- Some see themselves, in the first place, as academics committed to promoting world-class standards. They reject the idea that universities have any special role in promoting this or that language. They honestly believe that academic excellence can be better achieved by adopting the world language, English, as the sole language of tuition.
- Others have bought into the ANC’s argument that Afrikaans is a language of exclusion – and that it is indelibly tainted by its association with the past. They are deeply ashamed of the role of Afrikaans universities under apartheid – and of these universities’ former Afrikaans identity. They are accordingly determined to jettison any associations with their pre-1994 Afrikaans identity as fast as they can.
- Others believe that they will inevitably have to bow to the demands of the ANC Government and protesting students to transform in the direction of demographic representivity. They imagine that the more they co-operate, the better they will be able to ring-fence core academic interests.
- Many Afrikaans commentators, students and parents have – for purely practical reasons – little problem in accepting the switch to English. They think that emersion in English will assist them in a country where it has become virtually the sole language of business and government. It will also be better for their children to study in English should they decide one day that they will have to build their future overseas.
The ANC is no doubt delighted and amused by the spectacle of all these good people falling over themselves to implement the ideological approach of their National Democratic Revolution.
However, like the capitalist rope sellers, the medium and long-term prospects of these well-meaning people are not too good. The ANC wants demographic representivity – and it wants it as soon as possible. It does not want any institution in the public sphere where minorities – on a non-racial, and non-exclusionary basis – will predominate. It wants all public institutions to be subjected to African hegemony.
This means that the student bodies, the faculties and the management of the former Afrikaans universities will be required to represent the national demographic profile as soon as possible. There will no longer be any place for the overwhelming majority of all those well-meaning white Afrikaans-speaking academics, managers and council members. Having surrendered the autonomy of their universities they will be dispensed with as soon as practicable.
Neither will the ANC show any greater interest in what they regard as Eurocentric standards of academic excellence – than they have in maintaining standards of excellence anywhere else. Why should anyone have any illusions that these once fine universities will quite soon follow our other universities into accelerating decline?
On the other hand, there are many Afrikaners – probably a majority – for whom their language, together with their religion and their culture, is an integral part of their identity as human beings.
- They can see no reason why universities that offer tuition in Afrikaans – at least at the under-graduate level – should not continue to achieve academic excellence – as they have done in the past.
- They do not feel ashamed about their identity as Afrikaners. They do not believe that language is the bearer of collective guilt. They do not understand why they should be expected to jettison the ethos of their universities – any more than Englishmen should feel obliged to abandon the ethos of Oxford or Cambridge – simply because in previous times they were associated with British imperialism and other ideologies that are no longer acceptable.
- They cannot see why – on a non-exclusionary and non-racial basis – they should not be able to study in their mother language and practise their culture as they see fit. They do not understand why they are being stripped of a core element of their cultural and language heritage represented by the universities that their fathers and fore-fathers founded, built and nurtured.
- They believe that it is unwise and unnecessary to bow to the demands of ideologically and racially motivated Government ministers and militant student protesters. They feel inclined to resist demands that they regard as unjust, unfair and unconstitutional.
- They reject the idea that if they are educated in Afrikaans they will not be able to compete successfully in the de facto English business and administrative environment – or do well overseas – as many Afrikaners have done in the past. For the most part they have no intention of leaving South Africa.
- They reject the imposition of African hegemony on all facets of society and support instead the ideals of multiculturalism and co-operative and non-exclusionary diversity.
In fact, the Constitution is quite clear on many of these questions:
- In its Preamble it talks of a South Africa that belongs to all its people, united in their diversity;
- It recognises Afrikaans as one of our 11 official languages;
- It says that all official languages must “enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”;
- It prohibits unfair discrimination directly or indirectly against anyone inter alia on the basis of ethnic origin, culture or language;
- It recognises that everyone has the right to education in the language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.
- It recognises the right of everyone to establish and maintain, at their own expense, independent educational institutions that do not discriminate on the basis of race;
- It protects the right of everyone to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice in a manner that is consistent with the other rights in the Bill of Rights; and
- It states that persons belonging to cultural, religious or linguistic communities may not be denied the right, with other members of that community, to enjoy their culture, practice their religion and use their language and to form, join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society – in a manner that is consistent with the other rights in the Bill of Rights.
The state and publicly funded institutions like universities have a duty to uphold and facilitate all these rights. In particular, they have a duty to ensure that “everyone has a right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonable practicable.”
Clearly it is practicable to do so at universities that have traditionally offered tuition in Afrikaans – especially in the Western Cape where Afrikaans is the principal language.
Afrikaans-speakers will have every reason to call the government and the institutions involved to account if they fail to address their rights in terms of section 29(2).
It is equally important to take into account the need to redress the results of past racial discriminatory laws and practices. In this regard it is essential that the tertiary education system should address the needs of Coloured South Africans who have the lowest university participation rate of any community in South Africa. The needs of disadvantaged black and Coloured English-speaking students in the Western Cape are adequately addressed by the other three universities in the province that offer tuition solely in English – but there is no provision for disadvantaged Coloured Afrikaans-speakers – particularly those from the rural areas of the Western Cape.
Ironically, English is not being used primarily to accommodate the needs of disadvantaged black and Coloured English-speakers – but those of relatively advantaged white English-speakers who have come to Stellenbosch from other parts of South Africa.
We should reject the idea that Afrikaans, the predominant language in the Western Cape, can be regarded as a language of exclusion – and also reject the unconstitutional notion that English has somehow or other become the sole unofficial national language – and the default language of inclusion. Clearly, for many Afrikaans-speaking university candidates and candidates who speak other indigenous languages, it may well be a language of exclusion.
We should also reject the insidious notion present in many aspects of the current debate that Afrikaans is somehow or other tainted by the past and that its speakers and their cultures and traditions occupy an inferior moral position. Such ideas undermine the foundational right of Afrikaans-speakers to human dignity – the value from which all other constitutional values flow.
The management of the remaining universities where Afrikaans is still a language of tuition should also bear in mind the practical consideration of whether or not they want to alienate a significant portion of their support base – and perhaps the overwhelming base for funding and donations.
The issue at stake is whether South Africa will develop as a multilingual and multicultural society with linguistically and culturally diverse institutions – as required by the Constitution – or whether the global language English – and African hegemony – will be imposed on everyone in accordance with the demographic representivity ideology of the ruling Alliance. The issue also relates to the future of academic excellence: we can be quite sure that if demographic representivity is imposed on our universities it will not last for long.
By Dave Steward, Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation