A volkstaat of the mind

Maties has spoken. The university community has voted to “take back” the university from those who want to allow English to creep too deep into the heart of Afrikanerdom.

And some would see the university’s choice of four new council members as a first, small victory for “neo-Afrikaners” who are seeking to rebuild Afrikaner nationalism and an Afrikaner identity, with Stellenbosch as their rallying point and home.

The campaign was fiercely contested in the columns of Afrikaans newspapers, at the gates of Afrikaans schools, inside walled retirement villages and in cyberspace.

“The university is in danger,” a frail tannie, arriving on campus with a heap of completed ballot papers from her peers, reportedly said.

The “take back” drive was managed by Afrikaans cultural organisations such as the Federasie vir Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge, better known by its acronym FAK. Their candidates were professor emeritus and historian Hermann Giliomee, former deputy vice-chancellor Christo Viljoen, professor emeritus and poet Lina Spies, and Jacko Maree, a former MP and Ladysmith attorney. Pitted against them were journalist Ruda Landman and businessmen Christo Wiese, Michiel le Roux and Gerhard van Niekerk.

The results—based on 12,6% voter participation in the convocation and 14,5% participation in the donor community—were released on Saturday. It was a victory for the Giliomee camp.

All four new council members have been vocal opponents of the extension of the T-plan—teaching in both Afrikaans and English—within the university’s faculty of arts.

Maties language policy, adopted in 2002, provides for the use of both English and Afrikaans in arts, principally to accommodate African and coloured students whose first language is not Afrikaans . Each module is marked with a “T” (dual medium) or “A” for Afrikaans.

In 2003, virtually all the first-year modules were included under the T-option, to provide for the 2004 intake. As these students progressed, the option was extended to the second year. But when it came to the crunch—the stamping of modules with a “T”—a fierce controversy erupted between those for and those against.

Currently, the language policy is under review—a process that will no doubt be closely scrutinised by the newly elected council members. They are bent on protecting Stellenbosch’s character as an Afrikaans university and, indirectly, on saving the future of Afrikaans in schools and other South African educational institutions.

This is according to an e-mail, widely circulated before the election, in which former Maties were urged to vote for the Giliomee group. “Though the representatives of the convocation and the donors who serve on the council are only a third of the total number of council members, a clear result will steer the battle for Afrikaans in a new direction,” the message declared.

But the council election has not only been about Afrikaans. It is about Stellenbosch’s direction as a South African institution and the pace of change there. It is also about the place and role of Afrikaners or “Afrikaanses”.

With its strong historical links to Afrikanerdom, the university is a barometer of the thinking of an influential group of Afrikaners. And in some circles, the outcome of the Stellenbosch taal debate is a straw in the wind for other indigenous languages.

Dumile Mateza, sports boadcaster and Xhosa language activist, told a gathering of student journalists last week that there was much to learn from those who were fighting for Afrikaans. “I am a follower of the Afrikaans debate,” he said. “[But] if it runs into a taalstryd [language struggle], I am not getting involved. I have a problem with what Giliomee is doing.”

Stellenbosch vice-chancellor Chris Brink makes the same point: “Insofar as the taaldebat [language debate] is a debate and not just a campaign, it may be considered as representing the interplay between two directions of thought regarding the future of Afrikaans. There are those whose point of departure is that Afrikaans should be protected, and that the best way of doing so is by making rules. And there are those who believe that Afrikaans should be promoted, and that the best way of doing so is by making friends.”

In No Lesser Place: The Taaldebat at Stellenbosch, Brink offers a comprehensive response to a debate that has been hijacked by a small group of people, some of whom may be seen as abusing the language.

He argues that the language debate is also a political campaign about Afrikaner identity. More than 10 years into democracy “Afrikaner nationalism is taking shape again”. And it is using the issue of Afrikaans as a language of learning at Stellenbosch to further its goals.

Calling them “neo-Afrikaners”, Brink believes their core agenda is “a volkstaat of the mind”—people who share the same beliefs, assumptions and views about themselves, but want somewhere to congregate. That place is Stellenbosch.

Brink proposes an alternative to a university that is narrowly Afrikaans, with some room for other language-speakers. He says that it is not the university’s job to save Afrikaans and be exclusively Afrikaans—in way that will isolate it as parochial and regional—it can win more friends by managing the language issue, rather than policing it.

“I believe that it is perfectly possible for Stellenbosch to promote Afrikaans as a language of teaching and science in a multilingual context, without being a rule-driven ‘Afrikaans university’ using mechanisms of exclusion and compulsion as envisaged by the taalstryders [language activists],” Brink says.

There appears to be some common ground between the Afrikaans language activists and Brink and his supporters.

Combining forces in a more constructive way—multilingual universities receive no financial support from the government—could make the friends that both sides need.

Failing to do so will merely confirm the suspicions of many South Africans that the debate about Afrikaans, as conducted by the neo-Afrikaners, is not and has never been about Afrikaans only.

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