Reply to “Marlene van Niekerk on the Stellenbosch University language debate”, published 20 July 2016 on LitNet
I have taken a long time to write a response to Marlene van Niekerk’s contribution to the Stellenbosch University language debate, published on 20 July 2016. However, prompted in no small part by conversations with students and colleagues about what this contribution and a lack of response to it signify, I have increasingly felt this silence to be a prevarication, a skirting of responsibility for an Afrikaans academic and writer who works at Stellenbosch University, and who is committed to the language in teaching and research. The responsibility of which I speak is not grounded so much in a perceived need to state and argue an alternative point of view. I have no such desire; people are entitled to their different views on what is a complex and emotional issue. Rather, I am responding to the way in which Van Niekerk enlists the changing academic position of Afrikaans in the construction of a victimology that denigrates its perceived enemies, and treats with disdain the bona fides of a range of people: student protestors, South African voters generally, university colleagues, the poor. In doing so, her contribution achieves the opposite of what it sets out to argue. Concerned with demonstrating the continued academic value of maintaining the institutional position of Afrikaans, it performs anger, fear and entitlement. It is to this aspect of Van Niekerk’s text that I wish to respond. I will do so by setting out the suppositions that I regard as functioning in the background to her text. I will then paraphrase the text, referencing what I regard as its salient points, before showing how her arguments depend on generalizations, hyperbole, insufficient research, contradictions and bad examples. Finally, I will argue that Van Niekerk’s text manufactures two logical problems: (a) a claim to victimhood based, in part, on arguing how constructions of victimhood are dangerous; (b) the paradoxical claim that Afrikaans encodes a spiritual essence, and that there is a clear way of isolating and separating this essence from the socio-cultural worlds in which the language exists.
Van Niekerk’s argument seems to work with the following suppositions:
(a) the survival of Afrikaans hinges on protection of the language in the US language policy;
(b) the 2016 changes to the language policy threaten the existence of Afrikaans;
(c) the 2016 changes to the language policy happened under duress from student mobs who cannot be taken seriously;
(d) the 2016 changes to the language policy were taken by ignorant people who wanted to be politically correct;
(e) there is a moral imperative that can be invoked fundamentally to critique this turn of events.
These suppositions, for Van Niekerk, seem to require no proof or argument, but merely agreement. For my part, I cannot agree or disagree with any of them in their entirety. As regards (a), I mostly disagree. As regards (b), I am in qualified agreement, although this leads me to somewhat different conclusions. As regards (c), Van Niekerk seems to indulge a somewhat uncritical notion of causality that leads her to underestimate changing institutional governance culture and the various ideological entanglements of Afrikaans on the one hand, and to overestimate the fundamental impact of protest on the other. Although I don’t dispute the importance of the student movements of 2015 and 2016, I disagree with her simplistic enlistment of causality to define its role in decisions relating to the language policy. As regards (d), while it might be true of some individuals, Van Niekerk’s point of view is clearly shaped by her self-confessed absence at the meetings where these issues were discussed, and can therefore be dismissed as uninformed. As regards (e), I am in agreement in so far as the moral imperative of redress is acknowledged, but in disagreement as to how it finds expression in language policy.
Suppositions (a) to (e) have been articulated many times. Most recently, I heard a more forceful version of the same ideas at the Convocation meeting of Stellenbosch University in the form of the addresses by the current and past presidents of the Convocation. Those addresses were political in nature, setting out positions from which a variety of political actions (a court case against the university, mobilization of alumni) were intended. Van Niekerk’s text, while not unpolitical, is fundamentally different. It takes the form of a romanticized appeal on behalf of Afrikaans from one of its great writers. In conception, it is a letter of unburdening from the broken heart of a poet, to a sympathetic English-speaking interlocutor, who understands the broader importance of language in general and of Afrikaans in particular. What it shares with the more overtly political positions frequently articulated on behalf of Afrikaans, is the way in which the future can only be envisaged through nostalgia. Whereas this nostalgia is largely uninteresting and often ahistorical in writers of lesser erudition or with more concrete political aims – shackled as it is by clear power-related utilitarian ends – this is not the case in Van Niekerk’s writing (at least not always). Speaking as broken-hearted poet, she does not accept the discursive restraints required by legal or political strategies. Her nostalgia finds expression in yearning for a “hope-giving paideia” that will institutionally enable language interventions as redress.
Van Niekerk starts her letter by signalling her dismay. She is upset, so much so that she hides under her desk and doesn’t attend meetings or events where university policy is discussed. Her “heart is completely broken about this business of pushing Afrikaans out of universities”, because she is a poet. But she is also scared. In fact, “[n]ever before as during the current mayhem regarding Afrikaans have I felt so strongly that it is dangerous to say anything in straight functional language”. For a writer who grew up and published her first work during apartheid (she was born in 1954), this is a startling admission. Van Niekerk complains that today she can talk to no one in South Africa, apart from a few select individuals. Her explanations to her international audiences of the disaster unfolding in her homeland, are met with bewilderment. They just do not understand, she writes, that poor and uneducated South Africans cannot vote sensibly. From underneath her writing desk, “anything vaguely resembling a fresh pragmatic start in South Africa seems precluded”. This is so, not least because South Africans are generally not an impressive bunch in her view, suffering as they do from a typical condition of helplessness and an inability to recognize ideas of a certain sophistication.
The “intellectually dull, populist” student protests – a “well-choreographed” drama by “strategists” using the university as a framing device and “the most perfect theatrical backdrop” – made everything worse, according to Van Niekerk. The students constitute an unthinking homogenous mob that delights in a backward-looking politics of victimhood (“very loud, very self-dramatizing, extremely energetic victims”). They don’t grow their own vegetables, they don’t have the correct reading lists, they dress too well and have newfangled electronic equipment like mobile phones and iPads. Most are “obviously not plotting for more than themselves”. She fantasizes about students who are different, who will not make her hide under her desk, but who will visit her out of sheer curiosity to say that they didn’t know there were “rocks like her”. Comparative premonitions are expressed in relation to Hitler and the Afrikaner National Party’s rise to power. The university senate and management are politically correct stooges. They are weak and inept, “blind to their own hidden corners of intellectual inadequacy”. As closet conservatives and conformists, these “champions of English monolingualism” have “adiaphorised the entire phenomenon of academic Afrikaans”. To her horror, she is confronted with “stupendous intellectual backwardness” while she sits under her desk at home – and this from “pro as well as contra camps”. Stoic philosophy enables us to understand how egregious all of this is. Stoic philosophy should be applied to the latest language policy of Stellenbosch University, as it will show up English-medium instruction as unsuitable “dispreferred indifferent”.
This disaster has something to do with “a lack” articulated in “ou Afrikaans” as “fynsinnigheid, vindingrykheid, geesrykheid" (translated by Van Niekerk as “culturedness, resourcefulness, spiritedness”). “Grace” is what is required: “a spiritual membrane that ought to line one’s heart on the inside and that ought to become pleasantly distended” upon hearing people speak their home languages. This membrane has withered, says Van Niekerk. In demonstrating the warm distendedness of her own membrane, she professes “genuinely feeling sympathy for tens of thousands of dismally poor students”. Yes, she admits, there is a context, and whereas she hid from the protests and meetings where these urgent developments were discussed in the university and further afield, she kept up her reading on web pages. It was all too terrible, but can be made sense of by reading Dutch-American author Saskia Sassen. Reading Sassen should spur one on to critical thinking, of which the first insight is the failures of the Fallist movement, duly listed. The agricultural theme continues to vex the writer greatly. Why do these students not grow their own vegetables? She suspects the reason to have something to do with their fear of being too constructive, and “therefore too white”. She bemoans their anti-intellectualism that found expression in the burning of art works and libraries, the support expressed by #OpenStellenbosch “for the Hitler-praising Mcebo Dlamini”, and the disrespect shown to academics who, unlike herself, foolishly chose not to hide under their desks. As “the full context” of Fallism, these “daft statements and behaviours” mean that one cannot take the “call for Afrikaans to ‘fall’” seriously. It was all “off-target”. The students should have attacked the government instead. Afrikaans was an easy target set up by the Nats, who entirely lacked silky membranes on the inside of the heart.
“How to proceed?” she asks. What about “a group of radically conscientised and experimental artists/writers/intellectuals who provisionally confer around a focus, a hearth that has been neglected and that has gone quite cold”? Has not the writer herself pointed to at least six such individuals with whom she can “have rigorous and probing conversations about all manner of controversial social, political and literary issues”, and who are not stupendously backward? “The people to come” will be “a conference of pro-Afrikaans artists very humorous and supple in their relationship to certain unreconstructed identities”, cohering around religion, group identification, Afrikaner nationalism (apparently, a huge misunderstanding), origin myths, narcissistic Führers and ambitious thought police. Navigating with benign superiority around “nationalist ethnic motivations”, the “coming people” will fight the good fight, distinguishing themselves by “a range of surprising styles of enterprising and imaginative political action” in composing “unique ways of nurturing a free, diverse, culturally heady and politically critical-radical non-nationalist minority Afrikaans sphere” with all “relevant” and “interested” parties. Excluded will be the “unreconstructed identities” who suffer from a “remarkable poverty of ideas”, no doubt because, like the students, they don’t read the right books. For if they read Jean-Luc Nancy, they would be able to find this unique community articulated in his “inoperative community”.
Towards the end of her text, Van Niekerk turns to concrete examples of best practice from YouTube: the bertsolari from the Basque province, and the Maori from New Zealand. She riffs on a number of ideas that could invigorate Afrikaans: critical meditative rituals added to energizing hip hop battles on the Flats, anarchism, self-organizing groups, new cooperative economic enterprises and situationist rieldansers emulating the patterns of extreme sport. Myth, jazz, the Karoo and gender ambiguity are mobilized for a new culture. Why can Afrikaans speakers not be given “a social laboratory space to perform their language” at the University of Stellenbosch, she asks? From our “informed and hope-giving paideia”, we could then go and visit the Basques or the Maori with our discoveries about minor and minority languages. As a post scriptum, the Constitution is enlisted as support for her opinion that “speakers of the standard variety of Afrikaans” need to participate in redress. She seems to understand this as self-evidently achieved best by maintaining the status of Afrikaans as a language of instruction at Stellenbosch University through a process of “nurturing” and “protecting” the language.
Many reservations can be expressed about the way in which Van Niekerk presents her case. She generalizes about motivations (which she cannot possibly know) and historical and contemporary situations, necessitated by inadequate research and non-participation in debates. She indulges in hyperbole of various kinds, a deliberate rhetorical device fueled by her preference for ingesting contemporary events via the algorithms of internet news sites and blogs. Contradictions abound (she sees no problem in declaring South Africa “not a democracy” on one page, and “basically a democratic country” on the next). Often, her resentment spills over into ad hominem attacks on colleagues or collectives, and contesting opinions (often not properly understood, and seldom engaged with) are dismissed because their proponents are declared unworthy in some way or another. She is not particularly respectful of logic in many of her deductions, assuming (by way of example) that “pragmatic rationality” is somehow related to being a “champion of English monolingualism”, or that an indefensible belief by one person means that all other beliefs by that person, or even those associated with that person, must also be indefensible. Her examples are arbitrary, and sometimes strikingly inappropriate for the uses to which she wishes to put them. Her use of Maori and Basque is a case in point: Afrikaans has been, and continues to be, structurally and institutionally empowered beyond comparison with these two languages. It is also not clearly argued why she feels prohibited from implementing the range of interesting ideas she presents as exciting activities for “the people to come” in the “laboratory” of her own creative writing class, where she has the academic freedom to test and improvise. No evidence is presented that this possibility is foreclosed by the new language policy.
Fueled in part by these mistakes in reasoning, Van Niekerk becomes entangled in two substantive logical problems: first, a new claim to victimhood based, in part, on dismissing the notion of victimhood as dangerous; second, the paradoxical claim that Afrikaans encodes a spiritual essence, and that there is a clear way of isolating and separating this essence from the socio-cultural worlds in which the language exists. This claim functions as a precursor to denying the legitimacy of some of these contexts (religion, ethnic nationalism) and endorsing others (the elitism of the paideia), without any argument as to why some of these contexts are undesirable and others are not, nor how preserving the institutional protection of the language at Stellenbosch would enable the latter, but not the former. The first claim (the victimhood of Afrikaans) relates directly to the second (the desire to extract the Afrikaans language from its ideological context, while simultaneously claiming that the residue language is not neutral, but located in something called a “spiritual membrane”, nurtured and protected in a somewhat ambiguous paideia).
As regards the paradox between the acknowledgement of victimhood of Self and Other, the victimhood of self avails itself of much exaggeration: the “attack on Afrikaans”; the fear of labels applied by opportunistic operators that will prove “difficult if not impossible to remove”; the spectre of widespread attacks on writers, artists and journalists, of which Van Niekerk has “naturally had [her] share”; the exhortations of fellow writers for her to leave South Africa; the danger of writing; the prospect of “being written off as a doubtful white Afrikaans charlatan”, with the demand that she should “best shut up and go away”. I could go on, but these examples from the first three pages of her text will suffice. Taken together, they would seem to suggest grave persecution of the writer. But the facts do not bear this out. Van Niekerk has continued to flourish in South Africa as a writer and academic. She has been acknowledged by the South African State (receiving her award of Ikhamanga in Silver from President Jacob Zuma in 2011), by Stellenbosch University (where she is a professor), by the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (from whom she continues to reap the highest awards for her creative work), from the most established and prestigious Afrikaans publishers (who not only publish but also initiate translations of her work), and from South African peers and students who study and overwhelmingly value her contribution to South African letters. Of course, she has been at the centre of debates and controversies as well, but this is to be expected of any important writer who participates in national debates through her art, and hardly amounts to persecution. Hers is, in fact, a version of white victimhood that extrapolates personal resentments to national issues, interprets continued support and acknowledgement through a lens of entitlement and, to use Van Niekerk’s own ungenerous description, seems somewhat “self-dramatizing”.
I have already given a summary of Van Niekerk’s disdain for the protesting students at Stellenbosch University and elsewhere (their disingenuousness, their sartorial deficiencies, their suspect economic empowerment and technological savvy), and will not do so again. She misunderstands much, but perhaps nowhere more demonstrably than when she uses the phrase “their own fully homogenous historically created victimhood” to describe protesting students. This is a nonsense, as half an hour of attendance at any student meeting would be able to confirm. But what is important here is not the misrepresentation of protest, which is not unique. It is the weighting of white victimhood at the expense of black experience (maintaining the importance of victimhood as a discursive construct) to the advantage of the former, to motivate an intervention that recognizes both the non-neutrality of language as spiritual and erotic good, and its principled indifference to its social, economic, political and historical structures of power. Contesting victimhood seems to allow this double claim: intervention on behalf of “a certain type of sensibility or sound” that is acutely vulnerable (“a neglected hearth” is one of the images Van Niekerk uses), and vigorous denunciation of those complicities of the language that would give substance to anti-Afrikaans narratives (Christianity, racism, consumerism, chauvinism, atavism, exclusivism). What does not accompany this claim, is any attempt to show that the spiritual membrane of Afrikaans does not distend pleasantly with its own encoded forms of racism, religious intolerance, brash capitalist consumerism, entitlement, etc. To what extent is the sensibility and sound of Afrikaans to be dissected from these historically formative and structurally embedded ideas, and can one tend “the neglected hearth” without re-igniting some of the dying embers of the “cultural Herrenvolk superiority complex”?
This is where the argument will have to be made, and the work done, if the student protests and the position of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch and at other South African universities are considered. For this to happen, contempt for large sections of the South African body politic and university community (including protesting students), is not a promising starting point. Van Niekerk’s contribution to the debate and her evocation of the paideia do little to convince that Afrikaans can become the “free, diverse, culturally heady and politically critical-radical non-nationalist minority language” she writes about. If hers is the register of “an entirely new politically progressive, ethical and inclusive” Afrikaans, aimed at giving new, “entirely original local content to the regulative idea of domination-free communication”, the prognosis for the language is bleak. The Afrikaans world she conjures up is too exclusive, too fearful, too intolerant, too petty, too self-indulgent. It resembles nothing so much as the paideia which was Stellenbosch in 1970, where the “warm pleasantness” of Afrikaans was nurtured (with admirable aspirations to fynsinnigheid) while the country burned. The concept of the “paideia”, after all, historically referred to a school for slave owners where slaves themselves were not permitted. This is not a “hope-giving” vision of the future, but a nostalgic, denialist version of the past.
Stephanus Muller wrote in his personal capacity and the views in the article are not those of Stellenbosch University.