It is time to listen to the youth

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Michael le Cordeur

Michael le Cordeur writes about the future of Afrikaans as a university language within a multilingual environment: the language debate at Stellenbosch. 


“Is there a workable plan for Afrikaans and universities?” At a summit on the challenges for Afrikaans as a university language, this question was once again considered (Carstens 2014). The Canadian language sociologist Jean Laponce listed two prerequisites for a language to survive. The first is that the language should have its own region, and then it must also have strong institutions such as universities and media.

As a result, Christo van Rensburg, Hans du Plessis, Jaap Steyn and Bernard Odendaal (2014) pleaded for an Afrikaans university 20 years into democracy:

We are talking of a fully government supported Afrikaans university which freely uses Afrikaans as tuition and administration language without pressure from inside or outside. One of the existing universities where the infrastructure already exists. Naturally such a university is not exclusively for Afrikaners or Afrikaans-speakers. The students don’t have to be Afrikaans, they must only accept that the anchor language of this multi-racial institution is Afrikaans. So easy. So fair.

But is it that simple? And how do you justify an exclusively Afrikaans university when it excludes the majority of black students?

Language is an emotional matter. Vilakazi (2002:50) argues that the language issue is at the core of the education crisis in our country, because language is the key to conceptualisation, comprehension and learning. For this reason a matter such as language policy often leads to controversy, especially in higher education. This brings me back to the issue surrounding Afrikaans, #luister and the Open Stellenbosch Initiative.

In July of this year I wrote an article which was published in Die Burger: “Luister na die jeug” (“Listen to the youth”). Before that article I had also written two others referring to the protest at the Ikeys’ campus. This contribution I’m writing in English, though, because as my rector indicated in his YouTube response (#vorentoe/#forward): sometimes you have to deliver your message for Afrikaans in English. This video has been watched five times more in English than in Afrikaans at the time this contribution is being written, and I wish English-speaking students at the US also to have access to this article.

It is actually ironic that we are debating the survival of Afrikaans as a university language, because Afrikaans is the only non-European and non-Asiatic language which has achieved full university status (Kloss 1977). On the one hand universities such as Stellenbosch are accused that they have turned their backs on Afrikaans . On the other hand, there is a growing feeling that the historically Afrikaans universities (HAUs) use Afrikaans as an alibi to exclude black studens and as an excuse to keep universities white. The rector of the Free State University puts it this way: “Some of the historically white Afrikaans universities have a perfect alibi for not transforming – Afrikaans” (Jansen 2014).

These accusations come at a time when students across South Afria are calling on university managements to transform universities and to see to it that, among others, language is not used as an exclusion mechanism.

Afrikaans as an academic language

SU has strived from the outset to present Afrikaans tuition at the highest level, and as previously stated, SU managed to establish Afrikaans as a university language. But after 1970 things changed. English had emerged as the dominant language in dissertations and academic publications in the West. The increasing dominance of English as a world language led to a gradual decrease in the use of Afrikaans as an academic language. Researchers who had previously published in Afrikaans switched to English.

In addition, the legacy of apartheid has also left its mark on Afrikaans and it is especially the HAUs that are affected. The result was that the position of Afrikaans as a teaching and scientific language has been challenged since 1994.

Why is transformation necessary?

With the advent of a more democratic dispensation it became essential to transform the higher education system. After 1994 South Africans forgot that values such as nation building and reconciliation had to be continually revisited, because transformation is a never-ending process . According to the government’s White Paper 3: A programme for the Transformation of Higher Education, higher educaton must be the foundation on which the development of a new South Africa is based. Transformation of higher education in South Africa also includes the development of new curricula and adaptable models for learning and tuition. This means that the curriculum which was used in the past to exclude coloured and black students must transform to a more democratic curriculum inclusive of all thinking.

A key aspect in the delivery of a curriculum is how knowledge is constructed and transferred. This means that the language in which the curriculum is transferred is of critical importance, because knowledge and concepts are conceptualised through language. Wollf (2006:49) puts it in this way: “Language is not everything in education, but without language everything is nothing in education.”

This argument is supported by Vilakazi (2002:50):

[It] must be stress[ed] that the mastery of [the] language in which the subject is taught is the prerequisite to the mastery of subject matter. The African student has to make the acquaintance of the subject through a language [that is] not his or her mother tongue. [The] language of instruction then becomes a tension-generating factor ... which interferes with the mastery of the subject matter.

What does the Constitution say?

Many leaders (cf Habib 2014:27) referred to the Constitution and pleaded that the inequalities in higher education be addressed and that a new national identity be created among all students. Section 6(4) of the Constitution (RSA 1996) stipulates that all official languages have equal status. Further, section 29(2) of the Constitution gives each South African the right to receive tuition in public educational institutions in the official language of their choice. There is, however, a condition which must be noted, because it is the basis on which the whole language debate is waged, namely, “if it is reasonably practicable and fair”. The state thus has the responsibility to investigate all reasonable positibilities, provided they comply with the principles of equality and feasibility.

These and other issues prompted Minister Naledi Pandor to appoint a committee in 2008, namely the Ministerial Committee on Progress Towards Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions (hereafter the ministerial committee) to investigate the perceived discrimination in public educational institutions.

Quo vadis for Stellenbosch University?

The management of SU admits that language is indeed a problem (US 2008:13) and leads to frustration and distrust (US 2008:29), while it is becoming all too clear that language is an obstacle on the road to success (US 2008:30). The decision to accept a language policy of multilingualism is based on the fact that any student learns better in one specific language and that academic success greatly depends on the extent to which the student has mastered the language of tuition (Alexander 1997; Webb 2010). The core of the new language policy is multilingualism with equal status for Afrikaans and English, and the responsibility to promote Xhosa in a judicious way and where possible as an academic language and language of social intercourse (US 2014).

The SU Council is of the opinion that the new policy will reaffirm SU’s commitment to an open and transformed institution which simultaneously complies with the demands of a 21st-century tertiary institution. The policy makes SU accessible to non-Afrikaans-speaking students, promotes equity while also enhancing Afrikaans as an academic language. In this way student success is assured. Thus US can supply the graduates who can function within the multilingual context of South Africa with the necessary sensitivity for linguistic diversity.


South Africa’s higher education institutions have a moral obligation to help create a better society. The right to education is a fundamental right of every citizen and the provision of quality tuition to a diverse group of students is a matter of social justice (Terzi 2007). Therefore curriculum design at higher education institutions must take cultural differences like language into account (Koen & Ebrahim 2013). An investigation into the position of language and tuition at higher education institutions in South Africa shows that discrimination in the field of language still occurs. According to the Soudien Report (2008) there is no university which does not require serious changes regarding the language of tuition. At almost all South African universities it is still “business as usual”.

Too many students are academically unsuccessful; not due to a lack of intelligence, but because many students are unable to express themselves properly in the dominant language of the university.

There is still a place for Afrikaans as a tuition and academic language at HAUs, but not for these to be exclusive Afrikaans universities, because it undermines diversity and transformation in higher education. The idea indeed is to create universities of which the identity and institutional culture is neither black, nor white, nor Afrikaans, nor English, but which are unashamedly South African universities in the true sense of the word. It is clear the SU is trying to provide for Afrikaans and English students within the multilingual culture of the country, as well as to facilitate access for those who cannot deal with Afrikaans.

De Villiers confirmed this during his inaugural address:

Stellenbosch is not an Afrikaans university; Stellenbosch is not an English university; Stellenbosch is not a Xhosa university; Stellenbosch is a multilingual university – one of few in this category, which is surely needed in a country with 11 official languages. We are a world-class multilingual university that works hard to ensure that language is not a barrier to access, but an aid to success. (De Villiers 2015).

Given the current context of Stellenbosch as a diverse campus, as well as the background of SU’s pursuit of continued transformation, a multilingual language policy rather than an exclusive Afrikaans university appears to be the solution.

Ultimately South Africans must realise that it is not the responsibility of SU to save Afrikaans. Universities are open spaces for intellectual and cultural interaction in order to make a substantial contribution to the knowledge economy of South Africa.

This does not mean that Stellenbosch can distance itself from the mistakes of the past. Indeed, our rector has said in the past that you can't defend the undefendable ("kan nie die onregverdigbare verdedig nie"). Racism, sexism and discrimination have no place in South African society any longer.

Cultural, language and ethnic transformation should be looked at on all South African campuses. Since 1994 we haven't done enough to build the new nation – and now this matter is being revisited.

This is an ongoing process. The youth are actively participating. Expect them to indicate the pace at which we move forward. It is time to listen to the youth of this country.

>>>Back to The Open Stellenbosch Seminar

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Nie net Danie van Wyk nie maar ook Michael le Cordeur skryf nou in Engels. Albei is verbonde aan die Afrikaanse Taalraad, wat eerder die Meertaligheidsraad genoem behoort te word. Myns insiens ag albei, soos Jakes Gerwel en Neville Alexander, hulle politieke assosiasie belangriker as hulle lojaliteit jeens Afrikaans.

  • Gogo de Bruin

    Dis nie duidelik of u saamstem met die Kanadees se uitspraak dat 'n taal 'n universiteit nodig het vir sinvolle oorlewing nie want teen die einde sê u dat dit nie die US se taak is om Afrikaans te red nie. Red is waarskynlik 'n te sterk word, maar u besef tog sekerlik dat as die US nie Afrikaans behou nie is daar nie nog iemand veder suid nie: Pretoria, Noordwes en Vrystaat gaan dit nie doen nie. Soos die spreekwoord sê: Dis moeilik om die skrif aan die muur te sien wanneer mens met die rug teen die muur staan.

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