I was in standard 9 (grade 11) in 1976. Post-1994 South Africa’s longest-serving finance minister Trevor Manuel had matriculated from the same school a few years before me. That was when I first experienced teargas, rubber bullets, riot policemen in camouflage uniform. From our school in District 6 to the Grand Parade bus stop, we were to do the Noah walk, in no more than pairs, lest we be considered to constitute illegal gatherings. It was the year in which the National Party government attempted to introduce Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black schools. It is now part of our collective history that Soweto learners revolted against the idea, and soon the revolt against Afrikaans perceived as a symbol of black oppression sparked broader resistance to the system of apartheid.
In my matric year I was elected chairperson of our SRC. One of our SRC projects was to commemorate the first anniversary of the 1976 revolt. In September of that year, nearly exactly 38 years ago, the black consciousness icon Steve Biko was killed in police detention. While apartheid decreed that there were “Whites”, “Indians”, “Coloureds” and “Africans”, it was under the influence of Biko that the politically conscious among us who weren’t classified white, identified ourselves as black, if we were to label ourselves at all.
I wanted to be a teacher, like some of my teachers who had opened my mind far beyond their academic obligations. I, too, wanted to help to change young minds; that, and because there were not too many other options on the job market back then! My first choice was UCT, an institution that had been open to everyone till the Extension of Tertiary Education Act was passed in the same year I was born, a law that prohibited black people from registering at formerly “open” universities without the express permission of the apartheid state. Thus it was that when I chose to attend UCT rather than the local “bush college” – as the University of the Western Cape (UWC) was referred to – I had to apply for a permit from the Department of Coloured Affairs. To obtain such a permit I was required to do a subject not offered at UWC, the university for “Coloureds”. My permit subject was drama. (Publicly funded careers in the arts were largely the domain of white citizens. CAPAB’s Nico Malan theatre opened as a “Whites Only” venue in 1971, and while it was declared “open” to everyone in the latter years of my high school career, by then, it had been stigmatised and was subsequently boycotted as an apartheid institution.)
I received my permit from a tall, fair-haired Afrikaans-speaking man with a wry smile. The Department of Coloured Affairs was housed in a tall, brown building in Roeland Street, a few blocks down from Harold Cressy, my high school. (In Rhodes-Must-Fall parlance, that building has now literally fallen – in favour of a banal parliamentary car park, much like the less-than-spectacular car park in Berlin that covers the bunker where Hitler spent his last hours.) Unlike my predecessors who used their permit subject as an entry to UCT, and then dropped it from second year, our intake was obliged to do our permit subjects as majors.
My second major was English, and since I was training as a teacher I had to do at least one year of another teaching subject. I chose Afrikaans, a rumoured “soft option” at UCT, as it was also a requirement for all those doing law.
My home language was English. I had English as the medium of instruction from primary to high school. My best school results were achieved in English as a subject. I was a leader at school, with a reasonable degree of confidence and sense of self. By the time I entered university, apartheid had ensured that I had had very limited interaction with white people.
Notwithstanding my whole life and education having been in English, when I sat in seminars during my first year at UCT it struck me that my language skills were not as good as those of my white counterparts, that they sounded more articulate, and were far more able to express their views coherently than I was. As black, politically conscious students we knew that we were not inferior to anyone as apartheid would have had us believe, and yet it was clear that our white peers were far more comfortable in the institution than we were.
But then, UCT was not “our” institution. We were there under duress, having had to suffer the indignity of applying for a permit to attend this university simply because of our skin colour. In some small way, we were resisting apartheid’s designs by attending a “white” university, although we declined to be part of the institution other than to obtain the education which would qualify us for the work we planned to do. We did not participate in the university’s sports teams, nor in the SRCs that governed student life (although black students elected a committee – on which I served – to represent their interests to the university management during the 1980 boycotts) and we refused to attend our graduation ceremonies, which we regarded as symbolic inductions into “the system”.
I graduated in 1981 and returned five years later to do honours in drama (my permit subject major now stood me in good stead!). By then I had had a half-decade of life experience, including a year on an exchange programme in the USA, Brazil and Nicaragua, and, most recently, a position as organiser of an arts festival that was banned by the security police who deemed it a threat to national security!
The country was in the midst of political turmoil with states of emergency, international sanctions, and ever-increasing levels of internal resistance. Yet UCT, among the supposedly more progressive tertiary institutions of the time, still had its primary curriculum genuflecting to European and American theatre. When I decided to do my honours thesis with the title “International models of political theatre: functions, forms and techniques and their relevance to political theatre in South Africa”, in which I sought to research theatre practice in the broader “global South”, the drama department had to source a supervisor from the nascent Centre for African Studies, as there was no staff member in the department who could supervise me.
While we were being taught that the characteristics and values of great theatre were “timelessness” and “universality”, I was learning, largely through self-study, about the common aesthetics of theatre in the slums of India, the favelas of Brazil and the rural areas of Zimbabwe. The university had an idea of excellence that might have been shared by the Parisian, American and South African middle classes, but this was not the only truth; it certainly was not the truth for most of the people in the world, and neither was it the truth for the majority of South Africans, for whom theatre’s relevance required different values and characteristics.
Probably the most valuable element of my honours year was the presence of a fellow student, Deon Opperman, who had been brought up in an Afrikaans home and environment. He had a completely different theatre practice and outlook from mine, and a mind as sharp as a scalpel. We clashed and debated intensely in many seminars, as well as outside of the seminar room, but it was the most stimulating, challenging and rewarding engagement. We still have different theatre practices and worldviews, but when we see each other every now and then, it is like “old times”, rooted – I’d like to think – in the mutual respect we forged at university.
Based on this narrative, I’d like to make a few observations about the current debates regarding language, institutions and learning.
1. Whereas my generation of university attendees did not regard the institutions we were studying at as “our” institutions, and took from them what we wanted in order to serve our broader career or political agendas, in so far as we now have a democratically elected government that provides the major funding for public universities, institutions such as Wits University, UCT, Fort Hare, UWC and Stellenbosch do “belong” to all the students who attend these. (It is not without irony that my sons stand a better chance of university entrance if they tick the “coloured” box on the application form. This is a matter of extreme personal ambivalence as, on the one hand, I do believe that historical inequities rooted in apartheid’s racist ideology need to be corrected, but on the other, the very divisive labels that we rejected under apartheid are now being applied to make such corrections, despite the Population Registration Act’s no longer being on the statute books, and despite the parental desire not to have my “born-free” sons assume an identity constructed primarily by notions of “race”). Institutions today can no longer claim a historical, cultural or other exclusive form of ownership. Universities might once have been made in the image of the apartheid authorities with their paradigm links and canon and knowledge biases towards the West, but they are now – unsurprisingly – being challenged to be remade in the image of the country’s broader demographics and needs, as well as in the context of a globalised world order that includes Africa, Asia and other regions that once were considered less important, or that were off limits to the apartheid state. It is this necessary “remaking” – I’m purposely avoiding the term “transformation” because of the many adverse connotations it has acquired and the many “sins” committed in its name in the past 21 years – that requires visionary, insightful, non-defensive and sensitive leadership.
2. My primary school – Athlone North – located in the working-class area of Kewtown, was a dual medium – English and Afrikaans – school. My mother was a standard 1 teacher at the school from when I was there till she retired. After she had passed standard 8 she completed a teachers’ diploma. My father passed standard 6 before he became a confectioner, and ended his working career in a clothing factory. Their wish for their five children was for us to have the best education possible, with the result that although we lived in Athlone on the Cape Flats with numerous high schools in the area, they two-bussed us to Harold Cressy High in town which, along with Livingstone High, was reputed to be one of the “better” schools (for “coloureds”) at the time.
The demographics at both my primary and high schools have changed dramatically in the last 21 years, with large numbers of learners from Cape Town’s black African townships commuting to these to obtain an education that their parents believe is better than that offered in their township schools. While Athlone North Primary may still offer teaching in Afrikaans, the Xhosa-speaking learners at the school acquire their education in English, as would be the case at most, if not all, formerly “coloured” high schools. Such Xhosa-speaking learners would then be educated in at least their second language.
Like all parents who want their children to have a better education and better quality of life than they had, we sent our boys to schools that were certainly not part of my educational experience; these were former “white” schools where even the primary school had far better educational and sports facilities than my high school. (Harold Cressy High – in 2015 – is about to open a hall that can accommodate all its learners for the first time, built largely with the contributions of its alumni.)
Many educational institutions have had to, and are continuing to, grapple with the challenges of the changing demographics and demands of their learner or student bodies. For those charged with the governance or management of these, it cannot be easy, as different cultures, vastly unequal social circumstances within their learner bodies, varying languages and language competencies as well as competing histories and expectations conspire ever to undermine the “rainbow nation” myth.
I’ve engaged in too numerous school-parent conversations which reflect this myth; for many, it is about “them” (those from marginalised communities) having to learn and come to “our” school on “our” terms, reflected in a superficial position such as “this is a rugby playing school, we will not play soccer here” (and this, in an English medium school!). Too many of those privileged by our past love the idea of the “rainbow nation”, as long as its practice does not challenge them or ask them to forego or even reconsider their ideas of excellence, or their cultural values. Fear, cultural prejudice and ignorance (with fear and prejudice often rooted in ignorance) too often shape or inform our responses, and we are unable to listen, to transport ourselves into the circumstances of others, and come to see that our fellow citizens – though less privileged – have the same human impulses, desires and rights as we do.
If our children were expected to learn in a second language, one that they have come to acquire some proficiency in only from mid-primary school, how would we feel about that? If, for some reason, they were unable to get into an institution where the education was available in that second language, but they were able to get into another – publicly funded institution that required them to learn in a third language – how would we feel about that? Would we not be even more outraged than some appear to be when their children are not able to learn in their first language?
3. While the current Constitution guarantees all South African citizens equal rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, the right to health, etc, we enjoy and practise these rights largely on the basis of our material, educational and related means. We have the same rights, but we “enjoy” them within a society that started off with massive inequities in 1994; and with social and other inequality indices increasing over the last two decades, our capacity to “enjoy” and celebrate these rights is vastly different. So, for example, while we all have the right to freedom of expression, those of us who are better educated, are able to write letters to the newspapers to express our views, or those who feel confident in English or Afrikaans, may phone in to the primary talk radio stations to discuss the issues of the day. We all have the right to education, but those with resources are able to send their children to better schools and so they acquire an education that places them in a superior position to millions of their peers. We all have the right “to participate in the cultural life of the community and to enjoy the arts” according to article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but it is those with disposable income who are best able to purchase tickets to the theatre or cinema or who are able to buy books, or hire DVDs, as these do not compete with the primary objectives of putting food on the table. In a country where 70% of the national income is earned by 20% of our population and the bottom 40% have to make do with 7% of national income, it is clear that while we all have the same rights in theory, in reality, there is a vast difference between how those of us who are more privileged, experience these rights in comparison with the majority of our fellow citizens. The privileged among us have – largely – had the benefit of being privileged before 1994, and we and our families have been able to build on the opportunities that we had access to then, but which were denied to most. The playing fields may be level now, but we are not all starting with the same skills, equipment, networks and resources, so that our ability to compete on these playing fields varies considerably.
Today, the Constitution gives us all the right to use the language of our choice and we all have the right not to be discriminated on the basis of language.
My experience within an English tertiary education institution when my home and life language was English (one of the two official languages at the time) was of inadequacy. How much more was this the case for my counterparts whose home language was not English, but Xhosa or Sotho? While all of our languages are now affirmed by our Constitution, the experience of most of the “born-free” generation is that they are still required to access higher education in English or Afrikaans, rather than in their home languages. There is no tertiary institution that offers a full education in any of the indigenous languages, other than Afrikaans. It is true that many more black (in the Biko sense) people now come through former “Model C” schools, so that they feel more comfortable at tertiary institutions than might have been the case with my generation, but the point is that while some may claim the right to be educated in the language of their choice, eg Afrikaans, this right is, in fact, not available to the majority of students in practice, although it is a right they may claim in theory.
A divided history of privilege on the one hand and oppression and denial on the other means that today – and for the foreseeable future – it is likely that those whose first languages are English and Afrikaans will better be able to enjoy their constitutional rights with regard to language than the majority of their fellow citizens. This cannot be right.
Educational institutions are not islands; they exist in the context of very real material, social and economic conditions, rooted in a history of division and privileging on the basis of “race”. Constitutions are about the “promised land”; ours is certainly not a magic wand that has wiped out our history and made us all equal. To achieve this “promised land” we need to be pragmatic, generous and human in our approaches to move from where we are, from what we have inherited, to what we would collectively like to be.
What might this mean in practice with regard to language, and the right to learn in one’s language, particularly at tertiary levels?
I doubt that we will ever have tertiary institutions that cater for all our indigenous languages, ie where native speakers of a tongue are able to acquire a degree, let alone a postgraduate degree in their native Tswana, Zulu, Venda or Sotho. I’m not even sure that – given the globalised world in which we live – this (tertiary education in all indigenous languages) is desirable. What I am sure about is that no one who desires and qualifies for tertiary education should be excluded from institutions or prejudiced at institutions based on language.
The African Arts Institute where I work has recently been privileged to work with the Namibian authorities and cultural stakeholders to develop and update their arts, culture and heritage policy. Namibia has more than 25 languages in a culturally diverse – though relatively small – population, but for pragmatic reasons they have determined English as their official language.
Rather than those who enjoy privilege today largely because of inherited (pre-1994) status and privilege and who are thus better able to demand and enjoy the language and other rights postulated in the Constitution, from a pragmatic level I would prefer every publicly funded tertiary institution to provide education in English as its primary medium of instruction – thus making all institutions accessible to everyone - while those who wish to obtain their learning in Afrikaans are able to do so at particular universities, at additional cost if necessary. In other words, rather than Afrikaans being “the norm” at some universities, largely because of history, English should be the medium of instruction for all universities, while undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are made available in Afrikaans for those who wish to do so. This right – to use the language of choice – becomes an extension of privilege, rather than privilege being a guarantee of this right, and which in the process prejudices numerous others who do not speak, or wish to learn in, the language as a second or third tongue. I recognise that this would still place Afrikaans speakers in a better position than speakers of other indigenous languages who would not have the opportunity to acquire a degree in their native language, but this would be a pragmatic solution rather than one of principle, which the objective material and other realities militate against.
Having said that, I would advocate – given our divided history and contemporary divisions – a compulsory foundational course for all students as a first-year course, where issues of cultural diversity, history, inequality and human rights are dealt with. I was greatly enriched not just by textbooks and formal learning, but by engaging with a Deon Opperman and his quite different theatre practice, life experience and outlook, as I would think he was. Much is made of “social cohesion”, and many yearn for the “rainbow nation” of Madiba and Tutu (a notion that is at best middle-class, since it is unlikely that the “rainbow nation” ever included poor, marginalised people who form the majority of our society), but there are so few opportunities within our society for people to cross historical cultural, “race”, language, geographical and class divides in search of a future that is both heterogeneous and mutually respectful. Our universities should be places that break rather than perpetuate these barriers and silos.
4. The Afrikaans first-language community (particularly “white” Afrikaans speakers) is probably the most well-resourced language group in the country. There are more organisations promoting and defending the language and its speakers, more agencies dedicated to developing the language, more festivals, newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations promoting Afrikaans culture and arts (theatre, music, literature, film, etc) than any other language group, including English. There is more passion and commitment to developing, promoting and celebrating the language than in any other language group. It is no wonder, then, that Afrikaans literature, music, film, television, heritage sites and theatre are among the most sustainable and profitable creative industries in the country. There is much that other language or cultural communities could learn from the Afrikaans-speaking community in this regard, and the levels of expertise and experience, and the networks and resources within the Afrikaans community could be of great benefit to the broader development of society generally.
However, the Afrikaans community is also the most anxious about its language, and about its potential decline in the context of increasing English hegemony. The reality, though, is that while these languages have not developed to the extent that Afrikaans has, given the investment in it over the last century, indigenous African languages like Xhosa, Ndebele and Tswana have not died out, despite having been actively suppressed, marginalised and dismissed as inferior to Afrikaans and English, which once were the country’s only official languages. Afrikaans – like other indigenous languages – continues to live on the tongues of Namibians in everyday discourse, despite English being the official language.
It highly unlikely, then, that Afrikaans, given the passion and commitment of its primary users and the resources of is user community to support the language, will die out or decline any time soon.
One of the biggest threats to the Afrikaans language is, ironically, the premise that it is under threat, and that at every level, and using every available avenue – the courts, the streets, the media, parliament, education institutions, etc – it is necessary to defend the language. It is precisely this defensiveness, and the positions taken by its advocates, that range from arrogant self-righteousness and racism to the mainstream claiming of constitutional rights when others do not have anywhere near the capacity to claim such rights, that provokes opposition to – and in some cases, a desire to “punish” – the language.
Clearly, it is not a language that oppresses, or that is arrogant, or that steps on the rights of others; it is people who use the language that do, and so raise vicarious antagonisms to the language. It is not the German language that killed gays, Jews, black people and gypsies en masse, but people who spoke German, and were informed by a particular ideology of supremacy and hate. It is not the French language that colonised Senegal, Algiers and Mali, but the country of France and its people who spoke French, and imposed it as the language of rule. The English language did not suppress the dialects of India, or the indigenous languages of Kenya; it was British people who spoke English who did so, and who did so with absolute ruthlessness.
Yet today, notwithstanding these brutal histories, most Africans speak English or French as their first language or use it pragmatically as a lingua franca in societies where there is a large diversity of languages, such as Nigeria with its more than 500 languages, where English is the official language.
Similarly, could Afrikaans – notwithstanding its history as the “language of the oppressor”, a language associated with brutal repression, with an inhumane system of pass laws and migrant labour that shattered families, with detention without trial, with fundamental racism that denied the full humanity of black Africans in particular – “sins” that are not dissimilar to those committed in the past by Europeans who spoke English, French and German – be broadly embraced as a means of communication, be celebrated as a language of beauty and be enjoyed for its unique expressiveness?
It is unlikely that it will become the lingua franca of our country, but I imagine that the answer to this question lies in how the Afrikaans-speaking community and its social, cultural, education and economic leaders position themselves within broader South African society: Will they employ their significant expertise, networks and resources to contribute to the well-being of all of South Africa’s people and to address the inequities rooted in our divided past (and for which they need to accept significant responsibility), or will their primary approach be one of defending, protecting and promoting their own interests and privileges embedded in pre-1994, apartheid history?
Like all communities, the Afrikaans community is not a homogenous entity; political views, religious beliefs, gender roles, etc are as diverse as in any other. There are some who are deeply engaged in strategies that have to do with the fundamental and progressive remaking of our society, and there are many who are not. But in my experience, there is a common love of and passion for their language – something to be admired.
It might just be, though, that through a counter-intuitive approach, embracing and contributing to the whole, rather than expending energy only on defending “their” part of the whole, the language and cultural interests of Afrikaans speakers will be respected, promoted and protected. When we are concerned about and are active in the pursuit of the rights, freedoms and dignity of everyone, it may be then that our own rights, freedoms and dignity are more sustainably guaranteed.
5. This brings me to my final point about language, about which there are four related points I’d like to make.
First, the primary discussion is about language as a medium of instruction, and about the constitutional rights we have to use the language of our choice and not to be discriminated against on the grounds of language. Much of this article has attempted to deal with exactly the contradiction between these two rights when it comes to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at (formerly Afrikaans) universities, ie that by ensuring that Afrikaans-speaking students have the right to access their tertiary education in their language, students who speak languages other than Afrikaans (particularly those for whom English and Afrikaans are second and third languages) are discriminated against. Hence my view that all publicly funded tertiary institutions should provide their education in English (privately funded institutions can offer education in the language of their choice), but that Afrikaans-speaking students – and any others – are able to access their education in Afrikaans at particular publicly funded institutions, at additional cost if necessary. This would be a more inclusive approach that takes into account historical and contemporary realities rather than the current approach in some institutions that have Afrikaans as the primary language, with English offered as an alternative, or translation, language.
Secondly, formerly “white” tertiary institutions speak another language, the language of semiotics through symbols (of which the medium of instruction is one) that include statues, architecture and names of buildings. For many new, black entrants into such institutions, this “language” reminds them of their otherness, that they are “footballers in an institution with a strong rugby tradition”, that they are outsiders, present under duress, and on the terms of those who have always “owned” the institution. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign was about addressing this language at UCT as an entry point to engage around course content and knowledge paradigms, and around the relevance of tertiary institutions to the broader remaking of South African society rather than to the perpetuation of elitist privilege.
Thirdly, there is the language of university institutionalism: the language of policy, of rules of governance, of investment and financing, of entrance qualifications, of staffing and resourcing. Who sets this language, who speaks, is articulate in and conversant with this language, and how this language is used to promote and protect some interests, and exclude others – this, too, needs thorough interrogation.
And then, fourthly, there is the language of struggle, of student agency; language that emerges from discomfort, from the constant reminding of otherness in the context of a cultural hegemony within the institution that reflects broader economic power and related inequalities; language that advocates change, language that arises in direct response to one or more of the languages referred to above. This language is often threatening, alienating and polarising, particularly to those in authority whom it challenges, as well as to the many students and staff who engage and participate uncritically in, and who accept the bona fides of, the institution unquestioningly. But it is a language that is spoken, and needs to be seen as a language that seeks to set an agenda for dialogue, as opposed to any of the other three languages which speak in their silence, asserting hegemony.
The longer the perceived intransigence in genuinely addressing the issues of concern, the more radical the fourth language will become, with this “language” including its own symbols and exclamation marks of boycotts, sit-ins and strikes, resulting in ever-increasing polarisation. Yet, no matter how radical the fourth language, ultimately, there will need to be dialogue. How long it takes to get there will determine the spirit and the levels of trust and respect that will be required to resolve the issues sustainably.
Notwithstanding what the Constitution says, English is our de facto lingua franca, in much the same way as the English, French and Portuguese of the former colonisers are the lingua francas – if not official languages – of many other African countries. That we have 11 official languages is at best symbolic, a post-apartheid political affirmation of indigenous cultures and languages that were marginalised and suppressed under apartheid, for there simply are not the resources – nor, it has to be said, the political will – to invest in the development of indigenous African languages to the point that they acquire the same academic status enjoyed by English and Afrikaans.
Language rights, then, cannot be claimed or discussed in isolation from similar rights being afforded to others, nor can they be separated from other fundamental rights and freedoms to which all South Africans are entitled. Language as a medium of instruction is an issue within institutions in which the languages of symbols and institutionalism reflect the inequalities – historical and contemporary – of our broader society.
The fundamental challenge in our society is inequality, an abiding legacy of our apartheid past. The superficial, happy-clappy “rainbowism” of our early years and the politically expedient Truth and Reconciliation Commission, necessary as they may have been for a peaceful political transition, have merely masked and delayed our need to deal with this challenge that threatens the stability of our society and its future. That our government of the past 21 years has largely squandered the opportunities that beckoned at the start of our democratic work-in-progress, and that it has – for all its people-centred rhetoric – shifted substantially to a nationalist, elitist and partisan agenda, has not helped to address this challenge in a sustainable manner.
While government may play a bullying role in issues of language policy – because it can – ultimately it is for South African citizens to find one another, and particularly for those in positions of privilege to listen more, to try to understand the frustrations of their counterparts, to be more generous and act in a less defensive and threatened manner. We need to move beyond the superficial language of the “rainbow nation” and the unreflective, entitled claims which our Constitution affords particularly the privileged among us, towards a more rigorous discourse of anti-racism linked to recognising and addressing the fundamental social, material, educational and cultural inequalities of our times.
Mike van Graan
Executive Director: African Arts Institute, Playwright