Robert Greig on the language debate at Stellenbosch University

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The language regime change at Stellenbosch University was an act of force majeure. For that reason, I sense in Johann Rossouw’s and others’ postings a drift from the urgent to the incidental. A pity. Philip Larkin’s line in The old fools comes to mind: “Why aren’t they screaming?”

Professor Rossouw’s account initially places the regime change in the context of wider change at British universities, the model for South Africa. The traditional ideal of a university – a commonwealth of fellows having special social independence in order to follow the idea where it leads – has become old-time theology – needle-dancing of angels. Now, the university is a politically compliant corporatized entity, a supplier of skills. Its chief shareholder is the State. (There are, of course, also “stakeholders” who, in the case of Stellenbosch, were consulted. But we know that “stakeholders” is an honorific for toy telephone, and “consultation” like asking a rape victim if she liked it.)

Universities are ballooning in size, dimension and costliness. A new cadre of expensive administrators sets targets, and measures success against them. When the system works, expensive administrators blush modestly. If it fails and the failure cannot be buried, others are blamed. That’s in the nature of administrators at their most dysfunctional – they tend to assign responsibility of execution to others, while retaining authority. It’s a recipe for anomie.

Perhaps it’s coincidental, but at roughly the time universities were being redefined (or tamed), in the Humanities, arcane and hermetic theoretical approaches came to predominate. Discussion became “discourse”. Mastery of secret jargon guaranteed safety and invisibility; to master became a status label. The academic journals came under the private sector management and inaccessible to lay participation and scrutiny. Scholarship itself became, as it were, ingrown. One can read this as a version of the apprehensive, excitable child’s game of “You can’t see me!”

It isn’t his main focus, but Professor Rossouw’s account of how Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University was hijacked, is inadequate. Apparently, the government simply asked the universities to “come up with plans” for transformation; the universities obliged in what resembles an eerie marriage of true minds. Central issues of question of relative power and context are left aside.

Remind me: Was there – is there – any serious objection or protest or attempt to mobilise public opinion against the project? Was there a demo, sit-in, drive-in, be-in, or a strike strike? Did faculty and students go public and stand up and be counted? Or was there merely moaning and shrugs?

I live too far away to be certain. But I am aware that the risks of public opposition in the context of the democratic miracle and the corporate environment are enormous. It’s also unfashionable.

Given that, the LitNet debate – or parallel venting – is as significant for both what was said and what was revealed. What is revealed was a sense of fear, entrapment and anger, the last projected at safe targets, like colleagues.

That said, Professor Rossouw does usefully indicate practical approaches to the questions of what can be done to protect the growth of Afrikaans and the interests of those who nurture it.

Perhaps doing so necessitates thinking out of the Anglo-South African box with its exclusive focus on universities, and which, thereby, excludes other possibilities. For example, the United States tertiary system has many different permutations of mission, control, scope, scale, admissions, funding and relations with communities. Perhaps those who cherish Afrikaans, speak it, write it and exist in it would be better off considering new mechanisms to preserve it through action.

The precedents exist, notably the Voorkamer initiatives in the former new South Africa after the Second Anglo-Boer War. And since universities are also organisations influenced by business practice, subcontracting makes sense. One-size-fits-all approaches in government, business or education throttle managers and the managed alike. They are, at best, conventional. A fruitful approach to tertiary Afrikaans education could involve letting those most concerned with it – and therein qualified – design and manage it, ideally at arm’s length. Clearly, the State is preoccupied by – forgive the cant – more pressing needs.

Also read

Marlene van Niekerk on the Stellenbosch University language debate

Marlene van Niekerk
Universiteitseminaar | University Seminar

"I think the plot has been completely lost, and with it the spirit of imaginative transformation. You have not understood yet that there is a very modern, pedagogically sound and intellectually progressive basis for promoting mother-tongue education and linguistic diversity and for developing and protecting minority languages."

A response to Marlene van Niekerk’s contribution to the Stellenbosch University language debate

Stephanus Muller
Universiteitseminaar | University Seminar

"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."

Language and transformation at Stellenbosch University – critically rethinking the language policy at Stellenbosch University now

Stephanus Muller
Universiteitseminaar | University Seminar

"But, I think what we are seeing unfold across the campuses in our country shows that our time for more elegant solutions to complex problems has started to run out, that our country is bleeding, struggling to right itself after the disaster of apartheid and its aftershocks, that if Afrikaans is to flourish it will have to be in concert with or in the mouths of the intelligent voices of those who are currently protesting against the way it lives in our institution."

In praise of the community of dirty hands: a response to Robert Greig, Marlene van Niekerk and Stephanus Muller

Johann Rossouw
Universiteitseminaar | University Seminar

"May the speakers of Afrikaans, and all other languages, who together with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o understand that the world begins at home, be granted the grace and courage to build new institutions of higher education that deepen a sense of community with ourselves and the other."

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  • Wilhelm Fourie

    This is again a very valuable contribution by Robert Greig. I especially like his vision in the last two paragraphs, where we are reminded of the Voorkamer initiatives. This is definitely the type of idea which should be pursued.

  • Dankie, Wilhelm, vir jou moeite. En Pieter-Dirk Uys se Darling is ook 'n nuttige model. Ook die kerke.

  • Rusty van Druten

    Alas, no form of protest makes any sense in this context. With the benefit of hindsight gathered over just twenty odd years of ANC control its clear that Afrikaans is heading for extinction, short of partition in the country. As much as this was once scoffed at it's now abundantly clear that our once orderly environment is being shattered by absurdity. Distractions now being faced by the government are nothing but a temporary hiatus and taps will once again be gushing in the language onslaught aimed at sidelining Afrikaans and its adherents. Transformations main target is everything Afrikaans, get used to it. Expect intensified trashing of universities, burning of its libraries and infrastructure. A complete eradication of colonial mindset and all it has represented by way of decency and order.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.