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.