Defend Truth


Elements masquerading as language activists are damaging the reputation of Stellenbosch University


Thembalethu Seyisi is a Stellenbosch University alumnus.

The SAHRC investigation into the ‘violation’ of Afrikaans-speaking students’ constitutional rights at Stellenbosch University is the culmination of a dirty tricks campaign that right-wing elements have waged for years.

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.

Students radicalised

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.  

Identity politics

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    Naturally Afrikaners are sensitive about their Language. They put huge efforts into turning it into a medium for academic discourse. They have endured the belittling of us ‘superior’ English speakers and now it has no longer government enforcement it’s rapid disappearance from public life is obvious. It has been a bone of fierce contention and the tinder for 1976. Love it or hate what it stood for it is definitely no longer in so strong a position. It’s clear that any language which is little used by the young is endangered. Racism is the ugly sister in this dispute but it still needs a better resolution . To deny there’s a reason for their anxiety simply feeds the flames.

  • Danie Steyn says:

    Call me “right wing” if you want. The fact of the matter is that due to overeager attempts by the students committee running the residences, Afrikaans-speaking students were dissuaded or otherwise forced into using their mother language in private conversation. This misconception will now hopefully be set right by the university administration.
    As far as I know, Afrikaans is the only official language besides English that has the subject terminology required for tertiary education most if not all subjects. Surely this should count towards a smidgen of benefit? Any other indigenous language which meets this criteria should equally be promoted on university level. Do not make Afrikaans the culprit in this, nothing prevents other indiginous languages to do the same, as (and now I am being mischievous) as likewise no black people have been prevented to erect their own Sanlams, Volkaskas Banks or Reddingsdaadbonds.
    A black alumnus of Stellenbosch had an epiphany which the writer of this article has clearly not had. Please read the article in today’s Burger by Murray la Vita in response to the book Milk the Beloved Country by Sihle Kumalo.

    • Alison Beere says:

      Hi Danie

      I appreciate that this is an issue close to the heart of Afrikaans speakers. Having a deep love for one’s mother tongue is certainly no crime.

      With respect, may I reflect on the following paragraph from your comment please, in the interest of perhaps broadening this debate?

      As you stated:
      “As far as I know, Afrikaans is the only official language besides English that has the subject terminology required for tertiary education most if not all subjects. Surely this should count towards a smidgen of benefit? Any other indigenous language which meets this criteria should equally be promoted on university level.”

      The reason that your words are true about Afrikaans is because under apartheid, state resources were used to develop and elevate Afrikaans, in pursuit of entrenching apartheid principles about race.

      So Afrikaans ended up in a superior position over other indigenous languages directly due to the injustices of the apartheid state. Is it fair to continue to perpetuate this now? There is no university in SA that singles out one indigenous language and promotes its use (alongside English) over all others?

      I write this while fully aware that as an English speaker, the history of my people belittling Afrikaans, Afrikaners and in fact every indigenous language and people group we ever colonised is something which has privileged English speakers unduly & shaped the world in many harmful ways.

  • Andre Du Toit says:

    Another Afrikaner bashing article. To add some spice, call them racist as well.
    As the author states, Afrikaans is doing well in publishing and cultural circles, but in spite of SU, not because of it. SU was cherished and supported by the Afrikaner with the aim of establishing a world class institution. This is did achieve with many of its students having international impact.
    Cape Town has two English medium universities, so no English speakers would/could/should be deprived as far as developing academically. The question really is whether SU can survive economically as an Afrikaans language institution? I believe that it can.
    At many fronts, the Afrikaner is experiencing a push to denigrade his language and ultimately himself. I am not against multi-lingualism and am willing to communicate in any way to exchange information with anyone else, even if it is by drawing pictures on the workshop floor (as I have done). What I do find unacceptable, is to be told is that my language is not worthy. Afrikaans is a fully developed academic, commercial, cultural and scientific language.
    What I see in SA, is far too much breaking down instead of building up. Would it not be better to develop the other indigenous languages to allow young people to grasp concepts in their mother tongue rather than struggling through a foreign language?
    There is German saying “As many languages I speak am I another person”. Language can do that for one.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    There are so many English medium universities available in South Africa, why the pre-occupation with SU? Are you truly concerned with the access issue, based solely on English? Or is SU and Afrikaans a deeper problem for you? Is it a thorn in your side that, long before white folk arrived here, Dutch universities existed, Dutch was written and read, a documented language, as opposed to what existed in sub-saharan Africa? Is it irritating that the language of the “oppressor” is the preferred medium of instruction at SU? Is there a little bit of the racist shine coming through there? Is it not conceivable that SU could be left as an Afrikaans medium university?

  • John Cartwright says:

    The author’s insights are undermined by his fallback onto half-truths around the ‘war’ being waged by ‘rightwing elements’. Yes, Afrikaans is doing well, and yes, there are some prominent political mischiefmakers, but the Human Rights Commission are quite right in standing up for the rights of Afrikaans-speaker to use their home language in social contexts. And surely there is room for the development of universities in South Africa conducted primarily in an African language, inspired and assisted by the example of Afrikaans? But Afrikaans still suffers against the irrational prejudice of the ‘language of the oppressor’, as if English, French, German and Russion weren’t ‘guilty’ on a hugely greater scale – but how can one possibly ‘blame’ a language, anyway?

  • Gerrie Pretorius says:

    “No other indigenous language enjoys private-sector financial support on this scale.”
    My question in this instance is ‘Why’. Why have non of the very rich people or communities or businesses of the other indigenous languages not set up similar trusts for the upliftment specific to their culture and language?

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