Language of division and diversion

Higher education is a precious resource not to be wasted on identity politics.

The challenges of a multilingual society, the demands of a globalising scientific community and socioeconomic needs ought to be central when Afrikaans in higher education is discussed.

The metaphors of extinction and war express strong feelings among neo-Afrikaners about being under siege, but they are useless for addressing the challenges of our time.

In the Mail & Guardian last week, Hermann Giliomee made points that Afrikaans language activists have been raising repeatedly in the Afrikaans press.

The claim is that Stellenbosch ought to be a ‘predominantly Afrikaans university” and that English is the harbinger of an imminent ‘cultural tragedy”, the death of Afrikaans.

Giliomee rejects the possibility that the ‘vital battle for the future of Afrikaans as a university language” may be ‘fomenting racial hatred”; he insists that now is the time to call for teaching in ‘Afrikaans single medium”.

The council, management and academics at Stellenbosch, he finds, have lost the will to stem the tide of increasing use of English in the classroom. He would have students and staff screened for their proficiency in Afrikaans, monitor classrooms for the dedicated use of Afrikaans and replace a language-friendly policy that accepts and accommodates multilingualism with one of Afrikaans-medium only.

He calls for getting rid of English-speaking colleagues and students who fall foul of his language surveillance technology. Making this stand — asserting relations of conflict and the impossibility of common ground between languages — is the business of linguistic nationalism with ideological continuities with our troubled past.

The immediate context is the introduction of parallel-medium teaching at Stellenbosch, in an attempt to attract students who want to follow classes in English (read: mostly African students). Many language activists ignore the changing circumstances on university campuses countrywide.

In their ‘deadly war of languages” the historical context and contemporary challenges facing universities are obscured. Giliomee quotes CJ Langenhoven, a language activist of the 1920s, who used his nationalist rhetoric to evoke a picture of absolute polarisation between Afrikaans and English.

We all know what happened with Afrikaans as the core symbol of Afrikanerdom. Languages are not ahistorical entities that happen to be around — they are constructed and have a social history.

Afrikaans originated as a creole language, formed in the contact between Dutch colonists, slaves and Khoikhoi. It was appropriated for Afrikaner nationalism and abused for the racist apartheid project, standardised on the basis of white Afrikaans speech and given ideological functions for political projects.

The higher functions of Afrikaans were achieved politically, through affirmative action, massive investment in universities for white Afrikaans-speakers and the merging of racial and language projects.

The downscaling of Afrikaans in the public domain is the result of these destructive language policies of the past. Any historian should acknowledge these factors. In accusing universities of lacking the will to monitor and expel those who do not subscribe to rigid protectionist understandings of Afrikaans, Giliomee perpetuates essentialist Afrikaner nationalism.

Constructing a project of co-opting Afrikaans ‘coloureds” as the next generation of Stellenbosch students, Giliomee loses sight of important recent histories. About 60% of Afrikaans-speakers are classified as ‘coloured”, many using a non-standard, code-mixed language form.

This group was marginalised by the same white Afrikaner elite that standardised the ‘taal”. Giliomee has himself documented the forced removal of ‘coloured” people to make way for
Stellenbosch University’s arts and social sciences building, at the time for whites.

His use of metaphors of suffering, victimhood and the death of Afrikaans, and his framing of English as the predator, eating the lamb (Afrikaans), constitute grotesque hyperbole.

Languages are not fixed biological species, but adjust to and accommodate changing contexts; they merge and flow continually in social processes of give and take.

Giliomee’s opinion piece claims the support of prominent academics Jakes Gerwel and Neville Alexander. In our reading Gerwel and Alexander use a different approach: they argue for the development of all African languages in the country.

In September 2009, at the ‘Roots” conference at the University of the Western Cape, Alexander pointed out the need to ‘consider the relationship between Afrikaner nationalism and — Afrikaans, and ask questions about — how Afrikaans, as an African language, can be used to build a multicultural and multilingual nation where those who were the beneficiaries of the affirmative action strategy of apartheid are able and willing to create conditions that will empower those who were the victims of the racist policies and practices of the past”. This can hardly be seen as support for the neo-Afrikaner strategy of Giliomee and other taalstryders.

The Roots conference, an initiative of the governments of South Africa, the Netherlands and Belgium, celebrated the links between the closely related variants of Dutch, Afrikaans and Surinam Dutch.

There was excitement about the strength of these languages, whereas the need to promote nonstandard forms and move away from elite language planning was flagged. Prominent speakers here included Gerwel, Alexander, Hein Willemse and Danny Titus, all of whom focused on context and transformation, rather than language wars.

In this way they could be seen to be broadly supportive of what the management of Stellenbosch University is trying to achieve (to the chagrin of Giliomee).

Giliomee frames the use of more than one language in a classroom — that is, bilingual/multilingual teaching and learning — as unwillingness by academics to repeat lectures. He ignores how, in separate English and Afrikaans classes, the Afrikaans-medium class can become a ghetto with a limited set of experiential backgrounds informing the debates among students and academics.

Academics face global challenges in developing knowledge and encouraging scientific publication in English and local languages. One cannot maintain Afrikaans as though the political context has not changed.

Stellenbosch needs internationally excellent academics to train new generations of scholars from South Africa and the rest of Africa. Giliomee’s proposal is detrimental to meeting these challenges.

In language choices we should show respect for human dignity, embrace diversity and confront the real problems facing our society.

The authors are all professors at Stellenbosch University: Kees van der Waal (social anthropology), Christine Anthonissen (general linguistics), Amanda Gouws (political studies), Ashraf Kagee (psychology), Sandra Liebenberg (human rights law), Tony Naidoo (psychology), Steven Robins (social anthropology), Leslie Swartz (psychology)

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