discussion until we all get the point. If, as a lecturer, I can verbalise it back and the students agree, then we have got somewhere together.

Students in my classes have always welcomed the idea of multilingualism. In some of my work I have been clear about the beauty of multilingualism and how it can only enhance social cohesion at our university and in the rest of South Africa.

Is this an easy journey to embark on? Definitely not, and it can only be enhanced when we realise that all South Africans will have to make some sacrifices and allow other languages to develop, and languages only develop when they are used.

At this stage, I cannot help but wonder if the question about Afrikaans is really about language as a tool for learning or if it is about advancing certain political agendas. Will those who are now taking the university to the SAHRC be there when these languages are being implemented in the teaching and learning environments or are we going to see them again in the next language policy review or election year?

As much as I have not always agreed with my colleague Jonathan Jansen on other issues such as student politics, I take his point when he explicated that the Afrikaans question at SU was never about teaching and learning in the classrooms, but about a certain group that think they have lost political power.

My hope is that those who are so extremely unhappy about the fact that students were asked to speak a common language during the welcoming period in residences at the start of the academic year will always be consistent in their unhappiness and cries. I hope such unhappiness will cut across language and racial barriers and be channelled and diversified in all the challenging and complex issues of our country.

Ndisaqhumisa umdiza wam, ngethemba lokuba nezivalekileyo zakuva! I await to hear from the others. DM

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  • Historically, English speaking students accepted that when they chose to go to SU, that it was an Afrikaans speaking environment. If they did not want that, they applied elsewhere. The reverse was the case at Wits.

  • Why did you not just go to another University? If you were good enough to get into the Arts and Social Sciences faculty at Maties, you would have got into any other Arts and Social Sciences faculty, maybe one that suited your cultural “breathing space” more and stopped you from suffocating?

  • I used to be of the opinion that Afrikaners and Afrikaans should give up their dominance at US. At the core of this thought was my own experiences there as a student, and my memories of this arch-conservative racist institution, and the majority of students. As we say in Afrikaans – ons het nie by dieselfde vuur gesit nie. Still today, the likes of Afriforum and their obvious agenda bothers me. I feel there is still too much of that old Afrikaner strond present. However, lately I have reviewed this knee-jerk stance. Stellenbosch is not the same place as it was in my time. When I read lines like “in tune with the diversity in our country” in relation to Afrikaans, no matter how good it sounds, it is really a lie. The need to remove a minority language as the primary language of instruction where the large majority of students speak that language is as misguided as trying to enforce a minority language as the primary language of education nationally. Both of the above are examples of abuse of power. No matter how you dress them up, that’s what they are. No matter how this writer tries to paint his ideas as progressive, the only difference between his ideas, and those of his white Afrikaans predecessors is that he is party to a majority imposing on a minority. He is right on one front, though – the entire thing has been politicised with a small minority (on campus)successfully imposing a national black majoritarian agenda on a minority battling for space. In the larger, national arena, it is the minority that cannot breathe.

  • This is a very shallow opinion, based mainly on hostile and apparently uninformed speculation about the motives of Afrikaans-speaking people. The author says that his Afrikaans is very limited, but does not say whether he has made any attempt to improve it. Perhaps his hostility is a way of justifying a choice not to make the effort? It’s unfortunate that Stellenbosch is basing its language policies on view such as these.

  • It has always been political and not language. If it were language you would have chosen to attend a different university that would use a language of instruction of your choice. Your misguided anger should be directed to your government who have made no effort whatsoever to increase the number of tertiary education facilities, nor any attempt whatsoever to develop and encourage higher education in indigenous languages in order to remove the so-called privelege of education.

  • Thank you, Simthembile Xeketwana. I like your opinion piece on this subject. My mother tongue is Afrikaans and I studied at the US decades ago. What I find most alarming and sad though, are many of the comments on your article: instead of hearing your voice, you are more than once peppered with reactions like, “Why did you not just go to another University?” For me, this is not the issue here. For me the issue is to find common ground to communicate and English seems to be the best option. We are after all living in a South Africa where a privileged few can not force their policies onto the majority any longer. At this stage in my life I am so fed up with conversations and arguments by the language group, Afrikaans, on this topic that I am too ashamed to speak Afrikaans in public anymore. I do not want to be associated with this archaic and irrelevant view of Afrikaans, especially as portrayed by my age group. Please do not let your voice be silenced, Simthembile Xeketwana.

    • The majority language in the Western Cape is Afrikaans. So, rather ironically, in the case of US, the minority is forcing their policy on the majority.

      Your argument that “a privileged few […] force their policies on the majority” is therefore blatantly untrue, misleading, and without merit in this case.

      There are also no fewer than three other universities in the Western Cape where English is the sole or primary language of instruction. That is in the Western Cape alone, besides all the other universities across South Africa.

      Is it truly so unfair to expect one single university with Afrikaans as primary or sole language of instruction in a provice where the majority language is Afrikaans?

      In my opinion it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

      Exceptions could and should be made only for coures that are truly not available at any other learning institutions.

      I suspect, however, that attending US and demanding that the institution respect one’s right to be instructed in English, and to be welcomed in English, and to socialise in English, is a political act, rather than the result of having limited options elsewhere. I suspect that it is a deliberate act of aggression agains a minority language.

      You are most welcome to not speak Afrikaans in public any longer, Ina. Just don’t expect that you can force the rest of the majority Afrikaans-speaking population to dance to the same tune.

    • Ina, we do hear his voice. But his voice carries an irrational message. It’s like a Muslim settling in London and then insisting on the application of Sharia law. It makes no sense. If you do not want your lectures in Afrikaans, go somewhere else – as Hendrik points out, there are multiple choices in the Western Cape alone. Change for the sake of change is not always good. `Sometimes, the way things are is just better. I am a Wits graduate, but my four children all graduated at Stellenbosch – because I knew it was at that time free from this nonsensical multi-cultural all-dumb-down-to-the-lowest-common-denominator stance. They could hardly speak Afrikaans when they joined, but they all went on to achieve academic distinction while there. My eldest is a senior economist at the OECD in Paris, my second has a career in brand management in London, my third is in London in publishing and my fourth works her heart out at Baragwanath Hospital in Gauteng. All thanks to a fantastic education at US. I really don’t care for these moaners who can’t get over their very obvious contempt and hatred for the Afrikaners in our society.

    • You should have been ashamed to speak Afrikaans 25 years ago. That would have been a worthy political act at that time. This issue is more about the diminishing rights of minorities and an increasingly tyrannous majoritarian government. Afrikaans speakers are not the only minority in this country, and all opposers of a language policy do not necessarily have a racist agenda. Its actually about survival.

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