The dangers of exclusive language universities

Exclusively Afrikaans universities would disastrously imprison white students in single-race and monolingual environments, says Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS)—itself a white, Afrikaans-speaking institution for decades before 1994.

Jansen was delivering the 29th DF Malherbe Memorial Lecture at UFS in Bloemfontein last week, where he announced that UFS would continue using a two-language teaching model—in English and Afrikaans—while the university builds the capacity for research and learning in Sotho languages.

The idea of an exclusively Afrikaans university was a “dangerous” one, he said in the lecture. “It will lock up white students in a largely uniracial and unilingual environment, given that the participation rates in higher education for Afrikaans-speaking black students are and for a long time will remain very low.”

This would be a “disaster” for many Afrikaans-speaking students: it would mean that “the closed circles of social, cultural and linguistic socialisation would remain uninterrupted from family to school to university”, Jansen argued.

The only way Afrikaans “can and should flourish in a democratic South Africa” is on the basis of a “strong two-language model of education, whether in the form of double- or parallel-medium instruction within a racially integrated campus environment”, Jansen said.

“It is the only model that resolves two problems at the same time: the demand for racial equity, on the one hand, and the demand for language recognition, on the other hand.”

UFS has about 27 000 students—58% African, 35% white, 5% coloured and 2% Indian. Jansen had announced in his inaugural lecture as UFS vice-chancellor in October last year that teaching and learning would be dual medium while capacity in Sotho languages was developed.

“In the course of time black students will learn Afrikaans, white students will learn Sesotho, and all students will learn decent English,” Jansen said.

“Classes will remain in English and Afrikaans, especially in the first years of study,” he announced. “Dual-medium classrooms will break down the racial isolation where outstanding university teachers are comfortable in both languages. Parallel-medium classes will exist where large numbers enable such a facility.”

Schools and higher education institutions that continue to use language as an instrument of exclusion, rather than inclusion, would remain “culturally and linguistically impoverished”, Jansen argued.

“The choice at the Afrikaans universities, therefore, must never be a choice between Afrikaans and English; it must be both.”

Jansen’s lecture was also his first public contribution for some time on Afrikaans and its future. Near the beginning of his lecture, he told his audience in Bloemfontein that he had decided “to withdraw from public debates on Afrikaans for a simple reason: those debates were in the main parochial, unproductive and often childish ...”

“I was disturbed by the dishonesty” of those debates, he said, and “by the nonsense claims of the imminent demise of Afrikaans within our generation. I found that in many of these debates Afrikaans were simply symbolic terrain to fight other battles—such as the loss of power, the anguish of defeat, and a thinly disguised anger against a successor nationalism in government [from Afrikaner nationalism to African nationalism] that bore all too familiar traits of racial dominance of one group over another.”

The DF Maherbe lecture had forced him back into public contemplations about the state and the future of Afrikaans, Jansen said.

“After tonight, and the inevitable media-hype that follows such speeches in the Afrikaans press, I will decide whether to again withdraw or continue to engage in public on the important subject of Afrikaans,” he said in his preliminary remarks.

For the full text of Jansen’s lecture, click here

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane


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