University of Stellenbosch

Reports that students have been prohibited from speaking Afrikaans – even in private conversations – at the University of Stellenbosch – are deeply disturbing. They are the latest development in the sorry decline of the language at South Africa’s oldest (and once-upon-a-time) Afrikaans university.


According to an article in Rapport on 14 March


In a statement on 10 March the University appeared to dismiss these charges as “misconceptions and untruths”. However, it did not deny that they had occurred. It simply said that they were “still being investigated” – but that if they had occurred “it would be due to an incorrect application of the (University’s English-dominant) 2016 Language policy – and would not be “condoned” by the University (emphasis added).

The University went on to insist that it would “continue ensuring that a welcoming atmosphere is created for all students to thrive as they make Stellenbosch their academic home.” Well, if there is any truth in the allegations in the Rapport article, the students involved have definitely not experienced “a welcoming atmosphere”.

If the University wishes to be true to the spirit of inclusivity it must investigate the latest allegations with all the rigor with which it has, in recent years, investigated – and responded to – complaints of exclusion from other sections of the student body.

During the past 20 years the university’s language policy has moved from Afrikaans as the unquestioned primary medium of tuition; to a situation where it was the default position; to parity with English; and, since 2016, to the primacy of English – and now, to allegations that even the private use of Afrikaans is being informally discouraged. How has this happened – in a province where Afrikaans is the primary language and where there are already three other universities that provide tuition in English?

These developments have been driven, overwhelmingly, by the University’s own predominantly Afrikaans-speaking leadership. Most of those involved are decent, intelligent and honourable people.  However:

The University will be reviewing its language policy this year. This will be an excellent opportunity for it to investigate in depth, the degree to which its 2016 policy is achieving its stated objectives. It should conduct a rigorous assessment of the actual language situation at the university based on independent monitoring and confidential opinion surveys, to establish:

South Africa’s future as a multicultural and multilingual society might be at stake.

By Dave Steward, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation