The dust has not yet settled over the Constitutional Court (CC) judgment in the University of the Free State (UFS) language policy case. What is the impact of this ruling on the future of Afrikaans as language of instruction, and by implication, the future of other indigenous languages in education? Are we destined for a completely English education system, with mother tongue education tossed into the trashcan of history?
Of course, one should not be alarmist or get discouraged. The CC verdict is, with respect, regrettable and could be challenged on many levels. However, there are some technical issues that could limit the impact thereof in future cases. One of these are the special circumstances at the UFS, for example, the size of the Afrikaans and English classes, which according to the UFS (and CC) would lead to unequal quality of education and would therefore be discriminatory and racist. Another set of facts could provide a different outcome.
As far as the impact of the verdict on other universities is concerned, only the University of Stellenbosch (US) and the North-West University’s campus in Potchefstroom (NWUP) may be affected, since there, Afrikaans is still largely used as language of instruction. In the case of the US, “where there is enough demand”, Afrikaans is still used. At the NWUP, Afrikaans is still the language of instruction for all faculties, but in addition to interpretation services, more and more parallel classes are presented in English. The CC judgment can have two outcomes. The university management can adapt their own policies according to the principle outlined in the CC judgment, that Afrikaans parallel education is “unwittingly an instrument of racial division and discrimination” and should therefore no longer be used at the two universities. It would also be in line with the university authorities’ position on “transformation”. Alternatively, a pressure group of students or staff - on the strength of the CC ruling - could dispute the constitutionality of the universities’ current language policies. If the university authorities oppose this, it could already be decided in the High Court - with the CC decision as a guideline for opting for “English only”.
The one difference between the facts of the matter at UFS and NWUP, is that English classes at UFS were large and Afrikaans classes were small, and due to language demographics, NWUP is exactly the opposite: large Afrikaans classes and small English classes. For this reason, the CC ruling may not be considered applicable by a higher court. The tragic irony is that because NWUP is now beginning to offer more and more courses in English, there will be an influx of non-Afrikaans students, which would then again “transform” Afrikaans into an instrument of racial division. The CC ruling will not easily apply to the use of interpretation services at NWUP. One of the consequences of interpretation is precisely that there is no separation in classes on the basis of race or language.
Little comment has thus far been offered on the UFS’s position (accepted by the CC ruling) that Afrikaans would be retained as parallel medium of instruction in certain faculties where there is a “market demand” for Afrikaans, namely theology and education. This must therefore mean that the “unwittingly” discriminatory and racist features of Afrikaans do not emerge or are not, in principle, a problem where there is a “market demand”. Therefore, if students want to study in Afrikaans to become ministers of religion or educators, Afrikaans is not an issue. However, if they want to study in any other field in Afrikaans, it is fundamentally (and according to the CC ruling, constitutionally) unacceptable. The lack of logic and consistency can only be explained by the university's dishonesty or greed.
As far as the US and the NWUP are concerned, the best way to counter the impact of the CC judgment is for Afrikaans parents to continue to send their children to these two universities - so their numbers (and quality) is such that the university authorities do not dare ignore them. In addition, these students should be assisted in claiming their constitutionally-protected language rights, and in withstanding the implicit and explicit intimidation by university authorities, lecturers and fellow students - in a friendly yet firm manner.
Regarding schools, the immediate impact of the CC ruling is not as clear as for the universities. In the recent Overvaal matter, the decision was based on the facts and not the right to mother tongue education. The judge ruled that there was no space for more pupils at Overvaal, and that there was space in neighbouring (English) schools. The CC ruling will however have a stronger impact on schools that follow a parallel-medium language policy. Their circumstances are very similar to those of UFS: separation of English and Afrikaans learners, ever-growing English classes and ever-shrinking Afrikaans classes. English-speaking parents who want to complain about this division and the perceived difference in quality, will have a case under the CC ruling.
The conditions in the approximately 1200 single-medium Afrikaans schools are different to those of the UFS. There is no separation on the basis of race or language in single-medium Afrikaans schools (which have long not catered exclusively for white pupils). Non-Afrikaans parents decide to send their children to these schools based on the quality education they receive there. In my opinion, the CC ruling has no impact on these schools. The opponents of Afrikaans will have to get another stick with which to beat these schools - which Mr Lesufi and his cronies actively attempt to do.
The majority of single-medium Afrikaans schools are located in the Western, Northern and Eastern Cape and cater mainly to Coloured learners. There are also a significant number of schools - mostly in the Western Cape - which largely cater to Coloured learners, but also have some black learners. Here parallel-medium education is offered in Afrikaans and English. Can the CC ruling be used to force these schools to abolish Afrikaans? The same question could arise around the CC ruling: if the complainants were not the mostly white AfriForum, but a Coloured pressure group, would the majority bench have reached a different conclusion? One thing is clear: it would have been much more difficult for the ideologically-driven ruling to accuse Coloured students of prejudice, racism and discrimination.
There is therefore good news and bad news in the CC judgment. The bad news for US and NWUP's Afrikaans students is that the CC ruling can be used to discontinue their Afrikaans classes and force them to study in English. As far as schools are concerned, there is bad news for parents and school governing bodies who think they can promote nation-building and retain Afrikaans education through introducing English in their schools. They will have to re-think their options. It is not just the language demographics and political pressure that will trip them up. The consequence of and precedent set by the CC ruling (finding Afrikaans education offered alongside English to be “unwittingly” racist and discriminatory) will also take their toll.
The good news for the US and the NWUP's Afrikaans students is that if they - in a firm but friendly manner - claim their constitutionally-protected language rights, and enough of them choose to study in Afrikaans, the university authorities will not be able to ignore them - or infringe upon their rights. For single-medium Afrikaans schools, the good news is that the facts of the UFS matter probably do not apply to them. They should therefore continue to use and promote Afrikaans in their schools in a non-racial way. They must guard against any statements or practices that even remotely resemble racism or intolerance. Not only is this behaviour wrong and senseless, but Mr Lesufi and his henchmen are lying in wait with hostile and greedy eyes. These schools need to prove him wrong by engaging with non-Afrikaans schools, and providing assistance to them, where needed. In this way, Afrikaans education could survive the CC ruling, and the Lesufi's of the country.
By Theuns Eloff: Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation
This article was first published in Afrikaans on Netwerk24