The high-water mark of Thembalethu Seyisi’s apparent attempt to give a leg-up to Stellenbosch University’s (SU’s) management is that unnamed right-wing elements – racist white people and groups – are using language as a smokescreen to resist “transformation” and the efforts of the university and rector to make the university more “inclusive”.
Read Seyisi’s column in Daily Maverick: Elements masquerading as language activists are damaging the reputation of Stellenbosch University
He holds the report of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) – which confirms an English-only policy in residences – to be a product of the tricks of these fictional racist groups. All of this is, of course, thumb-sucking speculation.
Read more in Daily Maverick: SAHRC report on language issue at Stellenbosch University is deeply flawed
More pertinently, it seems to be a rather banal rehashing of a transformationist drive towards the homogenisation of student life, wherein distinct linguistic interests could only be seen as an impediment. This is in no sense a rebuttal of the merits and specific findings of the HRC report, but an unconvincing attempt to stigmatise and demoralise.
The underlying disappointment seems to lie in a type of betrayal by the HRC, an institution perceivably regarded as an ally to transformationism, through its vindication of the complaints of those held to be “racist”. In doing so, the HRC has put a spoke in the wheel of what used to be a simple labelling exercise to dismiss concerns about the suppression of Afrikaans. All that remains is to conclude, quite condescendingly, that the HRC has been tricked.
The irony is that, far from siding with any groups, the HRC report merely confirms a constitutional principle that no person may be prohibited from speaking a particular language at a public university, and that SU has violated this principle.
Perhaps those who find fault with a finding that no one should be forced to speak English will have revealed themselves to be staunch language activists themselves – but for English and English only.
The issue is that Seyisi’s contribution does not even grapple with the merits of such an outcome. It merely seeks to defame those assumed to have contributed to the outcome. This approach refuses to accept that a legitimate interest exists in the freedom to speak languages other than English (in this case, Afrikaans) in social environments. Fortunately, the finding of the HRC recognises this legitimate interest. The imputation of socially unacceptable motives to speakers and organisations that protect and embrace this interest will be of little, if any, consequence at all.
Seyisi writes that language activists have been particularly adept at convincing white Afrikaans students at SU that they’re victims in the “transformation process”. I am not aware of any Afrikaans activist or organisation that adopts an approach of instilling victimhood.
The contrary is apparent if regard is had to the heartening reality, also underscored by Seyisi, that Afrikaans is developing on a strong footing through civil society interventions. Far from wallowing in victimhood, these interventions require and attest to constant efforts and careful investments in the future of following generations.
One such organisation, StudentePlein, is providing academic and social support to Afrikaans students, funded by incremental investments from Afrikaans communities.
We see the juxtaposition of the interventions of Afrikaans interest groups to elusive concepts like “transformation” and “inclusivity” as attempts to lure these organisations into playing into the deliberately insatiable demands of combatants.
This has proven to serve no purpose other than to concede to even further linguistic and cultural homogenisation and, indeed in the case of SU, policies that enforce the use of English only.
Such concessions will become rare, if made at all.
The appetite of organisations tuned to building and innovating out of necessity to supplicate themselves to gain the approval of combative opponents, is rapidly declining.
The welcome vibrancy of independent civil society expansion of Afrikaans through careful stewardship and personal sacrifices should, of course, not serve as an invitation to crowd out Afrikaans even further at SU – or even to prohibit it from being used at all.
StudentePlein and others will undoubtedly continue to sincerely engage the courts and other institutions where public universities commit egregious offences, as was done in the case of the now confirmed English-only policy in SU residences.
It is to be expected that self-respecting communities and their organisations will want to push back against their speakers being instructed to “speak English, or else” in social environments and lecture halls.
The proliferation of English-only policies, sometimes militantly enforced, calls for ample response. So does the concerted defying of palpable needs for mother tongue education and cultural aspirations – a reality not accounted for in the mistaken claim that “most Afrikaans speakers have fully embraced English as a key to opening doors for the next generation”.
Bearing in mind common interests that bring members of various Afrikaans communities across the country together in Afrikaans interest organisations like StudentePlein and many others, there is fortunately no need to merchandise our value proposition through the condescending notion that we “are actually fighting this battle on behalf of poor coloured students from rural areas who can only speak Afrikaans”.
The desire of self-sustainable Afrikaans interest organisations to seek external validation should not be overestimated.
The truth of the matter is that ill-conceived accusations, often couched in a straw-man fashion, are a blip on the radar for those in the business of preserving and creating opportunities in Afrikaans.
Students from all cultures and languages will continue to come together in Stellenbosch and form meaningful relationships.
I am afraid, however, that it will not materialise in the way that English-only activists wish; namely through “using a language that they [students] can all understand”. This is a weasel euphemism for English-only, pale university campuses hell-bent on printing degrees but incapable of embracing divergent linguistic and cultural expressions, as any well-rounded university should.
StudentePlein’s bet is on meaningful relationships by way of mother tongue academic and social opportunities, while employing a lingua franca where it makes sense in the circumstances.
More importantly, it is becoming clearer that defamatory motives imputed to such expressions will cause no obstruction but, at most, distraction. DM/MC