An apartheid-era TV series filmed at the then Rand Afrikaans University – now the University of Johannesburg – dealt with student “unrest” on campus. This classic propaganda piece, reportedly paid for by the security police, portrayed students as witless sheep, manipulated by communist agitators to buy into manufactured political grievances. Naturally, this leads to the “unrest”. However, the hero of the story, an undercover security police operative, uncovers the fiendish plot just in time.
Enter Thembalethu Seyisi, a postgraduate from Stellenbosch University (SU), who rejects as highly flawed the Human Rights Commission (HRC) report on the violation of the linguistic human rights of Afrikaans students at SU. He uses the following arguments:
- The HRC report is the culmination of a “dirty tricks campaign” by right-wingers “masquerading as language activists”. They use language as a smoke screen to promote racist aims and collude with the Afrikaans media to stoke fear and anger among Afrikaans speakers.
- “Disturbingly”, their campaign radicalises “a small group of white Afrikaans students”, who are convinced they are the victims of the transformation process at the university. He then blames their indoctrination for the “isolated racist incidents” at SU.
Read More in Daily Maverick: SAHRC report on language issue at Stellenbosch University is deeply flawed
In other words, cynical racist agitators manipulate hapless students to buy into a “fabricated language controversy”, a narrative that compares well with the abovementioned propagandistic TV series.
Seyisi relies on further assertions to support his rejection of the HRC report, namely that:
- The Afrikaans students’ human rights were not infringed upon, and they were not marginalised in any way.
- The Afrikaans students are bilingual but (unreasonably) refuse to use English, which is an ideological choice (i.e. they are the problem, not the language practices at residences).
- English is the common language that bridges the divide between different language groups and cultures in South Africa.
One would expect anybody who contradicts the findings of an entity like the HRC so fundamentally, to at least present some serious supporting evidence. But, alas, the assertions come without a smidgen of factual support, along with a touch of factual misrepresentation.
The truth of the matter is that Afrikaans students of all races were in fact “requested” to speak English only and were admonished when they didn’t do so – even in private settings or on the phone with friends or parents (I know this because we interviewed several students and parents).
In other words, as determined by the HRC, the English-only instructions clearly infringed upon the relevant students’ language rights, and it wasn’t at all unreasonable to complain about this.
Why does Seyisi support such a high-handed imposition of English monolingualism at a university that is at pains to portray itself as multilingual?
There appears to be a link with Seyisi’s uncritical embrace of English as the “common language”.
English is indeed an important and useful language that should be mastered by all South Africans. Its status as an academic and international language is “unassailable”, according to the late Neville Alexander – but, unfortunately, is also “unattainable”. A great many people feel less than confident in speaking the language. Accordingly, English not only includes but also excludes – just like all other languages on the planet, including Afrikaans. That is why real inclusion requires a multilingual mindset, a notion accepted by SU itself.
Seyisi’s denial of the lived experience of Afrikaans students of all races and backgrounds surprises. It also betrays a lack of sensitivity to the intersection of class and language at institutions like universities. Who is denied access because of English? Who drops out because of the language? Who is not present at the university, to begin with, and could a more effective multilingual regime reasonably help to include them – socially and academically?
Seyisi’s tale about conspiratorial racist agitators and stupid students stigmatises and demonises Afrikaans, and those who speak it.
It also presents the reader with a zero-sum proposition: English-only versus a vile other – the very polarised perspective that both the Kampepe inquiry and the HRC rejected.
Where to from here? Seyisi’s logic resonates with the classic authoritarian impulse to smother oppositional voices and reject the possibility of constructive engagement.
This poverty is a pity. A talented young intellectual like Seyisi can help to change the world for the better – but not like this.
I invite him for a face-to-face discussion over a cup of coffee. DM/MC