Open Stellenbosch: The elephant in the room

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Leon Wessels

The language debate in South Africa is not only about language: there is a socio-political context. It is about the past. It is about the future. It has got everything to do with exclusion and everything to do with inclusion. It is about about building bridges over old divides and moving forward – together.

This is what it was about that night when the structure of the language clause in the Constitution was crafted. The clock was ticking for the negotiators because the May 1996 deadline for the completion of the Constitution was just around the corner. The language clause still remained a stumbling block. A small task team putting heads together in search for a solution to the problem.

Moodily, one asks of the other: “What is the problem?”

English cannot get constitutional recognition as the only official language. Recognition of other languages with English as the language of record – in the courts, on official documents and official correspondence – will not do. There must be space for Afrikaans too.

“We are tired of this language struggle you Afrikaners are waging against English in the name of multilingualism. Fact is, other languages always are being snubbed. The promotion of language is a sham to which you pay lip service – it always is just about Afrikaans. We are not interested in the axes you still have to grind against the English. Afrikaans is an important language, but you must understand that just as you will not accept that English is given a special place in the Constitution, just as surely we will not accept that a special place for Afrikaans be created in the Constitution.”

Come, let us create space for Afrikaans as well as the other indigenous languages – English is a world language, it is the greatest common factor among us and will remain standing without special assistance.

The excitement about the new status of the indigenous languages and the special place for the smaller languages, especially, cannot be hidden. One of the participants declares excitedly: “Just to think that my language is now getting constitutional recognition; it is up there alongside English and Afrikaans!”

 Marinus Wiechers aptly commented years later: “The negotiators did not sell out during the negotiations; the real sell-outs are those in power – they did not deliver properly on the negotiated agreements.”

The challenges around poverty, housing, job creation, integration of state structures and the civil service, the establishment of provincial and local governments with which the government is faced, have brought about that little attention has been given to the directives on language. The lost place of Afrikaans and the concern of Afrikaners about language usage just do not carry the same weight as the other questions that the authorities are battling with now.

The fact that little progress is being made with the implementation of a language act shows that it is not the primary focus of the government. During the first democratic parliament (1994–1999), 789 pieces of racially based legislation were scrapped. This alone tells you where the sentiments of that parliament had been.

In the absence of a language act, practical considerations often have brought about that the constitutional aims have been undermined. Small wonder, then, that small municipalities are neglecting the constitutional directives and are reverting to old language patterns or that government departments have become of the biggest trespassers who are ignoring the other ten official languages in the Constitution and are using English only as the official language “for practical reasons”.

At local authority level councillors use mostly English during council meetings because translation services are claimed to be too expensive. In the lobbies people are beginning to grumble, because in order to be an effective councillor you now have to be able to speak English. “What about the community leader who is not as fluent in English?” one of the leaders asks behind closed doors, but he will not make a public issue of it, because then he speaks the same language as the Afrikaans language drivers and he does not want to be in that camp at all.

Eight years after the completion of the constitutional negotiation process, Naledi Pandor, then in her position as chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, delivered an address at the first parliamentary conference on multilingualism which was received enthusiastically by members of parliament. It was as though she had used the minutes of the bilateral talks of the time in preparing her speech:

  • The promotion of multilingualism has nothing to do with the status of Afrikaans within the South African community.
  • Any appeal for extraordinary status for Afrikaans or any other language will be difficult to justify in a democratic South Africa.
  • It will not be possible to justify the undermining or neglect of any language, including Afrikaans.
  • One of the popular myths in the South African language debate is that multilingualism centres in the main on a bilingual paradigm – English against Afrikaans.
  • English and Afrikaans have been at each other’s throats for more than a century and in the process they had both trodden the other indigenous languages into the ground and into inferiority.

The language debate in South Africa will not be settled easily, because language is something that grabs at one’s heart. In spite of this, we sometimes go about our business in a very clumsy way.

On Africa Day 25 May 2004, at a conference organised by the House of Traditional Leaders, traditional leaders discussed the problems of unauthorised initiations that sometimes cause the tragic deaths of young men. For them it is a subject of importance, because these initiations lie at the heart of the African culture.

These vitally important debates all take place in English – sometimes the speakers struggle to get their tongues around the “red language” and then the rest of the speech is concluded in an African tongue. This scene takes place in the face of serious allegations that the continued domination of Western culture and the heritage of colonialism has brought about that the African languages and cultures still find themselves in an inferior position.

In answer to the question why they do not make use of translation services, even of simultaneous interpreting, the embarrassed reply is: “We have not thought of it, but the matter will have to be addressed.”

During a Human Rights Commission investigation one of the Tswana police officials related how he had written in the incidents book in Tswana. His white colleagues could not understand what he had written and he was brought before a disciplinary hearing. The reason behind his action? He wanted the Commissioner of Police to take note of his frustration that in his environment there had been no transformation in terms of race or language. The Constitution provides for the use of Tswana, but the official registers and statements are still done in Afrikaans and English only for the benefit of his white colleagues who cannot understand the Tswana language.

On 1 December 2003 (International Aids Day) the then minister of social development, Zola Skweyiya, was interviewed on Radio 702 by the television and radio personality Tim Modise. He referred to the ignorance of our people about HIV/Aids and then made the following statement that may have far-reaching consequences for multilingualism: “Our own people do not understand us when we talk to them about these matters, because we speak in a language, English, which they do not understand.” It is as though he understands what others have said already, namely that “a multilingual country with a monolingual government cannot be called a democracy.”[i]

One of South Africa’s judge presidents, Mandla Hlope, recently spoke in the same vein when he said that there could be no equal treatment in the courts of the country unless all eleven languages were used there. The use of some languages in court to the detriment of others is “unconstitutional and untenable”. Aspiring judges ought to be encouraged to master at least one of the languages in the divisions where they want to serve as judges.

Not every South African you meet is a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Hugh Masekela, internationally renowned jazz personality talks to a small circle of friends in Krugersdorp and expresses his surprise that South Africans – black and white – still do not know how to speak to one another. Everyone is very apologetic: our children will get it right because they don’t have the barriers we had to contend with; children now go to school together and have opportunities to mix that we never had, are the excuses tendered.

To me this is nothing but shirking our responsibility, coming from a generation that has to set the pace to bridge the divides of the past. They are passive and in a very subtle way, and sometimes not so subtly, instilling their old fears and prejudices in their children.

The “children” have now found their voice. Everything didn’t turn out as rosy as that older generation around the table had predicted. This younger generation is angry because they have not tasted the fruits of democracy – “a better life for all” escapes them. At the heart of this lie language policies at univertsities.

Pierre de Vos builds an argument that the language policy at the University of Stellenbosch will not pass constitutional muster because this policy makes it difficult for non-Afrikaans-speaking students to study at Stellenbosch and that it is discriminatory. It is also not reasonable. The change of policy, which will lead to the diminishing of the rights of Afrikaans students to be taught in their mother tongue, will stand the test of constitutional scrutiny because of past racial discriminiattion. He believes that the objective is to provide students of all races with a wider choice of educational opportunities in South Africa. He concludes: “Ultimately this is about correcting the wrongs of the apartheid past and creating a more fair and equal society.”

The jury is still out on this line of thinking. Those who argue diffirently will submit that the policy is “reasonably practicable” as required by the Constitution. They will also argue that discriminatory policies adversely affected Afrikaans speakers who were on the “other side” of racial classification. They will remind us that Stellenbosch in the days of yore was an exclusively white univeristy. Removing the racial obstacle was a step forward; removing Afrikaans as a language of instruction is a step backwards and not “correcting the wrongs of the apartheid past” and will present a major obstacle also for the Afrikaans speakers who were previously excluded.

Politically speaking: anything that suggests exclusion and racial discrimination will not carry the day.

This then raises the question: What does it mean when Wim de Villiers says Stellenbosch in not a white univertsity and is also not an Afrikaans university; it is a multiracial and multilingual university? This bold statement has to be applauded, but lacks detail. This he hopes to achieve through discussion and debate.

Those who advocate multilingualism have a mountain to climb. The advocates of old-style interpetation services are vociferous, but the consumers are not convinced. They claim that the service provided is often of a poor quality and when it is adequate something is lost when you have to rely on a translator. The ones not using this service are unfairly advantaged.

Be that as it may: the onus is on the advocates of multilingualism to find avenues to break this deadlock. Small discussion groups in participants’ language of choice to back up the formal lectures? New platforms to publish academic material?

The argument that weighs heavily on my mind is the manner in which newcomers are welcomed and how they are treated once “there”.

There is a body of evidence from different universities to amplify a statement made by a student who doesn’t fit the old mold: “A lot of fear is instilled. You have to feel you do not belong here; it is a privilege for you to belong here.”

Some argue this has got nothing to do with language. I submit this has got everything to do with language. If you ridicule someone in Afrikaans and in the service of old traditions, don’t be surpised to find disgruntled students who say, “I want to get my degree and get out of this place as soon as possible.”

During language debates the elephant in the room is often racism. I have sat around dinner tables when interlocutors will boldly say, “I am not a racist” and then continue to demonstrate the opposite. There are many Afrikaans pundits who are not racists. There are, however, also many who shield their racist attitudes by glibly citing constitutional provisions.

Racists nowadays ain’t what they used to be and they don’t look alike. They are to be found on different sides of the argument. They have to be exposed because they will not find constitutional protection. To isolate them will not be difficult if peace-loving people stand up to be counted; normally this is not what they do when the heat is on. There is too much at stake now to allow hot-headed racists – from all sides of the divide – to dominate the discussions.

For multilinguaism to succeed at our tertiary institutions we have to rekindle the spirit of the drafters of the Constitution: to listen to one another and to believe that a solution to harness the interests of everyone is possible.

Leon Wessels, Research Associate, Institute for Reconcilliation and Social Justice, University of the Free State

[i] Gerrit Brand of the Multilingual Action Group, Rapport, 25 May 2004.

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  • Kruger du Preez

    Ek stem saam Leon! Rassisme en alle verskuilde vorme daarvan moet aangespreek word, ook in die taaldebat.

  • Etienne Terblanche

    Indien u skrywe hier in my Engelse klas nagesien sou word, sou ek 'n hele paar foute aandui wat nié tegnies is nie, maar kommunikasie belemmer. Ons noem dit eerstetaal-invloed. U is Afrikaans, en u is net nie so effektief in Engels nie. Dit verstom my al meer hoe mense wat maar min van taal dink, of min daarvan weet, so wys is oor hoe ons die pad vorentoe moet aanpak. Ek dink ook dat die feit dat julle met die onderhandelinge amper te laat was met taalsake, tekenend is van 'n groterwordende probleem in die nadraai van die besluite. Daar is nie beskerming vir Afrikaanse instellings op 'n kollektiewe vlak nie. Dit was 'n nare oorsig.

  • Sal nie twis oor my gebrekkige taalvaardigheid nie. Ek het op versoek in Engels geskryf. Ek het nie my mening aangebied nie, my mening is gevra. Taalsake het gesloer tot die laaste ure omdat ooreenkoms nie deur kundiges bereik kon word. Dit is die rede hoekom die Grondwet ruimte skep vir wysigings. Kundiges kan steeds na vore tree met voorstelle. Die grondwet maak daarvoor voorsiening. [Vgl artikel 45 (1)©]

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