One of the main problems, they say, is that not all their lectures are in English. Black students who speak only English cannot follow the lectures and report that simultaneous interpretation services provided by the university are inadequate.

The OS charges form part of a growing racial mobilisation at some of our universities:

The common threads in all these incidents include:

The OS students’ sense of exclusion has its roots in the fact that they are a minority at a university that does not reflect their culture or cater fully to tuition in the language of their choice. However, would Afrikaans-speaking minorities not experience the same sense of language and cultural exclusion at universities where English is the only language of tuition? The difference is that there are two universities in the Western Cape where anyone who wishes to do so can study exclusively in English – while the province’s Afrikaans-speaking majority now has only one university where Afrikaans (on an equal basis with English) is still a language of tuition at under-graduate level.

There is no constitutional requirement for universities to reflect the national demographics either in their student bodies or in their faculties provided that they do not discriminate unfairly against anyone. However, there is undoubtedly a constitutional requirement for tuition at public educational institutions in the language or languages of one’s choice where this is practicable. It is clearly practicable to provide university education in Afrikaans in a province where Afrikaans is the main language and where there is a university with a long tradition of teaching in Afrikaans.

Minister Nzimande accepts that Afrikaans should be a language of tuition at university level.  However, experience throughout the world – and in South Africa – has shown that wherever a world language like English coexists on an equal basis in the same institution as a regional language (like Afrikaans), the regional language is eventually eclipsed.

There has been little opposition to the erosion of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch from students, alumni and faculty – presumably on the basis that it will continue to enjoy an equal status with English at the under-graduate level. University leaders are quite understandably primarily concerned with promoting and maintaining academic excellence and in creating an inclusive environment for students from all South Africa’s communities – rather than advancing this or the other language or cultural agenda. They have accepted that they must distance their institutions from their “apartheid” and/or “colonialist” past and move as quickly as possible toward demographic representivity. Last week Prof De Villiers assured critics that Stellenbosch is transforming as quickly as it can. He declared that 50% of Stellenbosch’s students would be black by 2020 and emphasised that the university was jettisoning remaining associations with the past – such as names associated with former Afrikaner leaders.

Unfortunately, this will not be enough: OS, Rhodes Must Fall and Minister Blade Nzimade will ultimately be satisfied only when the student bodies, faculties and administrations of all South Africa’s universities are “fully representative”- or to put it bluntly, until they are run by – and reflect the culture of – the black majority. As the last black participant in the Luister video remarked: “The university must look like us – South Africans” – but what he clearly meant was that it must look like the majority of South Africans.

Because the same arguments apply, the debate at Stellenbosch will have far-reaching implications for the future of embattled Afrikaans-medium schools – and by extension for the future of any public education in Afrikaans (since in parallel-medium institutions Afrikaans would eventually be eclipsed by English). This, in turn, will raise seminal questions regarding the future of South Africa as a multicultural society.

The question is whether – in multicultural countries like ours – there should not be public educational institutions where our minorities – from whatever community – will be able to practise their cultures and use their languages on a non-exclusionary basis? Or must they inevitably endure, in majority-dominated institutions, the same sense of cultural and language exclusion of which OS now complains?  And if this is so, what becomes of their foundational constitutional rights to human dignity and to equality?  What becomes of the ideal of South Africa as a multicultural society?

By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: