Much has been said about why the recent report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Stellenbosch University (SU) is fundamentally flawed. The SAHRC found that the university, through its residence policies, unfairly violated the human rights of students to freedom of expression, language and culture, equality and to not be discriminated against on the basis of language.
I do not want to add to the opinions produced by seasoned legal scholars critiquing the report, but rather to examine the underlying drivers of the language debacle at SU.
The SAHRC investigation into the “violation” of Afrikaans-speaking students’ constitutional rights at SU is the culmination of a dirty tricks campaign that right-wing elements have waged for years.
It is difficult to grasp the damage done by some racist right-wing groups with their obsession with the institution’s language policy. I believe DA member of Parliament and SU council member Leon Schreiber has been deliberate in undermining SU and forcing the university to waste vast resources to defend itself against malicious allegations and petty politicking.
Disturbingly, this campaign is influencing a small group of white Afrikaans students to become radicalised. There can be little doubt that the isolated racist incidents that have plagued SU in recent years are rooted in a carefully cultivated victim mentality.
Language activists have been particularly adept at convincing white Afrikaans students at SU that they’re victims in the transformation process. This a perfect embodiment of the famous quote: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
To fully comprehend the fabricated language controversy, one needs to take a deep dive into the media landscape that gave rise to it.
For almost two decades, right-wing organisations have been pushing a narrative that there is a war being waged against the Afrikaans language. Editors at some of the major Afrikaans newspapers have openly joined forces with these organisations to perpetuate this myth for mutual gain.
News reports about language issues, the so-called taalstryd, get a lot of engagement online. It’s the kind of clickbait that media houses desperately need for survival at a time when social media has disrupted the traditional media business model. Reports about an “onslaught” on Afrikaans institutions play on readers’ deepest fears and prejudice. It’s no surprise the Democratic Alliance has adopted an agenda to focus primarily on identity politics and minority interests.
When you look beyond the propaganda, you realise Afrikaans is by no means a dying language. From what I’ve seen, Afrikaans is by far the strongest and most vibrant indigenous language if one measures its impact in terms of the number of books published, newspapers, magazines, music, online publications, radio and TV shows, theatre productions, arts festivals, and so on.
Moreover, its apartheid-era legacy persisted in our failing education system to still make it a dominant language being used in schools in South Africa. To this day, the Grade 12 exam papers are produced in English and Afrikaans and so are the Attorney Admission exams. Other indigenous languages have a long way to go to get close to where Afrikaans is.
There is also a hidden benefit the Afrikaans language enjoys that you’re unlikely to read about in mainstream media: millions of rands from funds that originated in apartheid South Africa, such as the Dagbreek Trust and the Het Jan Marais Nationale Fonds, are channelled every year into projects and organisations supporting the Afrikaans language. No other indigenous language enjoys private-sector financial support on this scale.
The perfect smokescreen
In spite of such overwhelming evidence that Afrikaans is still going strong, a powerful section of the Afrikaans community has been made to believe that they are victims. They consider any effort to make institutions more accessible and representative as an attack on their cultural heritage. In a country that provides constitutional protection for every ethnic group and minority, language has become the perfect smokescreen to promote racist interests.
At its essence, the drama that played out in the SU residences was about communication. The Afrikaans students whose “human rights” were allegedly infringed were not excluded or marginalised in any way. Having lived in a mixed student res on the SU campus for four years, I’ve personally experienced the reception of first-year students.
Student leaders will request newcomers to accommodate each other and to speak a common language, English, so they can get to know each other in the initial socialising phase of the welcoming programme. The SAHRC failed to appreciate the context of this request, assuming it to be a university policy, while acknowledging that it did not have “complete clarity on the exact extent, intent and operation”.
To outsiders, the most baffling aspect of the residence controversy at SU is the fact that the students who complained about the language issue are bilingual and have the ability to communicate in English, but prefer not to. When someone refuses to communicate in a language they know, it’s always ideological. Trying to understand why Afrikaans students in such instances would want to be seen as victims should be the focal point of any scrutiny.
One of the most dishonest strategies the Afrikaans language activists have employed is the lie that they are actually fighting this battle on behalf of poor coloured students from rural areas who can only speak Afrikaans. I have never met this mythical Afrikaans person, even after being very active socially and in student structures for four years before completing my LLB degree at Stellenbosch in 2021. In fact, no one I know in Stellenbosch has ever met an Afrikaans student who performed well enough in high school to get admitted to the university but doesn’t understand a word of English.
Perhaps Schreiber’s most unforgivable exploit is the way he’s been trying to paint a picture of the SU campus as a place where there is constant strife and discrimination against Afrikaans students, with the vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, as the instigator of the eradication of Afrikaans. Nothing can be further from the truth.
With this misrepresentation of what is really happening on campus and in classrooms, Schreiber is polarising students and creating antagonism and resentment. Schreiber and the Afrikaans language activists are diminishing the considerable efforts by SU management and other stakeholders to make the university more inclusive. Under De Villiers’ leadership, SU does not shy away from acknowledging past wrongdoings, while actively reaching out to communities who were previously excluded from the university.
Sadly, the language debate has been diverting attention from the real issues in higher education in South Africa. Instead of constantly attacking SU, Schreiber and his friends could have used their ample resources to help deserving students from poor communities with university fees, food, housing and transport. The hard reality Schreiber cannot seem to accept is that South African students realise that university education opens doors to the rest of the world for them and English is the language that best provides access globally.
The bottom line is that if Stellenbosch University had remained a strictly Afrikaans-only university it would not have become a leading tertiary institution in Africa and such a force globally. Whether we like it or not, English has become the language that best bridges the divide between different language groups and cultures in South Africa. While Afrikaans is still being used widely on the SU campus, also as an academic language, most Afrikaans speakers have fully embraced English as a key to opening doors for the next generation.
I know many Afrikaans people are deeply concerned about the damage some right-wing elements are doing to the reputation and integrity of SU. Schreiber and those masquerading as language activists may have won this round with the SAHRC report, but in the long run, they will get nowhere with this fabricated “war”. Students from all cultures and languages will continue to come together in Stellenbosch and form meaningful relationships, using a language that they can all understand. DM/MC