Language and transformation at Stellenbosch University – critically rethinking the language policy at Stellenbosch University now

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Hierdie praatjie is in 2015 gelewer op uitnodiging van die Indexing the Human-projek by Stellenbosch Universiteit onder leiding van Steven Robins, en die ander deelnemers was Antoinette van der Merwe, Kees van der Waal en Mohammad Shabangu. Dit word geplaas in antwoord op verskeie briefskrywers se navrae oor my persoonlike standpunt oor die taalbeleid aan die US na aanleiding van my antwoord op Marlene van Niekerk se teks van 20 Julie 2016.


Panel discussion in the Scholtz Hall at the SASOL Art Museum, 4 June 2015, 12:00-14:00

I can think of two reasons why I have been asked to speak this afternoon. Unlike Antoinette (who has a professional interest in the matter of language and learning), Kees (who has published on the matter) and Mo (who represents Open Stellenbosch, who have taken a public stand on the language policy), I represent a discipline, music, among whose many problems language does not feature significantly. So, I reasoned, I am here either because my betters have proven themselves to be that by, in their wisdom, declining to speak, or because of this book [Nagmusiek, Johannesburg: Fourthwall Books, 2014], which I have brought along to stand as my witness. As for the first reason, I have worked in Stellenbosch long enough to know that the language debate devours her own children. When one reads Pieter Kapp’s book, Maties en Afrikaans, it is immediately clear that the debate on the pros and cons of language policy details can as little be settled as can the problems of South Africa. Regarding the second reason, all three volumes and 832 pages of it, if one publishes a research-based book of this scope in Afrikaans in 2014, one should not be coy about one’s stand on Afrikaans as an academic language. So it is at the historical root of my decision to write in Afrikaans, where I shall start.

I love languages. At school, my mother, who was an English teacher but who insisted that she could only teach English second language to the boere – literally, the farmers of the district – arranged for weekly tutorial sessions in English for me. My mother was the most English person I ever met, but, because of the Anglo-Boer War, in which, as far as I know, no one in our family participated, she was vehemently anti-English. “English” was a generic for the British Empire, for, as far as I could see, we quite liked English people. She had also been a student at Tukkies when South Africa became a republic, and the afterglow of that event had never quite been erased from her sense of who she was, of who we were. Recently, when Rhodes fell at UCT, I gave her a call. “Ma,” I said, “it’s taken a hundred years, but you must be delighted.” She was not – predictably – because if there is one thing she hates more than “the English”, it is change.

My relationship status with English? It’s complicated.

My mother instilled in me a love for English literature. At school, I studied German, at university French. I only really started reading Afrikaans literature properly when I was studying abroad. When I returned, I wanted to learn isiXhosa. I tried twice, failed twice. My mind was no longer as agile as when I was 20, my time curtailed by family and career; I had to save the world in other ways, changing diapers, building up a pension.

And so I returned to South Africa after completing my doctoral studies in Oxford, to write a book about a forgotten Stellenbosch composer of forgotten music in a disciplinary wasteland in Afrikaans. It was a choice. Why did I do it? I shall answer by quoting from my book (one of the many English passages), where the fictional biographer, Werner Ansbach, speaks about the importance of Afrikaans to his project:

In South Africa Afrikaans academics have to negotiate the linguistic tightrope between Afrikaans and English with, in the best of views, a broadening of perspectives on the work language can do. But let it also be said that it is a painful process, bifurcating between an honest desire for communication with a broader scholarly community in which the lingua franca is English (and the flip-side fear of parochialism), and the desire to think and write and conduct verbal retrospection in the language of one’s home and therefore inevitably coupled with the politicized responsibility of Afrikaans academics to maintain Afrikaans as an academic language, and ultimately as a spoken language, for future generations of South Africans. The responsibility I speak of is not a responsibility to a political idea, at least it is so no longer to me, but to all who might be driven out of themselves in future by finding the doors of the past locked in strange accents and unknown combinations of sounds. More controversially, I would claim, it is to keep the options open of positioning oneself in a discursive space with the potential to stake out in an authentic voice a postcolonial South African position in a global discourse shaped by English.

Like Werner Ansbach, I became convinced – and remain so – that, in South Africa, English is a colonial language with a colonial cadence and an oftentimes parochial purview drip-fed in academe by a domesticated, theoretical vocabulary connected with generic ideas, severed from words as organisms and languages as ecosystems of meanings. I write in Afrikaans because I believe it is a radical thing to do. I encourage my students to do so, in addition to writing in English, because I believe it will make them more radical writers and thinkers. Working from the margins, on the seam between languages, is a highly uncomfortable thing to do, and therefore exactly right as an intellectual position that eschews complacency. Precisely because words like “apartheid”, “dompas”, “baas” and “kleurling” resonate so grotesquely in Afrikaans, the language demands vigilance and care, formal concessions to deep moral transgressions, constant attention to remaking. Afrikaans trembles with the closeness to our shared history.

This is why Afrikaans belongs as a language of instruction and research in our institutions of higher learning; not out of fear for its demise, but in recognition of its entire paradigm of South African experience.

I have read the Open Stellenbosch Memorandum of Demands of 13 May 2015, particularly the section on the language policy. I agree with much of what is written there: the condemnation of the discourse of vulnerability as applied to Afrikaans and the concomitant adoption of a defensive rhetoric by the university, the apartheid nostalgia that is recognized in referencing a history that seems to be more important than the present or future, the structural failure to see and engage with Afrikaans as a site of cultural production (often reactionary cultural production), the politically naïve institutional dismissal of whiteness as an enduring and shaping power in our land and at Stellenbosch, the way in which Afrikaans is symbolically and functionally woven into systemic and structural manifestations of racism and segregation by making it into a normative code, the assertion that at Stellenbosch the language issue is the mechanism through which systematic segregation functions. In all of these areas, I think Open Stellenbosch has advanced readings that deserve to be taken seriously, debated and addressed.

What I don't read in this memorandum, is an attempt to balance the above with an equally incisive reading of the intellectual and theoretical advantages of multilingualism in teaching and research, or even to acknowledge that multilingualism constitutes a reasonable point of departure for a university in a country with 11 official languages. I find it disconcerting that Afrikaans is not seen as a language of access for the majority of its speakers, who are not white, and is therefore not insisted upon as a priority language of teaching at the university in that very capacity. I find the memorandum curiously silent about language diversity, as if we all ultimately aspire to the articulated bliss of English prose. For a document as aware of ideology, power and historical injustice as this memorandum is, it seems intentionally oblivious to the “layered-ness” of the affiliations, complicities, burdens, networks, roots and lives of Afrikaans in its entanglements with the people in and of Stellenbosch and the broader South Africa. It also feigns ignorance of the history of language tolerance and the decades of progressive accommodation of English on campus, implemented by successive management teams under severe pressure from language activists intent on preventing such compromises, something that Kees, for one, has written about.

Be that as it may, Open Stellenbosch has enlivened our campus life by problematizing student co-option, indefinite long-termism as a palliative for delayed action, good manners as a desirable intellectual attribute, protest action as lawless, thinking as regimented, policy as action, racist incidents as exceptional events rather than symptoms of structural malaise, acquiescence as legitimation of power. There is much to admire in this achievement, not least courage and strategic acuity.

So, having stated why I feel Afrikaans is important at an institution like Stellenbosch, I must also say – perhaps, but not necessarily, in contradiction – that, given the context of the perilous state of our country at this time and the need to act boldly, the case to adopt a language policy that prioritizes optimal inclusion at all our universities is overwhelming:

  1. Not because I embrace English homogeneity in undergraduate teaching or postgraduate or advanced research as a radical or progressive strategy. On the contrary, I will continue to resist it in my thinking, my teaching, my reading, my writing.
  2. Not because I think it won’t harm Afrikaans, or Afrikaans speakers of whom the majority are not white. On the contrary, I think it will damage the language and disadvantage its speakers, especially its most vulnerable speakers.
  3. Not because I believe the use of English as a language of instruction will make white power yield. On the contrary, it will channel it into more subtle conduits and forms.

Whether optimal inclusion of all South Africans at Stellenbosch University can be achieved by legislating English homogeneity, is, in my opinion, highly unlikely. But, I think what we are seeing unfold across the campuses in our country shows that our time for more elegant solutions to complex problems has started to run out, that our country is bleeding, struggling to right itself after the disaster of apartheid and its aftershocks, that if Afrikaans is to flourish it will have to be in concert with or in the mouths of the intelligent voices of those who are currently protesting against the way it lives in our institution. How this has to be achieved has perhaps less to do with policy than with the recognition that, at this time, we need to act with some sense of common purpose to secure our future in South Africa, and that the time for language debates has come and gone, that priorities have become more brutally existential, and that we should urgently prioritize the country's needs in terms of this stark reality.

4 June 2015
Stephanus Muller

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  • Johannes Comestor

    Hier kom Stephanus Muller se ingesteldheid jeens Afrikaans en Engels myns insiens duideliker oor as in sy latere tekste, waarin hy (skynbaar) 'n radikaler standpunt stel. Ek verskil grondig met sy standpunt dat al ons universiteite uitsluitlik of oorwegend die koloniale taal Engels as onderrigmedium moet gebruik en terselfdertyd moet dekoloniseer. Onderliggend aan sy benadering is daar onderskrywing van politieke korrektheid, maar in oordrewe graad. Hy streef radikaliteit na en verwag dit ook van sy studente. Sou dit nie beter wees om radikaliteit met bv soberheid, ewewig en veral rasionaliteit te vervang nie? Uit my hoek gesien, is dit uiters moeilik om Open Stellenbosch die lof toe te swaai wat Muller as geregverdig beskou.

  • Chris Marnewick SC

    "... the case to adopt a language policy that prioritizes optimal inclusion at all our universities is overwhelming ..."
    Ek weet nie of ek hiermee kan saamstem nie. 'n Universiteit is tog meer as 'n welsynsorganisasie wat grade uitdeel op 'n "optimal inclusion" basis.
    Soos dit vir my lyk, gaan dit oor die poging om Afrikaans uit "all our universities" te verdryf, soos dit elders ook met ons skole gebeur. En die argument wat gebruik word om dit te bewerkstellig is juis die "optimal inclusion" argument.
    Inclusion in wat? wil ek vra. Toegang tot 'n universiteit? Daar is ander. Toegang tot die taal en kultuur van US? Duidelik nie, want dit moet mos nou verander, ter wille van die "optimal inclusion"-afgod. Toegang tot die kwaliteit van US-onderwys, wetenskaplike navorsing, ens? UCT om die hoek verskaf dit ook, en van dieselfde kwaliteit en status. (Ander ook, sou ek voorstel, maar "all our universities" moet nou mos op dieselfde "optimal inclusion" basis te werk gaan.)
    Die Trojaanse perd wat hier ingesleep word dra binne sy donker buik die soldate wat Afrikaans as onderrigtaal taal moet uitdryf.

    • "Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for "equality": your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!"

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