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A deadly war of languages

For the past 10 years a vital battle for the future of Afrikaans as a university language has been waged. One of the participants has been the government, which demands access through the medium of English for blacks at all universities.

In order to meet this demand but also to keep its Afrikaans clients, the University of Stellenbosch has responded by introducing ever more courses taught in dual medium in place of Afrikaans single medium. In dual medium, Afrikaans and English are used intermittently in the same lecture as the media of instruction, on the understanding that Afrikaans is used at least 50% of the time. In the case of parallel medium, separate streams of Afrikaans and English lectures are offered on the same topic.

Despite this, Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, has recently railed against ‘covert forms of racism”, citing as a ‘distinct example” people ‘using constitutional rights for the continuation of single-medium [read: Afrikaans] schools and Afrikaans-only universities”.

One would hardly guess from Nzimande’s indictment that there is nothing wrong with citizens asserting their constitutional rights and that there is not a single ‘Afrikaans-only” university’ left. At the University of the Free State a full set of parallel-medium courses are offered; at the University of Pretoria 45% of the lectures are in dual medium, 28% in parallel medium and 25% in English medium. At the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University there is instant translation of almost all Afrikaans classes.

There is little recognition on the part of Nzimande or the ANC in general of the potent fear among minorities about the displacement of their language in public institutions. In socio-linguistic circles it is commonly accepted that single-medium instruction is the only medium of instruction that guarantees the survival of a local or regional language in a school or a university, given the need to coexist with a universal language such as English. Over the medium term, dual medium in particular but also parallel medium are the death knell of a local or regional language.

There is an element of déjà vu in this. A century ago Afrikaners were urged to accept parallel or dual-medium institutions to build a new nation out of the two white communities (or ‘races” as they were then called). Those Afrikaners who objected were accused of fomenting racial hatred.

The popular Afrikaans journalist CJ Langenhoven parodied the plea as follows: ‘Friends, let us make peace and keep the peace. Let the lamb and the lion graze together; the lamb on the grass and the lion on the lamb. The lamb will soon be part of the lion. It will be to the honour of the lamb and the delight of the lion.”

In 2001 the University of Stellenbosch accepted a language policy that ostensibly kept the English (the lion) at bay. It singles out Afrikaans single medium as the ‘automatic” or ‘default” option, and allows the use of dual medium only in circumscribed cases. Nevertheless Afrikaans single-medium courses have plummeted to only 38% of undergraduate offerings and dual medium has risen in the same time to 45%.

The latest to cave in is the law faculty. It has made dual medium obligatory in the entire undergraduate programme, despite a proud and rich tradition of teaching and scholarship in Afrikaans. It stands in strong contrast to the faculties of its peers at Bloemfontein and Pretoria, who offer parallel medium without any extra financial resources.

To make matters worse at Stellenbosch, the institution does not insist on proficiency in Afrikaans as a prerequisite for a degree. Students are not compelled to pass a language proficiency test in order to proceed at the end of the first year. Lecturers are not required to be proficient in the language(s) they teach in. The university is unable to state how many have not mastered Afrikaans. No effective monitoring system exists.

The university frowns on such practices and brands itself taalvriendelik (language-friendly). In response we may cite a ‘law” of socio-linguist JA Laponce: ‘The friendlier the relations between people, the deadlier the fight between languages.” Laponce himself thinks that at the present rate Afrikaans at Stellenbosch will end up as ‘a mere decoration”.

The call for a predominantly Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch is sometimes branded as nationalist, racist or exclusivist. Yet the demand that it teaches predominantly in Afrikaans single medium has wide backing. In 1996 Nelson Mandela saw it as the university’s special task to ‘promote the sustained development of Afrikaans as an academic medium”.

The call for Stellenbosch to be a mainly single-medium institution was also backed by a committee headed by Dr Jakes Gerwel, who was appointed by former education minister Kader Asmal. In 2001 it recommended that the government give two universities (Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom) a special mandate to promote Afrikaans as a language of instruction and research ‘consciously and systematically”.

Public support for Stellenbosch as an institution using Afrikaans single medium as the core of its offering has also come from leading educationists Neville Alexander and Kathleen Heugh; the executive committee of the convocation of Stellenbosch alumni; a petition of 3500 students; virtually every prominent Afrikaans writer, including Breyten Breytenbach and André Brink; and by business leader Koos Bekker.

Dr F Van Zyl Slabbert, the outgoing Stellenbosch chancellor, described the university’s version of dual medium as ‘an academic absurdity”.

This year the Democratic Alliance called for the university to be predominantly an Afrikaans institution. More than 80% of Afrikaans-speaking students (and nearly half of the English speaking students) prefer or accept Afrikaans single medium.

The issue concerns both Afrikaans and transformation. Given its location, the particular challenge of Stellenbosch is to draw large numbers of coloured Afrikaans-speakers and thus prove that transformation could also occur in and through Afrikaans. Because this community’s participation rate in tertiary education is the lowest of all the communities, large-scale funding is needed for bursaries, bridging courses and creative interventions in the schools. None has been forthcoming. The proportion of coloured students at undergraduate level has remained stagnant at 13% to 15%.

The university hoped dual medium would attract black students, but they insist on parallel medium. The proportion of undergraduate blacks has dropped to a minuscule 2% this year. Then there are coloured English-speakers. In this community Afrikaans is read and spoken much more frequently than in white English-speaking homes. There is no indication that dual medium is needed to attract them.

Dual medium has in fact attracted a market segment that the university is not supposed to cater for: large numbers of white English-speakers, of whom half cannot or will not become proficient in Afrikaans. Between 1998 and 2009 the proportion of English-speaking undergraduate students has doubled from 18% to 36%. Some flee from the formerly white English universities because of the growing black presence. Others do not get a place there. At Stellenbosch, Afrikaans students outperform English students by a significant margin in all but one faculty.

The shift from Afrikaans single medium to dual medium can be explained in simple terms: the state does not fund parallel medium and lecturers do not want to repeat their lectures without remuneration (as lecturers at the University of Free State indeed do). Second, university councils and managements have lost the will to tell lecturers to conform to a strict language policy or leave.

Recently banking tycoon Jannie Mouton and prominent Afrikaans writer Marié Heese resigned from the University of Stellenbosch council. Mouton believes the university has become ‘too white and too English”, and Heese believes the council and management have failed in their duty to make it possible for students to study in Afrikaans.

The university has made no real progress on transformation and has left the coloured Afrikaans-speaking community in the lurch. It runs the risk of alienating both its alumni and the government. The real beneficiaries are lecturers, who do not have to repeat lectures, and those English-speakers who don’t want to learn Afrikaans.

Afrikaans — and an effective form of instruction, particularly for students at risk — is the casualty. It is a great cultural tragedy that is unfolding. Not only the university but all of South Africa will be immeasurably poorer if Afrikaans is fatally weakened at Stellenbosch.

Hermann Giliomee is an elected representative of the alumni on the University of Stellenbosch council but writes this in his private capacity

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