- Johann Rossouw is an Afrikaans novelist, translator and associate professor of philosophy at the University of the Free State. The views expressed here are his own.
After I accepted LitNet’s invitation to respond to Stephanus Muller’s response to Marlene van Niekerk’s contribution to LitNet’s university seminar, I closely reread both these essays, as well as Robert Greig’s initial contribution to which Van Niekerk had responded. Greig’s contribution already contained an important claim that needs to be dealt with if one hopes to establish a clear understanding of the matters at hand.
I’ll address the aforementioned claim in a moment, but first a preliminary qualification is in order: in reading Muller’s combative response to Van Niekerk one could choose to up the ante by taking Van Niekerk or Muller’s side. Such an approach would not, however, be the most constructive contribution to this important discussion, which is why I decided rather to concentrate on the common ground between Van Niekerk and Muller and try to build on that.
Now, back to the abovementioned claim in Greig’s essay, that is, that Greig more or less blames the present government for the decision to anglicise Stellenbosch and Pretoria universities. It is my understanding that the minister of higher education summoned representatives of the historically Afrikaans North-West, Stellenbosch, Pretoria and Free State universities to a meeting in March 2015 to demand that they come up with concrete proposals for “transformation” on their campuses by mid-December 2015. Apparently the minister did not, at this meeting, specifically demand the removal of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. In public he has often stated that government has nothing against Afrikaans as medium of instruction as long as it is not used as a means of exclusion. It is nevertheless striking that shortly after the meeting of March 2015 at all four these universities processes were started to revise their language policies, and that the outcome of these processes was to significantly weaken the position of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at these universities, with the exception of the Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University. This exception seems to be due to the combined resistance of members of the NWU council, staff and students to he weakening of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. At the other three universities such resistance was not offered to the same successful degree, and mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans did indeed play a role at Stellenbosch, Pretoria and the Free State universities in the policy revisions that led to the weakening of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. This may be due to a variety of factors, which I do not want to go into here, but which I would like to emphasise for two reasons.
First, the role that such mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans played in this process not only disproves Greig’s claim that the government is mostly to blame, but it also proves that in taking such decisions universities are not as limited in their policy options as some apologists of English-only may want to claim. In other words, although the space for alternative policies on language and other issues in South African higher education is limited, it is not completely closed.
The second reason I emphasise the role of Afrikaans mother-tongue speakers in this process is that if one wants to give them the benefit of the doubt in asking why they choose so blatantly against their own language, one has to address an issue that neither Greig nor Van Niekerk or Muller addresses directly: the specific model of the university which has come to dominate the Anglo-American world against which South Africans so often measure themselves when they speak of internationalization. This is a rather parochial idea of internationalisation, which probably stems from the fact that the only major international language which South African tend to understand is English, but this is a discussion for another day. The fact of the matter is that, rightly or wrongly, the dominant Anglo-American ideas of internationalisation and the university are the ones that are so often invoked by mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans in choosing English above Afrikaans.
Let us now first consider these ideas before we return to the contributions of Greig, Van Niekerk and Muller.
In an outstanding essay published in the New York Review of Books of 13 January 2011 (“The Grim Threat to British Universities”) Simon Head dissected the process by which the view that the university should be judged by corporate standards such as “value-creation”, “customer service” and “performance management” came to dominate the Anglo-American world. Head’s essay is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the changes in South African post-apartheid higher education (and, inter alia, its impact on Afrikaans as a language of higher education, students protests and university staff disaffection). Here I shall limit myself to quoting a few paragraphs from his essay, which would sound very familiar to any academic working at one of South Africa’s “better” universities (that is, “better” according to the infamous various worldwide ranking indexes of universities that form an intricate part of the Anglo-American managerial and corporatist model of the university):
In the UK this system has been gathering strength for over twenty years, which helps explain why Oxford and Cambridge dons, and the British academy in general, have never taken a clear stand against it. Like much that is dysfunctional in contemporary Britain, the imposition of bureaucratic control on the academy goes back to the Thatcher era and its heroine. A memorable event in this melancholy history took place in Oxford on January 29, 1985, when the university’s Congregation, its governing parliament, denied Mrs Thatcher an honorary Oxford degree by a vote of 738–319. It did so on the grounds that “Mrs Thatcher’s Government has done deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain, from the provision for the youngest child up to the most advanced research programmes.”
Mrs Thatcher, however, disliked Oxford and the academy as much as they disliked her. She saw “state-funded intellectuals” as an interest group whose practices required scrutiny. She attacked the “cloister and common room” for denigrating the creators of wealth in Britain. But whereas the academy could pass motions against Mrs Thatcher and deny her an honorary degree, she could deploy the power of the state against the academy, and she did. One of her first moves in that direction was to beef up an obscure government bureaucracy, the Audit Commission, to exercise tighter financial control over the universities.
From this bureaucratic acorn a proliferating structure of state control has sprung, extending its reach from the purely financial to include teaching and research, and shaping a generation of British academics who have known no other system. From the late 1980s onward the system has been fostered by both Conservative and Labour governments, reflecting a consensus among the political parties that, to provide value for the taxpayer, the academy must deliver its research “output” with a speed and reliability resembling that of the corporate world and also deliver research that will somehow be useful to the British public and private sectors, strengthening the latter’s performance in the global marketplace. Governments in Britain can act this way because all British universities but one – the University of Buckingham – depend heavily on the state for their funds for research, and so are in a poor position to insist on their right to determine their own research priorities.
Outside of the UK’s own business schools, not more than a handful of British academics know where the management systems that now so dominate their lives have come from, and how they have ended up in Oxford, Cambridge, London, Durham, and points beyond. The most influential of the systems began life at MIT and Harvard Business School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, moved east across the Atlantic by way of consulting firms such as McKinsey and Accenture, and reached British academic institutions during the 1990s and the 2000s through the UK government and its bureaucracies. Of all the management practices that have become central in US business schools and consulting firms in the past twenty years – among them are “Business Process Reengineering”, “Total Quality Management”, “Benchmarking”, and “Management by Objectives” – the one that has had the greatest impact on British academic life is among the most obscure, the “Balanced Scorecard” (BSC).
On the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Harvard Business Review in 1997, its editors judged the BSC to be among the most influential management concepts of the journal’s lifetime. The BSC is the joint brainchild of Robert Kaplan, an academic accountant at Harvard Business School, and the Boston consultant David Norton, with Kaplan the dominant partner. As befits Kaplan’s roots in accountancy, the methodologies of the Balanced Scorecard focus heavily on the setting up, targeting, and measurement of statistical Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Kaplan and Norton’s central insight has been that with the IT revolution and the coming of networked computer systems, it is now possible to expand the number and variety of KPIs well beyond the traditional corporate concern with quarterly financial indicators such as gross revenues, net profits, and return on investment.
As explained by Kaplan and Norton in a series of articles that appeared in the Harvard Business Review between 1992 and 1996, KPIs of the Balanced Scorecard should concentrate on four fields of business activity: relations with customers, internal business process (for example, order entry and fulfillment), financial indicators such as profit and loss, and indicators of “innovation and learning”. It is this last that has yielded the blizzard of KPIs that has so blighted British academic life for the past twenty years. Writing in January 2010, the British biochemist John Allen of the University of London told of how “I have had to learn a new and strange vocabulary of ‘performance indicators’, ‘metrics’, ‘indicators of esteem’, ‘units of assessment’, ‘impact’ and ‘impact factors'.” One might also mention tallies of medals, honors, and awards bestowed (“indicators of esteem”); the value of research grants received; the number of graduate and postdoctoral students enrolled; and the volume and quality of “submitted units” of “research output.”
One of the University of Stellenbosch’s most famous and respected former professors who did some research on South African post-apartheid higher education told me a few years ago that in South Africa the tendency is often that what is trending at any given moment in the Anglo-American universities reaches South Africa about twenty years later. Stellenbosch University is a case in point. In separate conversations that I recently had with a number of senior Stellenbosch academics their complaints of the (further) imposition of this managerial model under the current vice-chancellor (whose most important career stint was as the manager of an American private, that is, for-profit, hospital) were striking in their similarity. One academic told me how a new “performance management model” that is now being applied at Stellenbosch rates academics with a set of corporatist criteria on a scale from 1 to 5. In his case he was effectively forced to stop voluntary work that he did to assist his head of department in a spirit of collegiality, since such work weakened his “performance management” score. It should be noted that if your score is below 3,5 out of 5, you get no salary raise, and you need to score above 3,5 to qualify for a salary raise taking the inflation rate into account. Another idea that was recently mooted under this new model is that an undergraduate course or module’s “cost to company” is higher when it is taught by a professor instead of by a junior lecturer, since the former’s salary per hour is much higher than the latter’s. The fact that a whole host of other costs would be incurred should inexperienced junior lecturers instead of professors teach, say, first-years, apparently does not seem to be part of the, well, equation. This system should be called out for what it is: a blunt instrument to control academics, to bludgeon them into submissiveness, to destroy academic freedom and critical thinking. It also goes some part towards explaining the relative lack of Afrikaans academics resisting the anglicisation of Stellenbosch and other historically Afrikaans universities.
These are just some micro-examples from the managerial, corporate model increasingly being applied to South Africa’s “better” universities – examples that would be hilarious were it not for the enormous human and other costs that this model incurs.
On a broader level, though, a particularly salient irony about the history of Stellenbosch University has to be pointed out. I refer to the fact that the remarkable success that Stellenbosch achieved as a historically Afrikaans institution provided the platform from which the undoing of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction could be launched. How did this come about?
Stellenbosch is and has often been accused of maintaining a pro-establishment position, by hook or by crook. This has, however, not always been the case. Although Stellenbosch University began life in the then British Cape Colony in 1866 as the Stellenbosch Gymnasium with English as medium of instruction, by 1930 it had grown into a full-blown university with Afrikaans by and large the only medium of instruction. The catalyst for this latter development was a remarkable anti-colonial and anti-state gesture: the wealthy and strongly pro-Afrikaans philanthropist Jannie Marais’s bequest of 100 000 pounds sterling in his will to enable Stellenbosch University to become financially independent from the state. One of the conditions of this gift was that it would promote higher education in Afrikaans and that “the Dutch language in both its forms (that is to say Afrikaans as well as Dutch) … would have no lesser place than the other official languages”. In practice Marais thus stipulated that Afrikaans should have equal status with English as a medium of instruction at Stellenbosch University.
Tragically this remarkable improvement in the status of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in higher education coincided at the same university with the development of a new political vision for Afrikaners by a number of Stellenbosch academics which would be catastrophic for the future of the Afrikaans language – apartheid. As Marlene van Niekerk puts it in her essay with reference to the National Party that applied this catastrophic political vision: “They succeeded in fragmenting and weakening in its entirety the language which should have been elevated as an inclusive South African cultural commons, Afrikaans-plus-her-variants, while appropriating and elevating the standard version as whites-only property – all ultimately, one should add, in Moeletsi Mbeki’s analysis, in the service of British mining interests.” Indeed, as can be seen time and again in post-apartheid debates about the status of Afrikaans, advocates of Afrikaans as language of higher education to this day are accused that they want to use language as a proxy to maintain white apartheid privilege.
Although Afrikaans achieved its superior status vis-à-vis English at Stellenbosch University on the strength of an anti-colonial, anti-statist movement, everything changed when this movement saw the National Party winning the election in 1948, opening the period of uninterrupted rule of that party over South Africa that only ended in 1994. In this period Stellenbosch University moved much closer to the establishment of, and indeed became an important source for the reproduction of, the Afrikaner elite that ruled South Africa. Something of the old anti-establishment spirit of Stellenbosch University survived well into the 1980s as embodied by prominent anti-apartheid academics who studied and worked there, including the philosophers Johan Degenaar and André du Toit, as well as the historian Hermann Giliomee, to name but a few.
In my view, though, it was the dominant pro-establishment tendency that won out at Stellenbosch University and that proved to be fatal for Afrikaans as medium of instruction at that university. This, I think, came about because of a deliberate decision by the late 1990s and early 2000s to bolster the status of Stellenbosch as an excellent university by finally dropping its local, regional and Afrikaans focus in favour of the new managerial, corporatist model of the university that had by then been on the up in the Anglo-American world. Of course, to pursue the managerial view of university excellence requires at least two things: distinguished academics that can make their mark in the Anglo-American sphere in English, and capital. The pursuit of the first goal meant that more and more academics that could not necessarily speak Afrikaans came to be appointed. The pursuit of the second goal included, inter alia, an aggressive drive to recruit students from elite English-medium schools. One could argue that white guilt at Stellenbosch University after apartheid also played a role in the decision to increasingly sacrifice Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the hope of political redemption, and I have no doubt that this is the case. In my view, though, a parochial Anglo-American view of what constitutes excellence and what a university is has been the determining factor for the fate of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at Stellenbosch. Or, if you like, the fate of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch is the collateral damage of a new view of the university that constituted a radical break with the view of the university from which Stellenbosch as an Afrikaans university first grew. This perhaps explains why one senior manager after the other at Stellenbosch University could proclaim over the past 15 years that their intention is not to destroy Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. Well, at least not explicitly and on purpose.
If my analysis is correct, the debate about the status and future of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch over the past 15 years has largely been a sideshow, for seldom in this debate has the issue of the managerial and corporatist university model that Stellenbosch chose been addressed. Although the issue of decolonisation and student fees is not the main focus of this essay, it should be noted that student anger and protests are partly a direct result of the fact that South Africa’s “better” universities without exception adopted the managerial and corporatist model after the end of apartheid. Since the maintenance of this model relies partly on the enrolment of higher- and middle-class students coming from a small minority of functioning public and private schools, this model condemns the majority of South African matriculants from a majority of weaker schools and from a barely middle-class or poorer background to a fatal competition with their better-resourced peers at the “better” universities – or to study for degrees of lower academic status at the “weaker” universities. It is thus no coincidence that the intensity of conflicts during the student protests of 2015 and 2016 was the highest at the “better” universities where the students in a weaker material and academic position observe their better-resourced peers leaving them behind. Making everybody study in English will not resolve this conundrum, nor will free higher education, for neither of these two measures will change anything about the underlying reasons for the better performance of some students than that of others.
Another form of collateral damage of the managerial and corporatist model adopted by the “better” universities will be the quality of research, teaching and collegiality in the long run. Scholarly and intellectual Anglo-American publications such as the already cited New York Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the London Review of Books and a steady stream of books over the past two decades or so all bemoan how the brutal application of a quantitative model to the university comes at an immense cost. Recently an Oxford professor who once as a dean of humanities at another British university had been tasked with firing 10% of his faculty due to “cost-cutting” reacted incredulously when I told him how the destruction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at Stellenbosch and other public universities was being carried out in the name of “internationalisation” and “globalisation” by saying, “But nobody in the UK believes that sort of talk anymore!”
On the whole, then, the “better” universities in South Africa all (literally) bought into a disastrous model of the university. The fact that this happened at the most promising political moment in South Africa’s long and painful history is of nearly incomprehensible irony – not to mention what it says of the African National Congress’s own lack of serious thought about what higher education in South Africa should be about. For all their talk of apartheid as colonialism of a special type, the fact that they stood by and watched as our “better” universities made this disastrous choice renders them guilty of self-colonisation of a special type. Indeed, the task of decolonisation in South Africa has, if anything, become even bigger than it was before 1994.
Which brings me back to the contributions of Van Niekerk and Muller. At the beginning of this essay I undertook to refrain from a simplistic choosing of sides and rather to try to build on the common ground between them. They agree that Afrikaans as medium of instruction is valuable, and that what happens to Afrikaans as medium of instruction at Stellenbosch will be of huge consequence for Afrikaans not only as an academic language, but also for the higher functions of the language. They differ in their assessments of the implications of the latest language policy for the future of Afrikaans as medium of instruction – Van Niekerk is less optimistic than Muller – but in the long run the material interests invested in the managerial and corporatist university model which Stellenbosch started adopting in the late 1990s are by now so high that there can be no serious change of direction. This leaves Afrikaans as medium of instruction at Stellenbosch on borrowed time.
Unless my reading was not close enough, Muller, apart from thinking that the new language policy of Stellenbosch does still offer some space for Afrikaans, does not in this particular essay of his make other concrete proposals for the future of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch. Van Niekerk, by contrast, does. She places her hope in practices of “imaginative transformation”, in “the voice of a community of those who have no community, of a group of radically conscientised and experimental artists/writers/intellectuals who provisionally confer around a focus, a hearth that has been neglected and that has gone quite cold, the hearth of opposition to the global Empire that has changed citizens into zombie consumers” and that at Stellenbosch University speakers of Afrikaans may be given
a social laboratory space to perform their language in certain of its conspicuous articulations around, eg, race, class and gender, but under close mutual and linguistic observation … [I]ts various speakers could begin to take stock of one another’s intentions and conceptions of the world as imbricated in speech. Together they might discover and revive the full historical heteroglossia of Afrikaans and forge new understandings of what it would mean to survive in this province, in this world, on this planet. Imagine thus creating a new tradition of sharing language revelations in a free and provisional communion. Imagine the laughter accompanying such semi-confessional exchanges if they are carefully set up and conducted in this novel kind of language laboratory, an improvisatory testing ground where people can observe and challenge the naming, calling and cursing behaviour of themselves and others. Let me dream: such a meta-reflexive activity in and around Afrikaans in, say, its intimately shared articulations of “othering” or of talking about sex, food and god(s), would not only serve to heal a language community but could also give a new, entirely original local content to the regulative idea of domination-free communication. Is this not the type of experiment, the type of practical philosophical exploration, the type of opening that one would expect from a real university, a university committed to a locally informed and hope-giving paideia? Imagine, we could go and visit the Basques or the Maori with these new-fangled practices of mapping experiences through finely calibrated, revelatory language games and share with them our inventions for strengthening minor and minority languages in the world.
On a softer reading I must agree with Van Niekerk’s appeal to the imagination and the local in the above proposals, for that is precisely what has been lacking in the disastrous post-apartheid choice for an ultimately foreign model of the university, instead of seriously rethinking how South African higher education could be strengthened (and indeed achieve further international recognition) for local excellence. Is there indeed any example of an internationally recognised university that did not initially achieve its status on the basis of its local achievements?
On a less positive note I have two reservations about Van Niekerk’s proposals. First, the material interests of the managerial and corporatist model at Stellenbosch University are simply too powerful to be trumped by Van Niekerk’s dream of a social laboratory of together making one another different in Afrikaans (to borrow from Breyten Breytenbach: “saam mekaar andersmaak”). The immense historical account that had to be settled for the National Party’s racialisation of Afrikaans proved to be so high that the critically necessary new alliance across racial lines of Afrikaans speakers that had to provide the political energy to realise an alternative vision of Stellenbosch University could not be formed in the past 15 years when the managerial and corporatist model all but became a fait accompli at Stellenbosch.
The second reservation I have about Van Niekerk’s proposed “community of those who have no community” is that this conception of community comes perilously close to a purist dream of community where everybody’s hands are clean. (Curiously, such a moral purism seems to be the stock in trade of many of the secularist and often anti-Christian thinkers such as Nancy and Derrida who first developed this concept.) Genuine communities cannot be formed without dirty hands, and as the classical Christian tradition teaches us, it is precisely in the formation of genuine communities – of which the Church is the model – that we may wash one another’s dirty hands, over and over again.
As much as I appreciate Muller’s incisive questioning of Van Niekerk, and as much as I respect him too as a musicologist and Afrikaans writer of note, Muller’s critique of Van Niekerk’s embrace of the ancient Greek notion of paideia because it “historically referred to a school for slave owners where slaves themselves were not permitted” also betrays a moral purism on Muller’s part – if every concept, institution or group that improved humanity’s fate had to be discarded simply because of where it failed to do so, or because it fails the tests of today’s moral standards, only a few saints and sages in an otherworldy purity would be left standing. Surely, what the Greek paideia positively gave the world outshines its dark side, and surely we can at least learn from the errors of those Greeks while striving to emulate in our time and place what they magnificently achieved in theirs.
For my part, when it comes to the future of Afrikaans as a language of higher education, I offer the following in closing this essay.
First, as different as Muller and Van Niekerk may or may not be in their different practices to further the future of Afrikaans as a language of academia, the imagination and other higher functions, the Afrikaans world should cultivate the necessary broad-mindedness to welcome any and every contribution in Afrikaans that deepens our sense of community and becoming different together through our engagement with ourselves and the broader world. Van Niekerk puts it beautifully:
… a certain opulent, silky, saline, genuinely civil, well-watered soulfulness. One could also call it “grace”. I imagine this quality as a spiritual membrane that ought to line one’s heart on the inside and that ought to become pleasantly distended when one finds oneself in the presence of someone who is able, consciously and expertly, to express him- or herself in his or her home language, someone who has the facility of using words with a gentle but also adventurously probing explorative care, a speaker who is expecting to be totally surprised by what can emerge from the tongue if purposefully and playfully left to its own devices. And yes, all of that closely resembles erotic activity.
Second, in counterpoint to Van Niekerk’s community to come, I would rather hope that we in Afrikaans can become the community that we were going to become, but that was never allowed to be – in Jan Rabie’s words, Afrikaans as “South Africa’s best non-racial achievement”. Notwithstanding Van Niekerk’s reminder of what the National Party did to Afrikaans, let us not forget what was arguably the moment where Afrikaans was no longer allowed to become the community that it was going to and had to become, a moment born from bad theology and poor liturgical practice. I refer to the fateful decision of the Dutch Reformed Synod of 1857 to allow for the separation of white and brown in the celebration of Holy Communion due to “die swakheid van sommiges” (“the weakness of some”). In this moment of bad theology the Dutch Reformed Church gave more weight to the sinful nature of some whose racial prejudices were tolerated instead of, yes, to the grace of God and its power to overcome the weakness of all. How could we ever have hoped to be a community in Afrikaans if we denied the source of all community? And yes, let it also be said that where communities have strong liturgical practices they are not threatened by others who share their language, whether they be of other religions, cultures or classes. Thus, I would put more hope in what the Church can do in the Afrikaans world to heal our broken community and to heal the community of the broken, for if there is one thing that by now we all understand immediately in Afrikaans, it is loss. Perhaps we have all lost enough for us to have a shared basis for the necessary humility to share our losses with one another, to wash one another’s dirty hands again and again, and to dream of the renewal from that mysterious grace.
Third, as far as Afrikaans at university is concerned, I am afraid that the bell has tolled at South Africa’s public universities for Afrikaans. I would be the first to gladly admit it if in years to come my assessment were to prove to have been too glum. Miracles do, of course, happen, and we may all still be surprised. It is also true that the Desert Fathers, the Latin-Christian monasteries or the monks of Mount Athos embodied another world to come in which higher learning and the cultivation of the spirit went hand in hand, when the world as they knew it disappeared. All over the world today we see small and fledgling signs of smaller languages and communities holding their own, also on the international scene. Call it the Community of Dirty Hands if you like, for the moral purists of secular liberalism are always ready to condemn those who choose community and another economy rather than the market and the manager above all. In the South African context as things stand now this would have to mean private institutions of higher learning committed to education as the elevation of the spirit and the community. I like to think that Van Niekerk with, among other things, her poetry collection Kaar and Muller with his biography-novel-monograph Nagmusiek have both provided examples of such elevation.
May the speakers of Afrikaans, and all other languages, who together with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o understand that the world begins at home, be granted the grace and courage to build new institutions of higher education that deepen a sense of community with ourselves and the other.