Let’s be frank upfront. What I am about to propose will never happen; resistance against the idea, if expressed at all, will come with words like, “Over my dead body,” “Never in a thousand years,” and “Wait until the minister hears about this.” But, the fact is, if the University of Cape Town really wants to decolonise itself, it has to become Afrikaans.
Decolonisation is not a bad concept around which to develop a framework for the change that is evidently necessary at our universities. As long as one remembers that historically it is nothing new; that colonisation historically has been a common mechanism for redistributing technology and knowledge; that it should be allowed to happen to different degrees in different disciplines; and that it should not allow itself to become an alibi for racism; then, much that is worthwhile can be achieved.
In criticising events at UCT, which seems to have taken the lead among South African universities in ideologising decolonisation, one should also remind oneself that universities are vast, complex enterprises, and that what happens in one corner of the campus is not necessarily applicable to another. And there is a contradiction in calling for greater open-mindedness and academic liberty, and then becoming restrictive and dismissive about new explorations just because the adolescent presenters get things wrong. The right to free speech and its encouragement should include the right to make a fool of oneself without being traumatised for life.
Having said that, there is no gainsaying that the red and yellow flags popping up everywhere at UCT need to be attended to. The heavy-handed way in which the university handles the curation of its art collection – with its disdain for the artists affected, its stonewalling of outside criticism and, above all, its bureaucratic and snobbish secrecy – does not bode well for the future. Breyten Breytenbach may relish being a gadfly, but when struggle stalwarts, such as the photographer Paul Weinberg, raise objections about historical works depicting the crimes of apartheid being shot down because they show black people in a bad light, it has become time to draw a line through UCT as a place you want to send your kids to.
For this piece, though, what interests me is the logic that is being set in motion in the various decolonisation debates emerging from the university, even when it becomes clear that much gets lost in translation and in the Chinese telegram of our multifarious traditional and social media – and apparent censorship of the university’s censorship. One clear ideal that has been written in faeces, the ashes of burnt paintings and bruises from Ntokozo Qwabe’s Oxford kerrie, is for the university to address better the extreme misery in its surrounds, in Cape Town’s shacklands and ghettoes.
Apart from the self-regarding, consumerist and monetising fees-must-fall core of the student uprisings these past few years, this has been the most common concern across the country’s campuses. Along with it came a key progression at every hotspot, which has been kept under the radar by our Eurocentric media: moving from actions aimed at eradicating Afrikaans at universities to the frequent expression nowadays, albeit mostly informally, of the desire to get tuition in the mother tongue.
In broad terms, colonisation through the ages has always been about settling members of an empire in foreign territories that have been conquered or threatened with conquest, in order to exploit their natural resources for the centre of the empire. It has also always been accompanied by entrenching cultural practices and knowledge systems, often imposing them through some mechanism of force.
British colonialism has been by far the most brutal and destructive national-scale force in South Africa’s history. And the University of Cape Town has played its role as engine for the dissemination of supremacist ideas and practices, emblematised by the statue of Cecil John Rhodes whose machine guns were so effective in the wars of subjugation he instigated and financed.
When Cecil John Rhodes’s statue was removed, the wide resonance of the deed in the offices, lecture halls and watering holes of the country’s intellectual elite attested to the depth of this association that UCT has had with British colonialism – also that, typical of capitalist-engendered endeavour, it has not always been above board, in the light of the revelations about Rhodes’s very slight and very hyped personal contribution to UCT. It remains a key moment in our recent history, and also on an individual level: I shall always remember with fondness how the production team at the newspaper where I worked, the members of which were from across the political and racial spectrum, came up with our headline for the event, and the pleasure we got from it: Cecil John Gone.
Mamphela Ramphele wrote in her book Ghosts of apartheid about the intense struggle she had with faculty while vice-chancellor. Ramphele is not blameless, but the overall impression is of an institution deeply entrenched in colonial values and seeing itself as exempt from the need to change because of its global standing. Witness the medical professor, heading some global medical association, who rudely asked her, “Do you know who I am?”
And then, there was the Mahmood Mamdani affair. The esteemed African philosopher left in exasperation after he could no longer stomach the resistance against his attempts to reform the curriculum. Mamdani, too, is probably not blameless, but once again the message was clear that the tenured classes at UCT would fight tooth and nail to stay rooted in the new global forms of colonisation or empire.
Here’s the thing: one of Mamdani’s biggest disillusionments was with the failure of the ANC government to begin pushing for using local languages for tuition at universities. In the years thereafter, this was a common leitmotif when he talked about the events. When he raised the matter again this year at the TB Davie memorial lecture at the university, it was nothing new in his thought – also not his contention that the rise and development of Afrikaans was the most successful example of decolonisation on the continent.
What was new was that the student uprising had taken place. Perhaps Mamdani was not up to speed on the details, but when students burst out laughing at the reiteration of his beliefs about Afrikaans, obviously having heard them for the first time, he looked discomfited (seen in the video of the event posted on UCT’s website). They were still under the influence of their populist successes with the Open Stellenbosch campaign, which has become rather defunct, probably because “die koeël is deur die kerk”; Stellenbosch is now becoming, for all intents and purposes, an English-language university.
Where I differ from Mamdani is that Afrikaans is not only the best example of African decolonisation, but it is the only one sustainable on a state of the art technological level. The technological and other gaps are so vast between the rest of the world and Africa, that it will for a long time still be beholden to new modes of being and living designed elsewhere and for other populations. All that really remains as terrain for decolonisation, or deneocolonisation, is language.
And, that there is linkage between language and technology or science, and thus economic enterprise, has been picked up by such a historian as Hermann Giliomee, who has stated that South Africa would not have had so many engineers and other professionals had Afrikaans not been made an official language in 1925.
In the end, though, Mamdani still got his standing ovation, and though most media reports neatly elided his comments about Afrikaans, his speech seems to have been largely imbibed as wholesome food for thought. That was to be expected in the light of the turnaround in many students’ thinking on local languages.
The challenge, of course, is how such tuition in the vernacular is to be done. The Constitution has emerged as a major obstacle, since current interpretations of it by Anglocentric legal professionals, many of them returnees from exile abroad and therefore socialised in English-dominant societies all with their substrata of subalterns produced by systemic racism, end up in the promotion of globalised monolingualism, that is, English.
It is also being promoted by a laissez-faire approach in government, where decisions are managed around consumerist approaches to university education, in which the demands and needs of 18-year-old adolescents, the growth engine of Anglo-American aspirational culture, are treated as close to sacrosanct. Some call it neoliberalist, a dependence on what is perceived as the hidden hand of the market, but what is really the lifting of civilian oversight over corporate control through marketing and monopolistic practices.
The only way it can happen on a large enough scale to make a difference is through a kind of linguistic Codesa, at which all languages get equal play to avoid easy sabotage by invoking Afrikaans’s ostensibly exclusive linkages to apartheid crimes. Such a Codesa is very unlikely, simply because in South Africa there is a miner society’s deep schism between “socioeconomic” affairs and culture, which is instinctively marginalised to the cultural village ghetto – and anything to do with language is tagged as cultural. But it can be useful as thought experiment, especially when it comes to a redesign of the tertiary education space.
One outcome of such a Codesa would be an apparent complex constellation of nodal institutions in specific regions where a specific language is dominant. A founding principle might be multi-bilingualism, in other words, an acceptance of globalisation as irreversible and, therefore, English as default language everywhere. But local needs would start to be met by gradually translating everything into the particular vernacular involved.
For instance, in KwaZulu-Natal, lectures would be progressively made available in Zulu digitally and, eventually, also orally – this is already happening, in fact. In line with the commercialisation of universities, this would facilitate linkages with local economic endeavour, so using the university as apparatus for decentralisation, a key driver of decolonisation.
If the same principles were applied to the Western Cape, something would have to be done to accommodate Afrikaans, the province’s most dominant mother tongue. Stellenbosch cannot serve as vehicle, because it is already halfway on a trajectory that will only end in full anglicisation. In fact, in a new university regime, it could be designated as Africa’s Harvard, as current rector Wim de Villiers envisages, fully focusing on hyperglobalisation, since the chances that there will ever be the demand from Xhosa-speakers to warrant Xhosa lectures, are slim.
Xhosa would already be well served by three institutions in the Eastern Cape, namely Nelson Mandela Bay, Fort Hare and Grahamstown, one of which could become a Xhosa-centric node tasked with developing Xhosa academic vocabulary. Where there is demand in the Western Cape, the University of the Western Cape could become part of Walter Sisulu University. Such a Xhosa-double medium university would be within walking distance of the greatest concentration of Xhosa speakers on the Cape Flats, where accommodation would also be cheap for students.
That would leave only the University of Cape Town to serve the Afrikaans communities of the province. Its location is actually quite excellent for this, as it would also be within walking distance of a large number of coloured communities, where the mother tongue remains Afrikaans, although many prefer education in broken English because even poor English favours coloured people over Afrikaans-only speakers in the black economic empowerment regime. Once Afrikaans speakers see that they will get higher marks if they do their education in their mother tongue, they will switch. That is the hypothesis, anyway.
The Constitution allows free speech values and the right to mother tongue state services to be trumped by superficial renditions of pragmatic and economic values around redress and historically grounded justice, with “practicability” as the keyword. “Practicability” is allowed to put its connotations from a settler mining society in play, instead of a more future-oriented “yes we can” approach a la Barack Obama. Instead of merely delineating the challenges, it is used to exclude and marginalise.
But Afrikaans as the language into which default English lectures would be translated is eminently practicable at UCT. The sciences are always presented as open-and-shut cases where English should be the only language used, but a quick glance at a sample of names, for instance in the staff lists of the anaesthesia section of the medical school at Groote Schuur, shows that more than half of them are Afrikaans or “coloured”, and one knows that in the Western Cape many fully English names are often those of Afrikaans speakers. Of course, the world’s first heart transplant was done at Groote Schuur by a team of whom many were Afrikaans.
There is another factor to consider, too, at such a Codesa: Brexit. If one of the outcomes should be that South Africa should not do anything to lose out on the advantages of globalisation, we should also pencil in new frameworks for relations with the European Union. Since 1994, the reparation of links between the Dutch-speaking societies and Afrikaans speakers of all races has progressed in leaps and bounds, especially in the arts. Dutch tourists are already avid visitors to the Western Cape, and a double medium UCT will only enhance the potential in academic joint ventures.
Apart from this developing an almost direct link with the European Union headquartered in Brussels, where almost everybody understands Afrikaans, Dutch universities are world leaders in many disciplines. One of Africa’s foremost philosophers, Achille Mbembe, had his latest book available here only in Dutch translation for a long time. And to complete the cultural strut: Dutch-speaking countries almost routinely outstrip Britain and the USA in indices on the most advanced countries.
Of course, that would not count as decolonisation. It is not a stretch, though, to describe the coloured communities on the Cape Flats as the worst-off victims of colonialism. If turning UCT into a shared Afrikaans institution would come with the instruction to focus its various departments and institutes on the Cape Flats, for the first time in that area’s history the chains of marginalisation could be broken. And since they are rooted in the chains of slavery all those centuries ago, new links with the Netherlands might then instigate a discourse on reparations for such slavery.
However, I don’t see anything like such a Codesa happening. Across South Africa, at all levels of advancement, the desire seems to be to keep English as the engine of all discourse that “counts” – commercial, educational, recreational, social and academic. It is a tragedy playing itself out, as the new apartheid society of the future is being constructed, not around skin colour anymore, but one’s proficiency in English.