Ghent University and South Africa: An overview and new perspectives

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This lecture was presented on December 8th 2016 at Ghent University's GAPSYM10, the tenth symposium organised by The Africa Platform of Ghent University Association (GAP). Translation by Kristien Temperville (Department of Translation, Interpreting and Communication, Ghent University).

Some years ago, in 2013, Ghent University founded the Ghent Centre for Afrikaans and the Study of South Africa. The steering committee spans four departments within the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy: Literature, Linguistics, (African) Languages and Cultures, as well as Arts and Theatre Studies. The reasons for setting up this Centre and for its academic structure are described in the foundation text (available here). I will refer to this text and at the same time give you an update on the Centre's activities, as it has greatly expanded and has been very enterprising in recent years.

South Africa is the main economic and political power in Africa and, in many areas, plays a leading role in the entire continent. Along with Brazil, Russia, India and China, it is one of the so-called BRICS countries and, as such, in a way, one of the world’s (emerging) economic powers. That is also reflected in its ties with Belgium, because South Africa is the main partner for Belgian companies in Africa. This was, in fact, borne out in a recent interview with the former Belgian ambassador to South Africa. Thanks to Afrikaans which, after Zulu and Xhosa, is South Africa’s third "native language", there is an obvious cultural link between South Africa, Flanders and the Netherlands.  Afrikaans and Dutch are indeed mutually intelligible and related to a very large extent. They are sister languages, you might say, with vocabulary overlapping by about 85%. Despite popular perception, Afrikaans was, and still is, spoken by more bruin mense and swart mense than wit mense. In fact, according to the 2011 census, more people now speak Afrikaans, both in absolute and relative terms, compared to the 2001 statistics. Afrikaans is also a very important language in Namibia, where the majority of the people speak Afrikaans, either as their mother tongue or as a lingua franca. Despite this, Afrikaans has come under a great deal of pressure as the language of education and science, and university boards have decided to tolerate Afrikaans alongside English, but only just alongside. Any support from abroad for Afrikaans as an academic language is seen as very heartening and is highly appreciated by academic colleagues, scholars and writers in South Africa.

The Centre in Ghent initiates and facilitates cultural and academic cooperation which, until 1994, was suspended due to apartheid for obvious reasons. With the research group, we promote the study of the Afrikaans language and literature within the wide multilingual and multicultural context of South Africa. Afrikaans is one of the many indigenous languages of South Africa, with roots in the Netherlands as I said, but also in the Far East and particularly Africa. While the research team does not restrict its activities to Afrikaans, as it also studies other indigenous languages, it does seek to use Afrikaans as a lever to study South Africa’s social, cultural and political history and contemporary society.

In 2007, Ghent University started offering Afrikaans language and literature in a course structure. For almost ten years now, many Ghent students have been able to acquaint themselves with South Africa and Afrikaans at our university. The course unit, which enjoys a great deal of interest among students, is taught by professor Jacques Van Keymeulen (Linguistics), Annelies Verdoolaege (Languages and Cultures) and myself (Literature). During this academic year, more than 50 students are studying Afrikaans Language and Literature. Besides the academic course unit, research into Afrikaans has also gradually gained in importance, which has resulted in a growing number of Bachelor's and Master's theses. Doctoral research is currently in the pipeline. Since 2011, the research team has organized an International Afrikaans Seminar which, for the past three years, was replaced by an international conference tailored to domestic and foreign students and scholars of Afrikaans. On several occasions the seminars are called unique outside South Africa. In Ghent, researchers from South Africa and Europe are given the opportunity to present their research in Afrikaans and Dutch. More and more partnerships are being concluded with South African universities, in which the kinship between Afrikaans and Dutch greatly facilitates student and researcher mobility. The Ghent Centre has evolved as a major player in the academic field of South Africa Studies and serves as a hub in Europe where scholars meet and learn about new research undertaken. Even PhD and Master's students are given a forum during our seminars to present their research findings to the academic community. Moreover, the Poetry Centre in Ghent boasts the main collection of Afrikaans poetry located outside of South Africa. Ghent is therefore a privileged partner of South African universities where Afrikaans and Dutch are taught and studied.

As already mentioned, the Centre for South Africa and Afrikaans works closely with other universities in Europe and South Africa. There are institutional agreements in place, and good relations with Cambridge (UK), Olomouc (Czech Republic) and Poznan (Poland), among many others. Moreover, the universities of Leiden (Netherlands) and Ghent have recently expressed the wish, in consultation, to invite South African guest lecturers and authors to the Low Countries. The agreement does not only seek to organize a contact platform in the field of Afrikaans literature for Dutch and Flemish students. We, along with the university colleagues in Leiden, intend to launch PhD research and offer workshops together, present joint lectures and consult on new initiatives in the field of education and research. Incidentally, the South Africa House (Zuid-Afrikahuis) in Amsterdam is one of our preferred partners. Recently, we were invited there with our 50 students to meet Breyten Breytenbach, who received the institutional honorary doctorate, the title of doctor honoris causa, from the Ghent University in 2014.

I would like to briefly mention and add to my overview the major ten-year project of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad – VLIR) together with the University of the Western Cape, which was headed by Stef Slembrouck of the English Department. Not only is South Africa one of the ten countries that has been chosen by the VLIR as a priority for the academic Zuidwerking (South Relations), Ghent University also considers cooperation with South Africa as one of the key priorities in its internationalization policy.

After this brief outline of the structure and objectives of the Ghent Centre for Afrikaans and the Study of South Africa at our university, I would like to conclude by informing you of the collaboration with South African partner institutions. In addition to agreements with North-West University (Potchefstroom campus), University of the Western Cape (UWC, Bellville), University of Pretoria and University of the Free State (Bloemfontein), an institutional bilateral framework agreement with the University of Stellenbosch has been in place for more than 20 years. Leiden University had concluded an agreement earlier, followed by Ghent. For our university, the bilateral agreement with Stellenbosch is the oldest partnership with South Africa. Several years after the abolition of apartheid in 1990 and the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, Ghent University forged ties with Stellenbosch. The cooperation is institutional, that is to say different departments can call on the agreement and make use of student and staff mobility. I personally work closely with the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, where I have held an academic position for some years. This allows me to give guest lectures in Stellenbosch for South African students on a regular basis (each year in September). And conversely, South African colleagues come and give guest lectures for our students in the humanities in Ghent. Besides the educational side, there is the shared research. Academic researchers in Ghent and Stellenbosch supervise PhDs in partnership, sit on each other’s supervision and assessment boards and submit project applications to both FWO-Vlaanderen and the National Research Foundation of South Africa. Stellenbosch and Ghent have expressed the ambition to focus more on joint PhDs in the next few years and, if possible, work in a Low Countries partnership with the University of Leiden. In this way, tripartites are established which will significantly enhance research into Afrikaans language and literature in the Low Countries and in South Africa. In fact, the joint research is not in its infancy. Along with Stellenbosch colleagues, some academic books have recently been published that have received the international Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content quality label. In these books, the literary dialogue between the Low Countries and South Africa, particularly Afrikaans literature, takes centre stage. For example, they include contributions on the image which Breyten Breytenbach and other South African writers enjoy in the Low Countries, on the Afrikaans translation of Tom Lanoye’s play Mamma Medea and on the intertextual impact of Dutch poetry on African literature. We publish in each other's accredited journals and sit on the advisory boards of professional scientific journals. Moreover, I have recently become a member of the board of the Afrikaans Literature Association, an academic body that organizes quality conferences at various universities in South Africa every two years. As a representative of the Ghent research centre, I will have the necessary input, in consultation with the South African colleagues, to plan seminars where researchers from Europe and South Africa will meet each other.

This is my final consideration. Cooperation between Stellenbosch, where the main and very efficient Department of Afrikaans and Dutch is located in South Africa, and the Ghent University could not be better. Besides presenting lectures, my appointment as full professor allows me to conduct research in the archives, at the Stellenbosch University Library and elsewhere. That opportunity benefits my own publications, which primarily focus on transcontinental contacts between authors and texts. Meanwhile, along with my colleagues in Ghent, an extensive network has developed in South Africa as well as in Europe. Every year, Ghent University offers Master’s students the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Stellenbosch and to prepare their Master's theses in the Afrikaans language and literature. In fact, we have made similar arrangements with the University of the Western Cape and North-West University. Not only is this a personal enrichment for the students involved, their research stay also undoubtedly enhances the quality of their theses. Conversely, the Centre and my colleagues from other faculties welcome students from South Africa here each year. The programme currently provides more funding, thereby enabling students and researchers to attend lectures in Ghent (in Dutch) for three or for months and to conduct research relatively easily.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of my colleagues at the Research Centre for Afrikaans, I have tried to provide a brief overview of the cooperation with South Africa and with Stellenbosch, in particular. Of course, it is not an exhaustive list, because if it was, I would have to mention the Mandela Lectures, the Afrikaans Literature reading groups and cooperation with the South African Foundation in Amsterdam, with the SBA (Stigting vir Bemagtiging deur Afrikaans) and with SASNEV (the South African Centre for the Netherlands and Flanders), among others. There are, in short, many forms of cooperation with universities, but also with cultural associations. Nowadays we are considering a Chair at Ghent University which can be called "South Africa: languages, cultures and society". The story of our research cooperation has just started.

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