Monolingualism, not Afrikaans, must fall

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In this season of protest, when vestiges of apartheid are being challenged on campuses across the country, Afrikaans has come to assume the symbolic status at Stellenbosch University that was held by the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town earlier this year.

The student movement, the university management and a sizeable portion of academics seem to concur: for the sake of transformation at Stellenbosch University, Afrikaans must fall.

When the rector, Wim de Villiers, recently revealed a language policy proposal that would see English become the "default" language, it was hailed as an opportunity for Stellenbosch to cross its political Rubicon, to make amends with the victims of apartheid and to become a world-class university rather than a volksuniversiteit.

Such responses reveal the political baggage Afrikaans still carries. Behind the enthusiasm for the devaluation of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University is the idea that the language remains a repository of racial privilege.

Unlike the Rhodes statue, Afrikaans is not merely a symbol, a mute but stubborn reminder of the university's historical role in bolstering Afrikaner nationalism and white rule. The language is seen instead as an active ingredient in the perpetuation of apartheid inequality; as one of the principal mechanisms mobilised to exclude non-Afrikaans speakers.

It represents, like exorbitant fees, a material barrier to access. Targeting racial exclusion and racism at Stellenbosch means, for many, reducing the role of Afrikaans.

To transform, on the other hand, means to become English.

But transformation is a fickle notion. It has become a managerial tool used to pursue a number of often contradictory projects: from deracialising apartheid universities to realigning their operations with the requirements of neoliberal capitalism.

University transformation has seen an increase in the numbers of black students and academics, but it has also brought about shifts in research, teaching and labour practices, not all of which are laudable.

This is one reason the student movement rejected vague transformation talk in favour of a project of decolonisation. Reference to decolonisation might have become somewhat jaded, but its challenge remains important and goes beyond the issue of demographics.

The question posed is not simply how to improve access and mobility for black students and academics. It asks: What does it mean to be a university in and for Africa?

Decolonisation confronts the university with the inescapability and value of its historical and geographical location at a time when neoliberal transformation, on the contrary, heads towards decontextualisation and global standardisation.

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It challenges the kind of transformation that will see South African universities in uncritical pursuit of an internationalisation of knowledge and skilled elites that leave structures of global inequality unchallenged.

Decolonisation exposes the parochial character of much that is peddled as global and amplifies the universal dimensions of the local – and this includes languages.

Afrikaans undoubtedly leads a problematic existence at Stellenbosch University. Research I have done and supervised reveals many instances in which Afrikaans not only restricts access, but is actively mobilised to make people feel unwelcome, victimise them and barricade culturally defined spaces and privileges.

But research in institutional contexts dominated by English likewise shows how that language becomes a repository of race and class privilege and is employed as an exclusionary mechanism. By stigmatising black English accents, for example.

In other words, Afrikaans does not pose a problem that can be resolved simply by replacing it with English. Rather, the debate about Afrikaans alerts us to what remains hidden by the illusory "universalism" of English: the linguistic dimensions of exclusion and inclusion, of racism also, at our universities, and the urgent need to rethink and decolonise linguistic spaces and practices. At all our universities, not just in Stellenbosch.

If Afrikaans is sometimes politicised in the service of exclusionary ethnic agendas, an artificially depoliticised English just as readily provides ideological cover for a transformation that has little to do with the impulse of decolonisation; the outsourcing of the South African university's very identity and intellectual autonomy to a generic "internationalisation" subservient to the demands of the market.

It is neither Afrikaans nor English that is colonial. It is the logic of monolingualism and the ethnic and class interests it serves that must fall.

Stellenbosch University has long ago ceased to be an exclusively Afrikaans university. Its multilingualism might be imperfect and take on different forms in different administrative and pedagogic contexts, but it exists. It is institutionalised.

The radical move would be to deepen and extend these multilingual practices, not to default to English only. It owes its country and continent the boldness of such imagination.

  • A more condensed version of this article appeared in The Times of 30 November 2015.


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  • frikkie lombard

    Uitstekend geskryf, Desmond. En met 'n verbeeldingryke, indien nie oral gewilde nie, uitgangspunt.

  • Khethiwe Marais

    I agree with Painter that monolingualism, not Afrikaans must fall. The Afrikaans language as spoken in South Africa today is historically more than the language of apartheid. It's a combination of influences, from Dutch to Cape Malay, the slaves brought to the Cape, the San and Koi people and today most of the Cape Coloured people. The unfortunate part is that what the National Party institutions did was to marginalise all these other influences of the San and Koi people, the slaves etc from Afrikaans and to lay exclusive claim of ownership of the Afrikaans language. They also began to link the Afrikaans language with the political system of apartheid. 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 and Koi people, the Griquas, the Coloured people and so on. That is partly why I argue that the #AfrikaansMustFall campaign at Stellenbosch University (SU) is aiming at the wrong target. I fully agree with Painter that Afrikaans should also not be used as a mechanism to exclude non-Afrikaans speakers. It should not be allowed 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. SU 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 this inclusive process of transformation.
    So far, there has been no meaningful implementation of multilingual policy by the universities, government and society at large. The universities, like government, have jettisoned the official policy of multilingualism in favour of English monolingualism and hegemony in spite of the negative impact this has on South African society. The negative impact of English monolingualism is glaringly and intensely manifest in education. Research here 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 both schools and universities continues to be exclusively English it contributes a lot to high drop-out rates, a high percentage of those repeating classes and a high failure rate, especially in matric, for non-English speakers.
    Students and the rest of the community at Stellenbosch and other universities should not be wasting their energy fighting against Afrikaans, instead they should insist that the indigenous languages be given the same scope, profile and support as English and Afrikaans. If Afrikaans-speaking people are racist, they should be challenged on racism and not on the basis of language just as much as any other racial group or individuals, be they white or black, should be challenged on the basis of their racist prejudices and practices and not on the basis of the language they speak. It is very possible to be a racist in English, French, German, Zulu or any language for that matter. You do not need to be an Afrikaans-speaker or an Afrikaner to be racist.
    It is understandable that at Stellenbosch University, which was a bastion 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. Exclusion and exclusionary practices should be strongly challenged in whatever form they manifest themselves. But it is short-sighted and lazy thinking to blame everything that is wrong at Stellenbosch or any institution for that matter on Afrikaans as a language.
    English itself is not a neutral language in the history of this country and Africa as a whole. It should be born in mind that the status of English as the perceived language of power was inherited from the violent colonial legacy, which continues to exert a negative influence on local languages and local solutions.

  • Uiteraard is ek teen eentaligheid en ek wil glo dat daar nog gevoelens teen Afrikaans bestaan wat nie teen die taal self is nie, maar wat dieperliggende redes het waarvan die protesteerders teen die taal Afrikaans miskien self nie eens bewus is nie. Stel net asb uitdruklik wat die sentimente teen die taal in die hede inisieer of berus dit nog uitsluitlik op apartheid?

  • Boldness of imagination. 'n Term vervaardig in die verdediging van Afrikaans, wat beduidend in Engels geskryf is. 'n Lang, hoogdrawende stuk wat menige idees voorlê wat die kort, brutale werklikheid ignoreer.
    Die voortrekkers het vir hul nasate 'n land gegee. Dis weg.
    Die voortrekkers het vir hul nasate 'n ekonomie gegee, dis weg.
    So ook hul instellings, onderwys, verdediging, kultuur, alles is weg.
    Die voortrekkers het vir hul nasate ook 'n taal gegee. Dis al wat oor is en is diep gewond, uit al die kamers van sy huis gejaag, staan op straat. Flikker sy laaste soos 'n kersie wat in water staan, die einde is baie beslis en baie naby.
    Boldness of imagination. Dit beskryf so goed die verskil tussen begrip en hallusinasies.

  • Khethiwe Marais

    Ek stem saam met Painter dat eentaligheid, en nie Afrikaans nie, moet val. Die Afrikaanse taal wat vandag in Suid-Afrika gepraat word, is histories meer as die taal van apartheid. Dit is ʼn kombinasie van invloede, van Hollands tot Kaaps-Maleis, wat die slawe Kaap toe gebring het, die San en Koi, en vandag die meeste van die Kaapse Kleurlinge. Die betreurenswaardige deel is dat wat die Nasionale Party instellings gedoen het, was om al hierdie ander invloede van die San en Koi, die slawe, ens van Afrikaans te marginaliseer en om op eksklusiewe eienaarskap van die Afrikaanse taal aanspraak te maak. Hulle het ook begin om die Afrikaanse taal aan die politieke stelsel van apartheid te koppel. Dus moet Afrikaans bevry word en ʼn inklusiewe taal van alle mense wat dit as hul moedertaal gebruik, gemaak word. Of hulle nou San, Nama en Koi, Griekwas, Kleurlinge, ens is. Dit is deels hoekom ek redeneer dat die #AfrikaansMustFall veldtog by die Universiteit Stellenbosch (US) op die verkeerde teiken toegespits is. Ek stem ten volle met Painter saam dat Afrikaans nie as ʼn meganisme gebruik moet word om nie-Afrikaanse sprekers uit te sluit nie. Daar moet nie toegelaat word dat Afrikaans as ʼn instrument van uitsluiting gebruik word nie. Die poging om Afrikaans op hierdie manier te gebruik, moet teengewerk word deur veeltaligheid aan te neem. Staan die eksklusiwiteit van Afrikaans teen met die inklusiwiteit van alle tale. US moet ʼn hele aantal transformasieprogramme onderneem wat die werklike kwessies van sosio-ekonomiese uitsluiting van die meerderheid studente onder die loep neem. Om bloot Afrikaans te verwyder, sal nie hierdie inklusiewe proses van transformasie bereik nie.
    Tot dusver was daar nog geen betekenisvolle implementering van veeltalige beleid deur universiteite, die regering en samelewing in die algemeen nie. Die universiteite, soos die regering, het die amptelike veeltaligheidsbeleid oorboord gegooi ten gunste van Engelse eentaligheid en hegemonie, ten spyte van die negatiewe uitwerking wat dit op die Suid-Afrikaanse samelewing het. Die negatiewe uitwerking van Engelse eentaligheid is duidelik sigbaar in onderwys. Navorsing ter plaatse en internasionaal het deurlopend bewys dat onderwys beter verstaan word en goed vaar deur middel van onderrig en leer in die moedertaal. In hierdie land dra die onderrigtaal in skole en universiteite, wat steeds slegs Engels is, by tot hoë uitsakkoerse, ʼn hoë persentasie van persone wat klasse herhaal en ʼn hoë druipkoers, veral in matriek, van nie-Engelssprekendes.
    Studente en die res van die gemeenskap by Stellenbosch en ander universiteite moet nie hul energie mors om teen Afrikaans te baklei nie, maar moet eerder daarop aandring dat die inheemse tale dieselfde geleenthede, profiel en ondersteuning as Engels en Afrikaans kry. Indien Afrikaanssprekendes rassisties is, moet hulle oor rassisme aangevat word en nie op grond van hul taal nie, net soos enige ander rasgroep of individu, of hulle wit of swart is, uitgedaag moet word op grond van hul rassistiese vooroordele en praktyke en nie op grond van die taal wat hulle praat nie. Dit is baie moontlik om ʼn rassis in Engels, Frans, Duits, Zulu, of trouens enige ander taal, te wees. Mens hoef nie ʼn Afrikaanssprekende of ʼn Afrikaner te wees om rassisties te wees nie.
    Dit is verstaanbaar dat by die Universiteit Stellenbosch, wat ʼn bastion van apartheidsideologie was, baie van die kwessies wat deur studente geopper is ook op die gebruik van Afrikaans as ʼn taal van leer en onderrig gemik was. Studente moet egter in gedagte hou dat enige taal, en Engels in die besonder in hierdie geval, steeds as ʼn werktuig van uitsluiting gebruik kan word. Uitsluiting en uitsluitende praktyke moet bevraagteken word, in watter vorm hulle ook al manifesteer. Maar dit is kortsigtig en lui denke om Afrikaans as ʼn taal die skuld te gee vir alles wat by Stellenbosch, of trouens enige instelling, verkeerd is.
    Engels is ook nie ʼn neutrale taal nie, indien na die geskiedenis van hierdie land en die hele Afrika gekyk word. Daar moet in gedagte gehou word dat die status van Engels as die vermeende taal van mag van die gewelddadige koloniale nalatenskap geërf is, wat steeds ʼn negatiewe invloed op plaaslike tale en plaaslike oplossings uitoefen.

    • Afrikaans kan en sal nooit val nie. Kleurlinge, swartes, Engelse, Indiërs en baie andere. ANC weet nie eers hoeveel van hul COMRADES PRAAT Afrikaans nie.

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