/ 2 March 2016

Afrikaners: Stand up for what is right, for our future

Never far from controversy
Never far from controversy

This piece was originally written in Afrikaans. This is important to mention not only to make it clear who my target audience is but also to show that I am proud of my language and the culture I associate it with.

Somebody recently asked me whether “Afrikaners” have a future in South Africa. Although I cannot answer this, my biggest fear is that, with our current attitude, we won’t have a future anywhere in the world.

I often stand and watch, with shock and disbelief, how people like Steve Hofmeyr and groups like AfriForum appoint themselves as representatives of an entire group of people, my people, in South Africa. It is only then that I realise that these actions are condoned by the silence of Afrikaners with a different view.

The #AfrikaansMustFall protests at the University of Pretoria raise several issues and it is time for a different Afrikaner perspective to see the light of day.

We have witnessed Afrikaans- and non-Afrikaans-speaking students making statements on social media, attack each other on campuses, and how a situation that initially focused on the language policy of one university inevitably escalated into the racial segregation that goes along with it.

A few years ago, as a new (Afrikaner) student at the University of Pretoria, I asked myself how the institution managed to have only two languages of instruction – Afrikaans and English. Arguments in favour of this approach included that the university is traditionally an Afrikaans institution and should surely have the right to protect its heritage.

I was also told that Afrikaans is the third “biggest” language in South Africa, and therefore deserves its place as a language of instruction.

Notwithstanding the fact that this argument would probably only hold up in the Western Cape, I wasn’t convinced that a public institution could justify giving Afrikaans special treatment in a tertiary environment.

As an Afrikaans-speaking student, with a love for my language, I was worried about the future of Afrikaans. Ironically, it was one of my Afrikaans lecturers who convinced me that a language is not preserved by formal applications, such as using it as a language of instruction, but rather in the home, in the arts and in literature. There is a fine line between preservation and enforcement, and often it is only a matter of perspective.

The removal of Afrikaans; a ‘basic principle of equality’
Although Afrikaans-speakers view the language policy at the University of Pretoria as a well-intended attempt to preserve the language, the other 90% of our population asked themselves why they do not have the option or privilege to receive a tertiary education in their mother tongues.

There are many differences between public and private institutions, one of which is the receipt and expenditure of public funds. Public funds include taxes paid by you and me, and every other taxpayer, regardless of colour, culture or language. There are specific guidelines on how public funds should be spent, some of which are prescribed by the Constitution and entrenched in the Bill of Rights. Technicalities aside, one of the overarching objectives is to achieve equality, even in the spending of public funds.

It thus logically follows that a private institution has more freedom to develop its own policies and decide on how to spend its own funds than a public institution of the same nature. The University of Pretoria is a public institution. This also means there is room for Afrikaans private institutions, and we already have a few.

I look at the recent actions of students and I ask myself: what is the purpose of all this? The #AfrikaansMustFall students have made their demands clear – unless all other South African languages are added as languages of instruction, Afrikaans should be removed. A basic principle of equality.

However, the opposing group, proudly led by AfriForum, is willing to fight for … for what? The survival of Afrikaans? Or the perpetual implementation of a language policy that clearly favours a small part of our population?

It is shocking how easily students resort to violence to oppose changes that reflect reality. I don’t understand the purpose, the long-term goal. Take a step back, do some introspection, and ask yourself whether it is really necessary to resort to violence – not for the survival of our language but also for the unjustifiable privilege to receive public tertiary education in Afrikaans.

Are you really acting in the best interest of Afrikaans, and “Afrikaners”?

There is a famous expression: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I am sure that groups like AfriForum believe in their own twisted, unclear way that they are indeed acting in the best interest of Afrikaans and “Afrikaners”. However, I refuse to be represented by a group so often associated with racist remarks and actions. I refuse that my language and my culture be defined by shortsighted actions of exclusion, exception and superiority. If we, as “Afrikaners” and Afrikaans-speakers, want to have a future in this country, in any country, we need to learn to admit when we are wrong, to play by the rules and to stand up for what is right – not only for ourselves, but also for everyone.

Although English is not our mother tongue, it does make sense to have it as a language of instruction. Most working environments are English, and it is also the language with the least amount of social baggage in the South African context.

It is time for “Afrikaners” who are serious about their future, Afrikaans and South Africa to look into the future, to stand up against radical groups who threaten our existence and our language in self-serving ways, and to become part of this debate in a constructive way.

Josua Loots works on constitutional and international human rights issues at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria.