Diversity, not division, in lecture halls

In efforts to contain institutional conflict at the University of Pretoria (UP) stemming from the campaigns #AfrikaansMustFall and #AfrikaansSalBly, the offer of a particular kind of multilingualism – extending the official languages of tuition and communication to include a third language, Sepedi – has been suggested as a panacea.

Yet, far from this being a cure-all strategy, I am concerned that in the current circumstances this kind of multilingualism is likely to be thin, unsustainable, and possibly false and unjust.

A retreat into multilingualism of this kind without due consideration will cover over, rather than confront and address, the multiple and substantive points of contestation around language.

Over the past two decades, UP’s student and staffing profile has shifted significantly and will continue to do so, given our demographic curve, social imperatives and institutional aspirations.

Many of our scholars, experts in their fields from South Africa and elsewhere, cannot teach in Afrikaans, curtailing the depth of tuition that can be offered in the Afrikaans stream.

An increased emphasis on research productivity and a growth in student numbers has meant that UP’s high number of undergraduate modules has come under pressure as departments are experiencing financial and staffing strain.

In many departments, student numbers for enrolment in Afrikaans and English modules are highly uneven. In the context of resource scarcity, being equitable and fair in how we use limited resources to the benefit of all is of crucial importance.

In addition, in most departments we have no access to professional translation or proofreading services, and therefore often have to rely on quick, nonidiomatic translations from English.

Most scholars have adopted English as their academic language and this is the principal language in which postgraduate research is conducted. Many of our Afrikaans students choose to study in English for this reason.

In addition, our Afrikaans-medium classes are in effect racially, culturally and linguistically homogeneous. This produces a teaching encounter far removed from that offered in the diverse English-medium classes, and entirely out of kilter with broader South African society. Such a teaching situation seems to me no longer intellectually tenable or in line with many of our social and discipline-specific values, and places strain on the integrity of learning.

Against the background of a deep social crisis in the country, the need for diverse classes is imperative given that the majority of our students, in English-medium and Afrikaans-medium classes, come to university from a schooling system that overwhelmingly streams students into race and class homogeneity.

Proposing to shift to English as the primary medium of instruction and communication – embedded in a range of practices that build on, reflect and deepen our linguistic diversity and history – is therefore not an act of wanton destruction of Afrikaans. Instead, it is a pragmatic, thoughtful and considered response to current pressure points at the university, colloquially known as Tukkies.

To a large extent, students and staff have voted with their feet already. The Afrikaans stream makes up a small component of our overall teaching; many more departments have applied to reduce their Afrikaans teaching, which will make the offering even smaller if approved.

Although there are ways to conceive of a just multilingual project based on parallel teaching, I do not think that current conditions at UP and the resources available come anywhere close to being conducive to that.

The reality we face is a tough economic outlook, declining university subsidies, a crisis regarding student funding and severe social deprivation among our students. Add to this a social pact to include UP support staff by ending outsourcing, together with our aims to increase UP’s research productivity, international standing and postgraduate student participation rates.

Given this backdrop, I cannot see how it would be possible for the university to meaningfully expand the number of academic staff or commit the kind of resources that are required to ensure high-quality teaching, even in the current two languages, without compromising some of its core activities and values.

We therefore have to take a stand. If we love everything, ultimately we love nothing.

The medium of communication is worth some consideration too. Thin multilingualism does not offer a great deal. Receiving university information in three languages, as is currently the case, constitutes a kind of legal and consumer culture in which the “client” is central. Not much of what is translated is substantive, imaginative or aspirational.

Adopting English as a primary medium of communication will contribute to creating a shared discursive space, and will assist in suturing the deep wound in our community.

Key to the simmering tension on campus is how questions of language are interlinked with questions of institutional culture.

The central, powerful place of Afrikaans in the institutional culture sustains the unstated but implicit social truth that Afrikaans and a particularistic Afrikaans tradition is the key signifier of belonging at UP, alienating and excluding staff and students from different backgrounds, and hindering attempts to build a more inclusive institution.

Disturbingly, the struggle against and for retaining Afrikaans at UP has been marked by highly inflammatory statements and the use of antiwhite and antiblack racial invective, as well as denigrating statements about racial groups, languages and their speakers in protest action and on social media.

One of the reasons for this, in my view, is that little is in place to mediate and illuminate the relation between the institution’s past and its present.

For example, the recurring slogans “Leave campus” and “Gaan huis toe [go home]” issued by a collective of white male Afrikaans-speaking protesters, many of whom were dressed in UP residence outfits, during a stand-off with #AfrikaansMustFall students, signalled a judgment on the question of who belongs to UP and assumed the prerogative to make such a call.

This, to me, is out of place. Yet I could not help but recognise that the conditions that make this possible have been sustained by the university’s institutional culture and practices. Continuing to the de facto segregation of our students in lectures means feeding these practices, as does the residence culture.

I therefore cannot continue to support the false premise that it would never be necessary to detach the university from its relation with the past and reconfigure it for the future.

Against this background, using English, albeit a colonial language, as the formal language of tuition may help build a thriving, democratic, inclusive culture of multilingualism at the university.

This attempt should be extended to include attention to diverse linguistic practices in our curricula, supplementary forms of linguistic support, and our national responsibilities in terms of language development (specifically Sepedi and Afrikaans).

Beyond this, however, pursuing inclusive multilingualism requires that we securely fund language departments and own our choices when we allocate research funds, establish research institutes, design curricula and make appointments.

The research we do, journals in which we publish, the translation of our work to make it accessible to audiences beyond academia, and the way in which we facilitate teaching – all these practices offer opportunities to restore a balance in our society in a manner that resists being captured by a thin, decontextualised, global neoliberal project that denies place and history.

What would such a shift mean? The continued presence of Afrikaans will not be at the same level as was possible under the well-resourced conditions extended to white Afrikaans universities and civil society by the apartheid state.

This is not without consequence. For many Afrikaans speakers, myself included, this will be felt as a loss. For many others, who have felt oppressed by the language and the system associated with it, this will feel like some justice.

This incongruity simply is a reflection of the messy truth of where we are right now.

Speakers of all South African languages have legitimate aspirations to see these languages recognised and reflected in institutional practices and scholarly work.

At UP, I would argue, we need to pursue a kind of meaningful, everyday multilingualism underpinned by the primary use of English as the language of tuition and communication.

This constitutes an act of courtesy to each other that disables the reproduction of institutions wholly defined on the basis of an ethnocentric, volkseie logic, which, together with race, formed the cornerstone of a system internationally recognised as a crime against humanity.

In our circumstances, such an approach to language constitutes a pragmatic and creative response that is future-oriented.

Irma du Plessis is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are her own

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