Why English should be the language of South African universities

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Not even colonial born: England, the English and the problem of education in South Africa 

The Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture 

The English Academy of South Africa 
University of the Free State 
18 September 2013

(The first cricket match at Newlands in 1888 was between two teams called Mother Country and Colonial Born.)

My first consciousness of English was at the hands of the local bubby, as we called the Indian shopkeeper on the Cape Flats, a man who was neither white nor English. I could not have been more than six or seven years old when my mother sent me to the shop to buy something. I will never forget the response from behind the elevated counter. The bubby called his relative from the room at the back of the shop and said this in Afrikaans: “Kom kyk; die kaffer praat Engels” (“Come and look; the kaffir speaks English”). It would take a few years before I grasped the full devastation of that sentence on my sense of self. The two things – kaffir and English – simply did not belong together. Since that day I could not easily separate the language English and the English.

It was, however, a combination of the English missionaries in our evangelical church (with its roots in the Plymouth Brethren) and my father’s experience as a domestic worker at one stage of his life in the home of English madams from Rondebosch that really hardened my attitudes towards the English. The settled missionaries from England (as well as from Scotland and Ireland) for their utter hypocrisy in selling salvation among the natives while living segregated, privileged lives that they would not enjoy in their motherland. The English madams for destroying my father’s sense of equality and authority, leaving within him a deep sense of racial inferiority.

Somehow my English speaking father and my Afrikaans speaking mother decided to raise their children in English. (Hidings, however, were in Afrikaans.) We attended classes in English from school to university. I suspect that this calculation on the part of my parents had two unspoken logics to it: the logic of economics (your chances of upward mobility) and the logic of politics (the language of the oppressor).

And so I grew up with two inheritances: the ability to speak and write and fight in the English language, on the one hand, and a deep suspicion of the English as racial hypocrites whose liberal pretence helped them escape the harsher criticism of apartheid reserved for white Afrikaans speakers. 

I raise these biographical encounters with English, and the English, in part to address the dilemmas of the politics of language in both school and university education today. Black parents prefer to have their children study in English. No matter what politicians might say about indigenous education, or PanSALB about language rights, black parents make the correct calculation that the entire economy is organised on English terms and therefore the chances of success are much greater in the colonial language.

This, by the way, is something that Afrikaans language activists cannot understand as they try to bring the non English languages under one political umbrella in what is a very superficial scheme to advance the one other language that enjoyed status and funding as an official language for decades under apartheid: Afrikaans. 

There is another reason why English is the language of choice in school. It is that the indigenous languages are so poorly taught. This is where a major miscalculation occurs on the part of language activists: simply learning in your mother tongue is absolutely no guarantee of improved learning gains in school, as the disastrous ANA's (Annual National Assessments) results show year on year. The problem is not the language of instruction; it is the quality of teaching, the knowledge of curriculum, and the stability of the school. 

Here, then, is one major solution to the long term resolution of the crisis in education: instruct every teacher and every child in English from the first day of school rather than add to the burden of poor instruction in the mother tongue in the foundation years to the trauma of transition to English later on. Countries like Zimbabwe made that choice early on and that is one reason why their students perform so much better in South African universities. 

Now, I am a realist in political terms. I understand that the symbolism of supporting indigenous languages has a political value beyond the kind of pragmatic reasoning that I have indulged so far. And so under the current government this is not likely to change – public allegiance to indigenous languages and private choices of study in English. 

There is another hypocrisy at play here: black elites trumpeting the value of indigenous languages in schools while their own children attend middle-class private and public schools in English. (This, of course, is not dissimilar to black unionists disrupting the schools of the poor while their own children study in former white schools.) 

At universities with dual language policies, like the UFS, black students make a very different argument for having all classes in English. They see their choice of English as a trade off that demands a similar give and take from Afrikaans speaking students. In other words: “Let the Afrikaans students give up Afrikaans just as we gave up Setswana or isiZulu and let us all learn in English, the common factor in our educational experience.” There is, by the way, another reason for this kind of bargaining: a deep suspicion on the part of black students that Afrikaans speaking students get access to examinable knowledge in ways that they do not by virtue of being taught in the language of the lecturer, ie Afrikaans.

There is a fascinating revolution underway with respect to language usage in everyday life on a university campus like the UFS: there is no discernible tension, anymore, about using English only in meetings of residences and other public meetings where all students (and staff) are in one place. That hardcore resistance to English, on the one hand, or the unwillingness to engage in English because of genuine difficulties of expression on the part of Afrikaans speakers, is mostly something of the past. 

I suspect that more and more classes will remain in English and Afrikaans as dual-medium tracks, while common-room meetings of students will be in English only – without any need for political statement or policy announcement. 

Why is this happening? Here there is an important lesson for language relations in our country, or in any country. We sorted out the human (race) relations before we sorted out the language relations. That is, by bringing black and white students into communion as human beings, and by transforming the learning commons (especially in the residences), the hard lines around rival languages – English and Afrikaans – started to dissolve. Put somewhat differently: language differences are in and of themselves not contentious; it is, of course, the mobilisation of languages (or any other cultural assets) for political purposes that constitutes the problem.

This is why Afrikaans exclusive, or even Afrikaans dominant, white schools and universities represent a serious threat to race relations in South Africa. You simply cannot prepare young people for dealing with the scars of our violent past without creating optimal opportunities in the educational environment for living and learning together. In other words, breaking the transmission line for the inter-generational transfer of bitter knowledge (knowledge in the blood) is crucial for the building of an inclusive democracy. 

What does this mean for English? Quite simply, it is English, and not Afrikaans, that could be the “taal van versoening” [language of reconciliation], for it lays the foundation for a common language that then enables encounters in Afrikaans and our other indigenous languages. But this does not happen automatically; it can only be a consequence of a purposeful pedagogical and political intervention that brings black and white students into a learning commons.

The example of Huis Koos is instructive:

Photo from the home page of Huis NJ van der Merwe

And another example: the Huis Koos song:

Daar is 'n plek, huis op die bult
Dit is ons trots, ons eer en
Huis NJ van der Merwe
Of sommer net Huis Koos.

Hier swot ons saam, one lag en lewe
Ens ons streef na innerlike blydskap
En in al one doen en late
Hou ons die gees omhoog.

Here we live, we laugh and
And we strive for inner joy
And in everything we do
We keep the spirit high.

'Cause there's a place, a house
on the hill
It is our pride, our honour, home
House NJ van der Merwe
Or simply just House Koos

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

In this once all-black women’s residence, more and more white students reside and they have found a way to bring their languages together — in the new house song — while engaging each other in English in house meetings; and, where black and white students both share competence in Afrikaans, they talk to each other informally in Afrikaans. 

What binds them together is loyalty to Huis Koos, and within that frame the language of communication is negotiable while the standard house meeting “lets everyone in” — in English.

The students therefore find ways of making the language of communication work for them and, remarkably, the young white women live comfortably with the fact that they are not the demographic majority, at least not in this house, and their home language and culture are still deeply respected. 

There is a beautiful model on display here for human relations and language relations — until the outsider intrudes on my Facebook page and tries to correct the English grammar of the resident woman student. The student’s response, insightfully on her part, is to locate the problem of outsider intervention in language politics: “English, né.”

This does not mean the end of Afrikaans, as the “taal” doomsayers would have us believe, for the mistake we make is to insist that all spaces be Afrikaans present when, in fact, lectures, church meetings and peer group meetings could very well be in Afrikaans or Sesotho, for example. What English does is level the playing fields in the historically Afrikaans universities for common engagement. 

The problem with taking on English as the language of common engagement is that its leaves untouched the questions we should be asking about English as a political culture in South Africa, past and present. This is why universities like UCT sit atop the hill seldom subject to the same incisive criticisms made of the historically Afrikaans universities for their complicity under and after apartheid in retaining powerful white English cultures which both exclude and alienate black South Africans from the common engagement. 

What are the features of this political culture – that collection of values, attitudes, beliefs and practices – that exclude and alienate within English South African society and universities in particular?

  1. The race and class based system of exclusion that keeps poor black students out. 
  2. The tortured arguments about “standards” that in consequence retain a strong class and race preference within the student body (this is not an argument about standards per se; it is about its application in exclusive terms) – Judge Dennis Davis in this room a few nights ago recalling his conversation with the Vice Chancellor: “If we let them in, they might fail, and the stereotype is reinforced.” 
  3. The very high costs of pursuing a degree compared with most universities, effectively sealing entry from most qualifying poor students. 
  4. The dominant institutional cultures which are highly elitist, cold, aloof and removed from the daily struggles of the poor in the townships and from the embrace of “the stranger in the midst”. English is still the only language I know of that can make you feel small and excluded without uttering a word. 
  5. The pretence of excellence when what is on offer is, in the words of Bongani Mayosi, actually quite mediocre in parts. 
  6. The use of high English in ways that completely renders the familiar strange and “out of the hands of” or “beyond the reach of” the native. 
  7. The retreat into complex theory and, in particular, English and European theory, normalising the postcolonial reference point as the motherland. 
  8. The body language – cold, erect, frowning, distant, judgmental, cynical, didactic and formal – which alienates and holds at a distance the approaching native; in another context I mentioned as one other aspect of English political culture the inability to give an unconditional compliment. 

All languages, of course, hobble under the burden of their colonial and apartheid histories, whether as oppressor or oppressed languages. But while Afrikaans has, rightly, been the target of political ridicule, English and the English continue to labour under what Herman Giliomee famously called “the illusion of innocence”. 

So what does the transformation of English (and the English) look like?

  1. It starts with the building of an English-competent citizenry that can “speak back” on the terms of the language itself (much the same as Richard Rive or Imraan Coovadia or Eskia’ Mphalele did with the colonial language). 
  2. This means a school system that introduces English as early as possible, ideally in the foundation phase, with competent teachers in classrooms rich in English-language based learning materials.
  3. This means making English a compulsory language course for all students to ensure across the board competences in the language together with other kinds of co curricular activities that strengthen language usage.
  4. This means open campus discussions on English political culture and history that removes pretences of innocence and allows for open, direct conversations about cultural inclusion and exclusion through English. 

Read Jacques du Preez's take on Jonathan Jansen's speech: Wanneer rassevooroordeel met taalregte verwar word.

Also read Tessa Dowling's Some thoughts on Jonathan Jansen's call for English.

Also read Russell Kaschula's response to Jonathan Jansen's Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture.

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  • Avatar
    Dawie van Velden

    Tree in die bres vir Prof Jonathan Jansen

    Die beriggewing oor professor Jonathan Jansen se Percy Banneshik-gedenklesing: Mense het met woede daarop gereageer, maar dis duidelik dit is selektief aangehaal. Ek het die volledige toespraak gelees, en ook sy boekbespreking op Stellenbosch bygewoon. Dis duidelik die toespraak is buite konteks aangehaal en dat dit ? wanvoorstelling was. Daarmee is baie skade berokken aan die brose verhoudings tussen die onderlinge taal- en rassegroepe in ons land.

    Professor Jansen se reaksie op die kritiek is prysenswaardig, wat bewys waarom hy so ’n gerekende en gerespekteerde opvoeder is wat nie skroom om sy eerlike standpunt te stel sonder politieke nuanses nie. Hy het nooit gesê Afrikaanse skole moet verengels nie, maar eerder dat ander inheemse tale so swak onderrig word, dat dit uit ? opvoedkundige oogpunt gesien, baie beter sou wees indien die tradisioneel swart skole van meet af in Engels onderrig gee.  Natuurlik is moedertaalonderrig gewens, maar dis nie so  eenvoudig nie. Inheemse swart tale het eenvoudig nie die wetenskapvakterminologie om studente suksesvol op te lei nie. Die jaarlikse nasionale assessering wys dit duidelik.

    Sy pleidooi gaan om ? oplossing te vind vir die onderwyskrisis in ons land. Sonder opleiding en opvoeding gaan ons nêrens kom nie, en sal Suid-Afrika vasgevang bly in die afwaartse spiraal van werkloosheid, dwelms, en misdaad. Die media het ? groot verantwoordelikheid om mense in te lig, van die wetenskap tot politiek. Wanneer ? toespraak buite konteks aangehaal word, het dit baie reperkussies in  ons sensitiewe veelvolkige en veeltalige samelewing in Suid Afrika. Redakteurs behoort bedag te wees op die impak van so ? berig. Sensasionele beriggewing verkoop dalk koerante, maar is ? groot verleentheid vir die spreker of wetenskaplike wanneer daar selektief berig word oor ? kontensieuse onderwerp – en word geweldig baie skade gedoen.

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    Etienne Terblanche

    Dear Prof Jonathan, I've admired your public persona and daring commentary for a while. But for someone as eloquent as you happen to be, your knowledge of what Yuri Lotman calls a "semiosphere" is, frankly, shocking. Peruse this, muse upon it if you will. Just one consideration: the semiosphere is what links you up with the biosphere. It is here that Afrikaans enjoys the roots. It is here that English, wonderful world language or "tool" that it happens to be (no irony), threatens deracination if its natural imperial tendencies are allowed to expand unchecked vis-a-vis Afrikaans, the indigenous model. Estrangement of an important positive energy in the country (Afrikaans) is bound to follow on such imperialism. Is this what we want? Are we still keeping to the founding spirit of the new dispensation?
    Mother tongue is not merely a tool ... to think so is just a postmodern consumerist reflex. Mother tongue is like family, like music, like food, like a person one knows intimately. No doubt it has roots in unconscious and instinctive levels.
    That's why the general African estrangement from its mother tongues is so strange to begin with. Oh, I know you will have bright answers for all of these concerns. But do not stand by, gleefully watching the disempowerment (euphemism) of a mother tongue, in part your own.
    Why not throw your weight into emancipating Cape Afrikaans speakers at universities as exclusive (in every sense!) as UCT, Rhodes or Wits?

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