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09 Oct 2009 06:00
The language debate
It is good to know that Hermann Giliomee (‘A deadly war of languages”, October 2) is writing in his ‘private capacity” about language policy at Stellenbosch University. It almost allows me to ignore his article as irrelevant to the daily challenges facing academics at this institution—one which we all know enjoys a compromised past and an uneasy present, but is, nevertheless, a hugely important national resource that might yet come to stand for a more promising future.
But of course his sortie on to the pages of the Mail & Guardian takes what could otherwise be seen as a parochial Western Cape debate into a wider political space.
So, regretfully—because this is a busy time for those of us required to teach and supervise (here in two languages), research (relevantly), publish (internationally) and generally interact, administer, manage and serve (professionally)—it does require a response.
Giliomee makes some large claims, with some significant omissions.
The taaldebat rarely confronts the daily challenges of the classroom. It does not engage with those who teach. Students feature more prominently than academics, but usually as political ciphers. In Giliomee’s case they are reduced to ‘clients”, tellingly categorised further by shallow assumptions about normative whiteness, home language and academic ability. In his university there are ‘blacks”, academically challenged ‘coloured Afrikaans-speakers”, possibly less academically challenged ‘coloured English-speakers” and then the primary clients: ‘Afrikaans students” (the descendants of ‘Afrikaners”) and ‘English students”, both white, the former performing well and at the university for reasons entirely unconnected with ‘race”, the latter performing less well and at Stellenbosch either because they are racist or because it is a second-best option. This is an intellectually and politically bankrupt account.
Giliomee never talks about the intellectual content of lectures. He disregards the relationship between teaching and research and the subject-specific qualifications of staff. The primary requirement of his ideal academic is proficiency in lecturing-level Afrikaans—not expertise in specialised fields, or innovation in teaching, including willingness to engage with actual students, individuals from different backgrounds, in an intellectual project. He assumes a large pool of academically interchangeable, Afrikaans first-language lecturers who can replace those lazy and recalcitrant, linguistically non-proficient interlopers who will have to leave, once ‘management” imposes an effective monitoring system to flush them out. Presumably his lecturing clones will also be expected to carry out nationally and internationally recognised research and attract postgraduate students from all over, in all disciplines, while engaging with the national challenges of the day, but this is not addressed.
Giliomee’s vision threatens the integrity of Stellenbosch University as a place of innovation and ideas, in which Afrikaans has a future as a medium of communication and subject of study.
Stellenbosch has the potential to develop more viable models of intellectually exciting, multilingual classrooms, in which students speak and write in Afrikaans as they choose; such models would be of real interest to other institutions.
What is needed is more tolerance, flexibility and imagination at the level of policy, with more thoughtful engagement by people in senior positions with the multiple acts of accommodation, challenge, improvisation, adjustment, politeness, inquiry and exchange that are already being practised around language daily, in different educational spaces across the university.—Cherryl Walker, Stellenbosch University
Giliomee’s article is misguided at best and offensive at worst, both in tone and content. To frame the language issue at Stellenbosch University as a “deadly war” is a military metaphor that distorts the reality of students and lecturers who, day in and day out, engage in intellectual discussion in both English and Afrikaans. His references to the relationship between these languages as that of a lion grazing on a lamb, to the law faculty as having “cave[d] in”, and his lament that the university has lost the will to tell its employees to conform to a strict language policy of Afrikaans-only or to leave, are unnecessarily adversarial and leave little room for building a diverse and multilingual campus environment. It is also unnecessary to refer to Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans as a minority. Such a term is divisive in the context of a long history of racial “othering” in South Africa.
Giliomee notes that lecturers are not monitored to ensure they have mastered Afrikaans. Such an idea—if he is suggesting this—is not only absurd, but has sinister undertones of surveillance. Policing language is completely unacceptable in an academic community in a free, open and democratic society.
Afrikaans is by no means a casualty, as Giliomee indicates, using another metaphor that has violent undertones. As a teacher and researcher whose first language is English, I take great delight in teaching, conversing and conducting meetings with students in both Afrikaans and English.
Stellenbosch University is not the preserve of a single linguistic group but a publicly funded national asset. It should not draw students only from its immediate vicinity, as Giliomee seems to suggest. In our pursuit of the twin goals of academic excellence and transformation, our mission is to recruit students from all over the country, the continent, even the world. To insist on an Afrikaans-only policy is to create a linguistically hostile environment to the many black students who may not be conversant in Afrikaans as well as to international students whose presence adds further richness and diversity to our student body. Moreover, an Afrikaans-only policy will exclude most world experts from other countries from working at Stellenbosch University.
Stellenbosch University has a hugely important role to play in the transformation and development of South African society. It must play this role in the spirit of inclusiveness, by welcoming diversity - including linguistic diversity.—Professor Ashraf Kagee, Department of Psychology, Stellenbosch University
I found Giliomee’s article impressive and illuminating. Stellenbosch University ought to be commended on the excellent work it has done in accommodating South Africans who are not at ease pursuing their studies in Afrikaans.
During Kadal Asmal’s tenure as minister of education, it was strongly recommended that a special mandate be given to a select number of universities whose focus would be the promotion of Afrikaans as a medium of academic instruction and research. This recommendation received strong support from a number of organisations and prominent South Africans.
It is time that this recommendation was revisited, instead of Stellenbosch being compelled to make more concessions that erode the national importance of Afrikaans as one of the 11 official languages.—Professor Tuntufye S Mwamwenda, Durban
Regardless of what Giliomee says, Afrikaans is not a fragile tea cup about to shatter. It is a vital language that will continue to adapt and mutate regardless of attempts to police students and academics for Afrikaans proficiency. The intake of black students at Stellenbosch is shockingly low. Stellenbosch’s reputation as an Afrikaans-preserving university is what keeps the university white. Things need to change.
It should not be the role of tertiary institutions to safeguard Afrikaans, and what is the point of conducting academic research in a language known only in one country in the world? If Giliomee and his cronies want to petrify Afrikaans, let them do it on their own time and with their own cash rather than on academic time and with the taxpayer’s money. Perhaps they should think about founding an independent institute for the preservation of Afrikaans, or simply strengthening Stellenbosch’s already vibrant Afrikaans department.—Lucy Graham (a lecturer at Stellenbosch University, writing in her private capacity)
As a member of the latest faculty—law—to “cave in” (in Gilomee’s words), I must set the record straight in relation to a number of tendentious arguments in his article. The law faculty unanimously adopted a nuanced new language plan to be implemented from 2010. This plan has a number of elements. Fundamentally, it entails a departure from its previous Afrikaans-only policy for undergraduate teaching, now allowing English to be used interchangeably in lectures, provided that at least 50% of a lecture is presented in Afrikaans (the so-called “T-option” provided for in the university’s language policy).
The purpose of this shift is, among others, to enhance accessibility to the law faculty with a view to improving its diversity profile, and to expose students to a greater range of students and lectures than the Afrikaans-only policies permit. There can be little doubt that a major contributing factor to the poor diversity profile among both students and staff at Stellenbosch University is its inflexible Afrikaans-language policies. It has not resulted in the large in-flow of coloured students Gilomee hopes to attract, and is an almost complete deterrent to African staff and students. By adopting a more accommodating language policy the law faculty seeks to take into account not only the diverse language needs of its students and staff but also the vital constitutional and legislative imperatives of ensuring non-discriminatory access to an of higher learning.
We live in a multilingual society in which 11 official languages are constitutionally recognized. The Constitution requires the state to adopt measures to advance the status of indigenous languages that were historically diminished. In this context, no single language (particularly not a historically privileged language such as Afrikaans) can claim that it has an exclusive right to be used at a higher-educational institution funded by the state.
There are also pedagogic considerations which make it imperative that Stellenbosch University continue to pursue a more flexible and nuanced approach towards language. In upholding an affirmative-action admissions policy adopted by the Michigan Law School, the American Supreme Court (which generally exposes race-conscious policies to strict scrutiny) held that the educational benefits of a diverse student population were substantial. It promotes cross-cultural understanding and prepares students for a diverse society and global marketplace. It is also essential for the credibility of a university to be open to all talented and qualified members of a heterogenous society.
The type of ‘kragdadige’ language policies that Giliomee espouses for Stellenbosch will not only promote racial exclusivity, but will impoverish the learning and teaching experience for all Stellenbosch students and staff.—Sandra Liebenberg, HF Oppenheimer Professor in Human Rights Law, Faculty of Law, Stellenbosch University
This debate boils up repeatedly and is then repressed, with promises and reassurances that mean nothing. The simple truth is that Stellenbosch University’s management expresses pro-Afrikaans sentiments while, on the ground, the number of lectures offered in Afrikaans steadily decreases. The latter statement is easily verifiable.
There are two possibilities: either management is incapable of reining in faculty who insist on language-implementation plans that contravene the policy put in place by the University Council, or else management is covertly promoting a move towards English. Both possibilities are egregious.
The expansion of dual medium is educationally unacceptable. Solid research exists that should militate against it. First, there is Jim Cummins’s work that distinguishes between everyday interpersonal communication skills and the academic-language proficiency essential at tertiary level. Second, sociolinguistic research by Jean LaPonce shows that a dominant language replaces a minority language within two years in double-medium and parallel-medium classrooms. Third, sociolinguists point to “subtractive bilingualism”, where speakers of a specific language are made to feel that their mother tongue is inferior, a phenomenon recently deplored by Mamphela Ramphele with regard to this country’s black youth. This research strongly supports the importance of mother-tongue education. Failure to provide it constitutes a betrayal of Afrikaans-speakers of all ethnic groups.
I know of no properly devised research into the effects of double-medium instruction conducted at the Stellenbosch University. One would have expected, when the Faculty of Arts was allowed double medium on an experimental basis in 2005, that a longitudinal study would be undertaken. One would have expected clear hypotheses or research questions to be formulated; one would have looked for a relevant literature study; appropriate methodology; valid and reliable pre- and post-tests; results, tabulated and interpreted; conclusions and suggestions for further research reported. What happened? None of the above.
Content- and language-integrated learning (CLIL) is mentioned as a possible model for justifying dual medium. But most current CLIL programmes are experimental, with few reliable empirical studies. CLIL-based bilingual programmes are primarily marketable products in the private sector. It is probable that understanding of content is reduced by lack of language competence (see Cummins). CLIL will not wash.
Afrikaans as the medium of instruction for Afrikaans speakers is not negotiable.—Dr Marié Heese, Member of the Council of Stellenbosch University
One should not be surprised that Giliomee has taken his crusade to make the Stellenbosch University an Afrikaans-medium university to the English press.
What I find amazing is the untested assumption that this is what everybody should want for Stellenbosch University (if you are Afrikaans-speaking) and, if not, you are one of those lecturers “who benefit from not having to repeat our classes in both languages”. He conveniently does not mention that there are different language options at work in different faculties and that the university has put many measures in place to deal with students who are not proficient in Afrikaans.
Giliomee believes he has the right to interfere constantly in the management of the university, even though he and his supporters do not engage lecturers about realities in the classroom, where they have to deal with a changing political as well as tertiary-education context. What is required to be a successful lecturer is to teach well, do good research and be involved in community service. For those of us who manage departments, there is also a huge administrative load. To then insist that we should repeat classes in both English and Afrikaans means more time in front of the class and less time doing research.
If Stellenbosch University wants to remain the centre of excellence that it is, our research has to be internationally competitive (and written in an international language such as English). We also prepare our students master English on a post-graduate level so that they can engage with the international academic world.
I personally I do not want to teach at a university where language is used to exclude students who cannot speak Afrikaans, that does not promote diversity, or that is not internationally competitive. For those of us who take our teaching seriously, the constant interference from outside is time-consuming and completely counterproductive.—Professor Amanda Gouws, Department of Political Science, Stellenbosch University
Giliomee gives the game away by referring to English-speaking white students as “a market segment the university is not supposed to cater for”. As a public institution and national asset, supported by every South African taxpayer, Stellenbosch University should be accessible to all South Africans. Giliomee clearly believes that the university should be the preserve primarily of Afrikaans-speakers (white and coloured).
As far as I am aware, there has been no national debate about whether specific institutions should effectively be reserved for specific “ethnic” or language groups, no decision to allow one of the leading research universities in the country to remain inaccessible to most of the population.
I am proud to work at Stellenbosch University and I love the fact that language issues are taken seriously. (I wonder, for example, how many academic departments across the country have provided language classes for staff members in an indigenous language, as my own department has done with isiXhosa lessons.) But I am tired of the constant interference in what we do by people who do not work for the university but implicitly claim more right to ownership of the institution than they are prepared to concede to academics like myself who do well in other respects but fail - and will always fail - on a criterion of ethnicity. Surveillance, policing, and war talk are not conducive to high quality academic work.
As an academic committed to high standards of research and to giving all our students the best possible shot at being both internationally competitive and locally relevant in their disciplines, I am relieved that the university council and management do not have the “will”, as Giliomee puts it, “to tell lecturers to conform to a strict language policy or leave”. If anything would be a threat to Afrikaans as a credible academic language it would be a situation in which, at this crucial time in our history, adherence to “a strict language policy” (read: a strict language policy of which Giliomee would approve) would trump other much more important concerns that universities face, including those of access, quality, international competitiveness, and the application of knowledge to improve lives in our country and on our continent.—Professor Leslie Swartz, Department of Psychology, Stellenbosch University
As unpalatable as it may be, Afrikaners after 1948 lost their moral standing and governed South Africa into avoidable anarchy by the 1980s because of their failure to recognise their fellow South Africans of other cultural groups. The transition of 1994 was based on the mutual recognition between Afrikaners and Africans. Giliomee’s article demonstrates the extent to which the ANC has failed to uphold this mutual recognition by ingeniously hiding behind the all-too-necessary correction of past injustices.
Just as it was up to the National Party (NP) by the late 1980s to take decisive action to bring South Africa back from the brink, it is up to the ANC to save the deteriorating relationship with Afrikaners. Without this relationship the ANC can kiss its vision of a non-racial, economically sound South Africa goodbye. If the ANC today took the necessary political action to ensure the future of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch, it would go a long way to restoring the relationship with Afrikaners. Of course the ANC can refuse to do so on the basis of its unassailable political power, but at what price for the country and itself? After all, the previously unassailable NP is now gone.—Johann Rossouw, Melbourne, Australia
Talk clean, act dirty
I wish I could believe in the positive sentiments expressed by Yolandi Groenewald (‘Sonjica’s tough talk”) and Richard Calland (‘Trevor and the ‘vision thing’”) (September 18), or at least be encouraged by it.
Unfortunately, I do not believe the government is at all grasping the nettle of climate change or sustainable development. All indications are that the instruction in government is strongly that we need to develop ‘at all costs”.
In introducing the green paper on national strategic planning Trevor Manuel referred to ‘research on cross-cutting topics that affect our medium and long-term development plans, such as demographic change, climate change, energy sources, water security, food security and long-term defence capabilities” (Cape Times, September 10).
Interesting to note that of the six matters mentioned, four are environmental: energy supply, climate change and water and food security, all of which will be affected by climate change. Yet, a day after the introduction of the aforementioned Green Paper, it was reported that ‘the Cabinet shuns climate change targets for SA”. This after South Africa has been riding the wave internationally on the leading position it has been taking in the climate-change negotiations. At home we do not see commitment to putting these targets and objectives into practice. Our target for clean energy is 4% by 2015, which we are unlikely to attain. This in a country with such an abundance of potential for renewable energy with blazing sunshine, good wind and a lengthy coastline offering great potential for wave energy. Instead of seeking and promoting development of such sources, we have poured R10-billion and more into a black hole of the nuclear pebble bed modular reactor.
South Africa is per capita one of the dirtiest countries in the world in terms of energy production because we depend for 95% of our needs on (dirty) coal, have priced it ridiculously low and thus invited dirty industry to our shores. This was, of course, until bad management recently dropped us into the nightmare of supply shortages.
Once growth recovers following the economic collapse, we are going to find our supply constraints dumping us in further blackouts.
Why are we unable to implement at home the excellent direction we champion on the international stage? Environment is not a luxury of pristine conservation areas for a few. It is the very world around us, on which we depend for survival. The poor suffer first and most when we do not conserve and manage it to ensure we will all still be able, tomorrow and in 100 years’ time, to appreciate and depend on it.
If we mine it, bulldoze it, pollute it regardless, because we need to develop and create jobs today, there will be nothing for the next generation and, most likely, no next generation.—Louis de Villiers
Integration is the real challenge
I would like to thank Mandy Rossouw (‘Maties’ slow dance to integration”, September 24) for the attempts the article makes at trying to expose issues many people are afraid to talk about. This is my second year at Stellenbosch University, therefore the article is of the utmost relevance to me; I have first-hand experience of the issues raised.
I believe ‘diversity” is an easy slogan for any institution to claim—all one needs to do is gather people from various backgrounds and take note of the differences ... within the group. Yet, as the article rightly declares, it is the integration of these different individuals that is the challenge our university faces.
As I sit in my lectures I notice that white students mostly sit with white students, black with black and coloured with coloured.
The question of integration should not be directed at our various academic institutions; instead it should be directed at our own generation. We keep looking to higher authorities and blaming them for their failure on certain issues. But we as a generation have to realise that we must claim that power for ourselves. Change starts within ourselves.
South Africa’s motto is ‘Unity in diversity”. For integration to take place we have to understand that the two concepts go hand in hand. We should cherish our own individual history as well as celebrate the fact that we are all South Africans.
The article also mentions Metanoia, the residence I stay in. I was saddened that the example this res has set since 2006 has been tainted by two paragraphs in the article. It says conservative white students are being chased away by the reputation of ‘drug and crime problems” at Metanoia. Investigations should rather be done at some of the men’s hostels into alcohol abuse. I am inspired every day as I walk through Metanoia or sit in the dining hall with my friends, reminded that we are moving forward and that it is possible to laugh and converse with people without being reminded of our differences.—Ruan Zirk, Stellenbosch University
Over-the-top celebrations at UFS
I was shocked to see the full-page colour ad (what does that cost?) in the M&G (October 2) for Jonathan Jansen’s inaugural programme at the University of the Free State (UFS). Some readers may remember the somewhat similar multi-day inauguration programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) for Professor William Makgoba.
In truth such lengthy and over-the-top events have more in common with coronations in tin-pot monarchies than with inaugurations of vice-chancellors in proper universities; such grossly monarchical celebrations would be unthinkable at Harvard, Oxford or Paris. They also carry a terrible warning for, by definition, such events could not occur unless the new vice-chancellor willed them. This is a sign of an outsize ego.
Your readers will doubtless not need reminding of the ruinous path trodden by UKZN since that inauguration.
I am surprised and disappointed that Jansen should have encouraged such a monstrous ego trip and such a misuse of resources. He is supposed to be an educationalist but this ad makes me fear for the future of UFS.—RW Johnson, Constantia
Being white in South Africa today
Big downer. My attempt to articulate what it feels like to be white in South Africa in 1000 words has elicited the kind of response (Letters, October 2) that results in my downheartedness about the predictability of public discourse around race in this country. But I will not be climbing into the tiny box of privileged delusions that Vincent Solo assigns to me and any mlungu willing to peep outside the tried-and-tested channels of discourse. I will not be reduced to the narrow-minded, conscience-free, ineffectually neurotic white wimp he wants to see me as. Like all the other South Africans who are constantly reduced by virtue of the visible hue of their pigment to the ridiculously narrow categories of black or white, I will continue to live outside and beyond Solo’s dead-end version of me.—Alex Dodd
We all remember Moe Shaik’s two greatest television moments: the tears when he apologised for misleading the nation over Bulelani Ngcuka and the bokdrol-spitting contest with Jody Abrahams on Hard Copy. And we all expected him to be rewarded for drooling so consistently over his favourite presidential candidate.—Peter Slingsby
Shaik is more concerned about the security of a clique of Polokwane triumphalists than state security. The history of intelligence units in Chile, Zimbabwe and the Soviet Union tells us of the mischief to come. Zuma loyalists shall not be investigated, charged or prosecuted in a Zuma reign.—Gab Mdlopane, Port Shepstone
John F Kennedy told the American people that he would not fail to appoint a competent man (Bob Kennedy) to the position of attorney general just because that man was his brother. What is the problem with Moe Shaik? Is being Schabir Shaik’s brother a crime?—Daniel Mumaanya
I can’t believe how delusional Eugene Terre’blanche is (October2). He still harbours fantansies of a boere volkstaat in this day and age and he thinks right-wing Afrikaners have a ‘winnable” case at The Hague. What a joke! The old man must just accept the new order and get a life.—Lucian Hlophe, Daveyton
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