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