Students at tertiary institutions have been protesting about a number of genuine concerns that affect them, such as encumbered access to these institutions of higher education, unaffordable fees, lack of accommodation, etc. In the process of these protests, the issue of language policy of institutions such as Stellenbosch University (SU), University of the Free State (UFS), University of Pretoria (UP) and North-West University (NWU) got caught up in these student protests.
It should be noted that the above-mentioned universities are historically Afrikaans single-medium or parallel Afrikaans- and English-medium.
Soon, #AfrikaansMustFall joined the original main and previous slogan of the student protests of #FeesMustFall. Some students began to protest against Afrikaans and clamoured for it to be removed as a language of learning and teaching (LOLT). The EFF Official Account on Twitter reads as follows: “Afrikaans must fall and Afrikaans will fall, by any means necessary.”
The EFF, along with other political and student formations, have been playing a prominent role in these student protests. Some of these protests were accompanied by violence and counter-violence and universities such as UFS and UP had to close down for a few days.
These student protests point to deeper issues of transformation that have not been realised in institutions of higher learning in a whole range of spheres. As with all aspects of South African society, tertiary education requires transformation. The comment in this paper does not purport to address the general issues of transformation in the institutions of higher learning or the society at large, but focuses on language policy.
There are a number of language policy instruments that were developed post the new political dispensation in 1994. The South African government developed a good multilingual policy for the country, the National Language Policy Framework (NLPF) (2003), which was approved by the cabinet way back in 2004. At the educational level, there is the Language Policy Framework for South African Higher Education, 2001, which has been amended. The Constitution recognises 11 official languages in the country. Section 29 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996 provides that everyone has a right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions, although with the proviso “where reasonably practicable”. This constitutional clause further asserts that in order to “ensure the effective access to, and implementation of this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account, equity, practicality and the need to redress the results of the past racially discriminatory laws and practices”.
The Language Policy Framework for South African Higher Education, 2001 promised the development of the indigenous languages and their use in tuition at institutions of higher learning. This would enable the African students who are indigenous-language speakers to have the same advantages and choice of language(s) as those whose mother tongue is English and/or Afrikaans and are able to use their mother tongue throughout their tuition. As the choice of mother-tongue education is not available from school level up to institutions of higher learning, the majority of learners who speak the indigenous languages and who are taught in English continue to obtain poor results in school and at institutions of higher learning. There is also the Use of Official Languages Act (UOLA), 12 of 2012 to regulate the use of official languages in government.
In spite of all these language policy legal instruments there is a huge disparity between these instruments and their implementation. In South Africa, because of the history of colonialism English has come to be used and is perceived as the language of power. Afrikaans has since come to play a secondary role post 1994 (despite the fact that there was an official policy of English-Afrikaans bilingualism pre-1994). Since 1994 there have been efforts to reduce the importance of Afrikaans in the economy and in other higher-status domains, including education. This has recently been intensified through campaigns such as the #AfrikaansMustFall at specific tertiary institutions such as SU, UFS, NWU and UP.
As already seen, South Africa has good multilingual policies, as attested to by various sociolinguistic scholars, such as Bamgbose and Beukes. However, it is a historical fact pointed out by a number of the sociolinguistic scholars, such as Alexander and Kamwangamalu and others, that the above language policy instruments have not led to a meaningful realisation of multilingualism in South Africa. Lack of implementation of the language policy and legislation is attributed to lack of political will and leadership. The inadequate implementation or lack of implementation is reflected in non-enforcement of the policy and legislation, selective implementation and uncoordinated symbolic half measures such as not putting the mechanisms, structures, regulations and strategy in place for the effective implementation of multilingual language policy, legislation and the Constitutional imperatives. This policy implementation disjuncture also points to the fact that formally an explicit language policy of multilingualism has been adopted, while in practice there is an implicit language policy practice of English monolingualism.
Why is there such lethargy and dithering on the commitment to the effective recognition and implementation of multilingual policy, especially with regard to the indigenous languages of South Africa? Why do these languages not play a central role in society in general and education in particular?
Frantz Fanon once said:
We attach a fundamental importance to the phenomenon of languages and consequently consider the study of language essential for providing us with one element in understanding the black man’s dimension of being-for-others […] All colonised people – in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose cultural originality has been committed to the grave – position themselves in relation to the civilizing language i.e. […] the more he has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, […] the more he rejects his blackness …
The government and black people in general continue to reject the African/indigenous languages in favour of the use of the colonial languages. Bamgbose also attests that “the powerful hold of the colonial tradition” and the “orientation or ideology of the ruling elite” continue to influence and determine the present language policies in Africa. Hence most postcolonial countries continue to hold the colonial languages in higher esteem than the indigenous languages.
Globalisation has further impacted on the hegemonic power of English. An anecdotal demonstration of this power of English in this country is that both government and business job advertisements are placed in English in most media outlets. Applications for these positions have to be made in English regardless of the constituencies or communities that will be served by such positions. Most interviews and training are conducted in English. The people who get high-powered positions are invariably proficient in English or claim to be or aspire to be proficient in English. The debates in parliament and the legislatures are mostly carried out in English. What is strange is that there are language facilities for interpreting and translation in all the official languages but members of parliament will insist on using English. Even those who battle to express themselves or battle to read their speeches, as they do not have sufficient proficiency in English, still opt for English as their first choice as their language of communication.
All language policy choices made since colonialism have been in favour of colonial languages and the marginalisation of the indigenous languages. According to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o the elite continue to accept the “fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English”. Decision-makers in government and the elite persist in the logic that English is the language of business and an international language. How it came to assume this position and continues to do so is never asked. It is assumed that this is the inherent position and destiny of English. English monolingualism has become a basis for distinction among social groups and classes. English has come to determine who has access to political power and economic resources. It has become a powerful tool for exclusion and exploitation.
One needs to caution that although language plays a significant role in society and education, it is not the only gatekeeper or discriminator in the inequality ratio. There are many other factors in South African society and education today that lead to exclusion, inequality and injustice, including race, class, gender, nepotism and cronyism, all of which advantage some and disadvantage others.
In line with the existing paradigm of the elite of society towards multilingual policy and in particular the indigenous languages, the majority of speakers of these languages do not have a positive attitude, nor are they keen on these languages. Speakers of the indigenous languages do not attach educational or economic value to these languages.
Parents, too, are not keen to have their children learn or use the indigenous languages for purpose of education, as they see no useful function or value for them in society, except for informal purposes.
On these parental attitudes towards African languages, Mutasa asserts that as authorities are reluctant to ensure that African languages assume their rightful role in official communication in public affairs, administrative and educational domains, no one seems to take African languages seriously. They seem to offer nothing except in everyday informal communication between families and friends. Most parents decide on English only for their children’s education, as they want themselves and their children to acquire competency and skills in English so that they may access better opportunities in an English-oriented society. Parents make this choice even though it is an uphill battle for most of their children who are indigenous-language speakers and not immersed in the English language and culture.
However, the country continues to reap negative outcomes at an educational level on this issue of monolingualism of English as the language of learning and teaching. The negative impact of English monolingualism is glaringly and intensely manifest in education. Research here in the country and internationally has continuously proved that education is well served and better understood through teaching and learning in the mother tongue. In this country, as the language medium in schools continues to be exclusively English, it contributes to high drop-out rates, a high percentage of those repeating classes and high failure rates, especially in matric for non-English speakers. International assessments of our school pupils place them among the lowest in the world for numeracy and literacy skills, in spite of the huge budget allocated to education. Even among those who pass matric and pursue studies at tertiary level, learning conceptualisation, literacy and numeracy levels are poor.
The universities, just like other domains of society, have taken their cue from government and they have also not played their educational role in the effective implementation of multilingual policy at tertiary institution for purpose of tuition. Universities are at pains to point out that the use of languages that are not the primary language of learners is a factor contributing to poor pass rates among students. Regardless of the poor results, parents continue to insist that their children be taught exclusively in English. This has spiralled to the level of black university students who have now taken up the cudgel to insist on English-only tuition at university level. They have also gone to the extreme level of insisting that for all learners, and not only for themselves as African language speakers, but also for the Afrikaans speakers, English should be the only language of tuition. Black students are calling for the abolishment of Afrikaans as a language of tuition through their calls of #AfrikaansMustFall. One wonders whether, if black students had the choice to use their own languages in tuition, they would be worrying about removing Afrikaans as a language of tuition. Perhaps this is a case of lashing out at the nearest object of frustration as the issues of transformation are too deep-seated and complex to analyse.
Black students should know from their very own experiences that many learners at schools and universities battle to succeed when learning and being taught in English, which is not their primary language. The majority of the people in this country are not English speakers. South Africa is a multilingual and multicultural society. Why can’t other languages, especially the indigenous languages, be used to enhance learning and teaching? Black students in particular should be championing the use of all the official languages. Why is English singled out as the only language that can be used for tuition? Is it because English is perceived as a language of power and that many people aspire to it for its perceived value, real and imagined. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o has asked: “How did we arrive at this acceptance of the fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English?” Is there something inherent in English which makes it superior to all other languages and in particular the African languages?
There’s an acknowledgement of the genuine grievances of black students over access, financial exclusion and a whole range of other issues, such as the outsourcing of workers that indicate either lack of or a slow pace of transformation in these institutions of higher learning. Issues of transformation should be taken up by students and other progressive forces with vigour and all the energy the students can muster. Issues of multilingual policy implementation should also be addressed in these institutions of higher learning. However, English cannot and should not be equated with transformation. This is reflected by the very fact that Black students at English-medium universities such as Wits, UCT and Rhodes have the same problems and challenges that students from historically Afrikaans universities are faced with. It is therefore misguided for the black students to direct their anger at Afrikaans as a language of tuition for those who require it.
It is understandable that at universities such as UFS, NWU, UP and SU, which were bastions of apartheid ideology, many concerns raised by students have also been directed at the use of Afrikaans as a language of learning and teaching. But students should bear in mind that any language, and English in particular in this case, can still be used as a tool of exclusion. But it is short-sighted to blame everything that is wrong at SU, UFS, UP and NWU, or any institution for that matter, on Afrikaans as a language. Exclusion and exclusionary practices should be strongly challenged in whatever form they manifest. English itself is not a neutral language in the history of this country and Africa as a whole. It should be borne in mind that the status of English as the perceived language of power was imposed by and inherited from the violent colonial legacy, which continues to exert negative influence on local languages and local solutions.
There is nothing to be gained by black students and society at large from fighting against Afrikaans at SU, UFS, UP and NWU or other institutions of higher learning. Afrikaans, like other official languages of the country, namely Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, Venda, Tsonga, English, Ndebele, Xhosa and Zulu, are recognised in our Constitution. South African universities, including SU, UFS, NWU and UP, should work towards introducing language policies that are not discriminatory in nature. This means the acceptance of the principle and practice of multilingualism and not monolingualism. Universities should work towards additive multilingualism, not subtractive monolingualism. The indigenous languages should be introduced as languages of learning, teaching and communication in universities alongside English and Afrikaans to give effect to the constitutional recognition of all these languages as official languages. Black students and the rest of the university communities of all the universities are bound by the exhortation that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity. Diversity here includes race, culture, gender, culture and language. We’re all called upon to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights as espoused in the Bill of Rights.
In the not so distant past Afrikaans was used as the dominant language of oppression. However, it should also be acknowledged that the Afrikaans language as spoken in South Africa today is historically more than the language of apartheid. It is a combination of influences, including from Dutch to Cape Malay, the slaves brought to the Cape, the San and Khoe people and today most of the Cape coloured people. The unfortunate part is that in the process of standardisation and modernisation of Afrikaans, what the National Party institutions did was to marginalise all these other influences of the San and Khoe people, the slaves etc from Afrikaans and to lay an exclusive claim of ownership of the Afrikaans language. They also began to link the Afrikaans language with the political system of apartheid in the process of Afrikaner mobilisation. So, Afrikaans must be liberated and be made an inclusive language of all people who speak it as their mother tongue, be they San, Nama or Khoe people, the Griquas, the coloured people and so on. That is partly why I argue that the #AfrikaansMustFall campaign at SU, UFS, UP and NWU is aiming at the wrong target. Afrikaans should also not be used as a mechanism to exclude non-Afrikaans speakers. It should not be allowed again that Afrikaans be used as a tool of exclusion. The attempt to use Afrikaans in this manner should be countered by adopting multilingualism. Counter exclusivity of Afrikaans with inclusivity of all languages. Institutions such as SU, UFS, UP and NWU need to undertake a whole range of transformation programmes that will address the real issues of socio-economic exclusion of the majority of students. Removing Afrikaans alone will not achieve an inclusive process of transformation. If you reject the Afrikaans language you exclude a significant section of the South African society that has as much right to their language as other citizens of South Africa. Rejecting Afrikaans is a counter-productive strategy. Instead of building unity and cohesion it exacerbates the racial divisions of the past created by apartheid.
Multilingualism as a policy is not only good for education but is also good for participatory democracy. The late sociolinguistic scholar and language activist Neville Alexander argued that “implementing a consistently democratic language policy is critical to the consolidation and expansion of the democratic society” in South Africa. An inclusive language approach enables people to hear and to be heard in their own languages and to effectively participate in every domain of society, be it education, media or politics. Multilingualism, if consistently and carefully developed through research and development, human language technology, terminology and lexicography, orthographic development of the indigenous languages, translation, interpretation, language learning and teaching, materials development, and publishing and printing, can contribute to building a big language industry and create decent jobs that labour clamours for. Supported multilingualism in Europe is an industry worth billions of dollars and euros.
Omotoso has argued that the African renaissance for the potential growth of Africa must begin with the development of African languages. Lessons need to be learnt on how the European renaissance and its development were inextricably linked to the development of European languages away from Latin. This should be done in order to inform the development of African languages. Closer to home, Afrikaans is a language that should be used as a resource. It took commitment, political will and resources to develop Afrikaans to where it is today as an academic language and a language used in other higher domains. Afrikaans is a close example and role model of what is possible in the development of language and people. For Afrikaans this should be lessons learnt and shared with the other official languages of the country.
- Alexander, N. 2012. The centrality of the language question in the social sciences and humanities in post-apartheid South Africa. University of Johannesburg, EB van Wyk Honorary Linguistics public lecturer, 22 February 2012.
- Bamgbose, A. 2000. Language and exclusion. Hamburg: LIT-Verlag Munster.
- Beukes, A-M. 2008. Language policy implementation in South Africa: How Kempton Park’s great expectations are dashed in Tshwane. Stellenbosch papers in Linguistics, 38:4–8.
- Constitution of The Republic of South Africa, 1996, Act 108 of 1996.
- Department of Arts and Culture. 2003. Implementation Plan: National Language Policy Framework, Pretoria.
- Fanon, Frantz. 2008. Black skin, white masks. English translation, © 2008 by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.
- Kamwangamalu, cited in Baldauf and Kaplan. 2001. Language Planning and Policy in Africa. Some Common Issues. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:9079/AFRICA_1--LPPAfr.pdf
- Mutasa, David. n.d. In Van der Rheede-Blogges, n.d. http://www.ngopulse.org/article/economic-value-indigenous-languages
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. 1986) Decolonising the mind. The politics of language in African Literature. Oxford: James Currey.
- Omotoso, Kole. 2014. Language research and language industry in Africa: The case of South Africa & Nigeria. Lecture at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, Nigeria, 27 February 2014.