Does SU have a communication problem or a problem policy?

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Stellenbosch University (SU) wants Afrikaans language groups to speak to the university instead of reacting to the explosive content of the leaked Council report on their Language Communication Committee (DB 19 May). Note: This reaction comes after SU, over some six years, has ignored the input, letters and attempts to engage in meaningful conversation with them on the part of various parties or otherwise tried to co-opt them. 

SU's response to this debacle, however, creates an opportunity to better understand the "language debate" at SU. The bureaucratic aim of "ensuring clear and meaningful communication on language policy" (DB 19 May) disappears like mist before the morning sun in the Council report where their point of view and strategic objective emerge more clearly. They want to counteract the "polarizing influence" of "fundamentalist critics" and thus "dominate" the "public discourse on language" (Report 16 May).

This is a case study of an institution using bureaucratic language to the outside to veil the strategic goals at the heart of it – just as they do in the case of the language policy. This operation may score political wins, but undermines SU's credibility as a discussion partner.

SU has the right to establish a language communication committee. However, this attempt reflects a culture of siege as SU deems critics "fundamentalists" and demonises and marginalises them as sinister forces. The references to malice and the existence of dark powers behind their opponents smell like the paranoia of a totalitarian system and appear in the narratives of stubborn dictators around the world.

This language indicates that SU is entangled in the logic of conflict and that they want to fight to the bitter end rather than seek compromise.

Yet by wanting to investigate legitimate stakeholders of the university’s language policy – like DAK Netwerk, StudentePlein (Student Square) and others – in order to get to them through their funders, SU is crossing the Rubicon of decency. And if these words have indeed led to action, it is an attempt to exercise repressive control over the free flow of opinions and information. This is what one would expect from a stratcom structure of the apartheid era, not from a modern university.

That a communications committee is preoccupied with matters of this nature at all is concerning – a serious error of judgment that should raise questions in the minds of SU councillors.

Furthermore, the polarisation that SU wants to fight with this committee stems directly from the vague and unspoken goals and assumptions of the Language Policy, as well as from continued denial of the problems it causes. SU is fast becoming an English-language university with a bit of Afrikaans and less Xhosa – something that the university does not want to acknowledge. That is why phrases like "multilingual university" and "fundamentalist critics" are being employed – just as Putin calls Navalny an "extremist".

SU does not primarily have a communication problem but much rather a problem policy. And for as long as they do not want to talk straight about this, new communication plans will achieve just as little regarding polarisation as the old ones. Students, lecturers and even parents will continue to be afraid to talk about language, while attempts to silence bothersome critics will lead to more opposition and scandal.

No, the worrying polarisation is the direct result of SU's own fundamentalist refusal to enter into dialogue with their critics. The extensive narrative about malice and sinister forces serves only one purpose: to justify their refusal to listen to informed alternative views.

Less "communication" and more conversation is needed to find a constructive way out of this conflict. SU must open itself up to an investigative conversation with its critics, representatives from the broad Afrikaans community, and other stakeholders – on an equal footing.

A rational conversation in the true spirit of a university, in which the participants seek compromise rather than hegemony, can help SU to create a more inclusive university with more happiness about language. At the same time, a compromise could release new resources and support for multilingualism at SU.

But is SU's leadership perhaps too bound up in the conflict to recognise this option?

Conrad Steenkamp
Afrikaanse Taalraad | Afrikaans Language Council

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