/ 9 July 2020

On language, power and privilege in tertiary education

Graphic Edu Language Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)


In his book Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, that indefatigable intellectual and activist of language rights Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes: “Every language has two aspects. One aspect is its role as an agent that enables us to communicate with one another in our struggle to find means for survival. The other is its role as a carrier of the history and culture built into the process of that communication over time.”

Wa Thiong’o’s critical cultural theoretical approach, which is influenced by dialectical reasoning, approaches language both as a product of, and as a component that shapes the maintenance of power or struggles against that power. It is through language that some people may seek to preserve power and privilege, while others may engage in efforts to challenge such power. Language is, therefore, shaped by, finds a home in and flourishes in political and economic structures of power and privilege.

In almost all societies, language forms part of the intersection between race, nationality and social class. The patterns of power mediated through language, notably the colonisation of many peoples around the world and the imposition of European languages on them, plus the denigration of indigenous languages, were the same everywhere.

Narrating his encounters in New Zealand after delivering one of the lectures that constitute his other book, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, wa Thiong’o tells what a Māori woman said to him: “You were not talking about Kenya. You were talking about us Māori people.” What the Māori woman was referring to was the near-obliteration of the Māori language and the imposition of English as the lingua franca of New Zealand.

In our case, the languages of colonial conquest — English and the Dutch-derivative, Afrikaans — have dominated science, administration and official communication for many decades. As many sociolinguists would agree, Afrikaans could have become a perfect example of a language that was developed indigenously and turned into a language of science. It unfortunately lost its “innocence”.

Founded as part of a nascent ethno-nationalist project and eventually being associated with and serving as the language of an oppressive regime, Afrikaans was stripped of what could have been a decolonial linguistic experiment. In the words of Wa Thiong’o, it became the “carrier of the history and culture” of racial oppression, exploitation, exclusion and marginalisation, with a section of the society being in total power and enjoying unfettered privileges, while the majority  remained powerless, subjugated and underprivileged.

It is the very foundation of what is otherwise a beautiful language, and its association with an oppressive racialist project that was bound to crumble anyway, that has seen the fortunes of the Afrikaans language being painfully reversed. Institutions that were founded on the principles of exclusion, like some of our universities in South Africa, had to open their doors to all qualifying citizens. And because the system was built for a privileged minority, the opening of the “doors of learning” meant that the majority, who were not schooled in Afrikaans, would logically begin demanding that the language of instruction in these institutions be changed. 

The choice was of course between a rock and a hard place; between a colonial derivative and a colonial language proper — English. Of course, this contradiction is not lost to many of us.

The pain of losing political power, which in our case led to the opening up of universities, has been the preoccupation of the defenders of the Afrikaans language. The reaction has betrayed a mixture of denialism, unrealistic expectations, complaints of victimhood, clinging to privilege and a subtle claim to exceptionalism.

As has been shown in the instances of the formerly Afrikaans-medium universities of the Free State, Pretoria and Stellenbosch, and dual-medium ones such as Unisa, the number of students — and, in this case we are referring to white students — who prefer to learn in Afrikaans, has been ever diminishing. This fact has not been disputed by those who wish to preserve the language as a medium of instruction.

The same fate befell the University of the Western Cape, Nelson Mandela University and the University of Johannesburg.

The irony has been that whereas the universities are able to demonstrate that it is simply untenable and instead expensive to retain Afrikaans as a language of instruction for fewer students, the very advocates of retention are the same voices who would argue against the restoration and changes to names of places, streets and buildings — from colonial names to inclusive ones — claiming that such restorative exercises lead to “unnecessary” incurring of expenses that can be used for much worthier causes. That is privilege speaking. It often does not hear nor realise its own inherent contradictions.

The counterargument has been an indirect claim to exceptionalism of some sort, and people being blind to their own prejudices. Instead of seeing the bigger picture of the devastating damage done to linguistic parity by colonialism and apartheid, advocates of the Afrikaans language see only the plight of their language and its right to remain a medium of instruction in some universities, while failing or simply ignoring the need for other languages to emerge as languages of science too.

As a result of this exceptionalism, expressions of “linguistic rights” often focus on the self and one’s own rights, in total oblivion to the needs and rights of others. Mutely, these “rights” imply that the advocacy agency is the only deserving (human) group, while others do not deserve these rights. 

The “other” belongs to the zone of nonbeing, as Frantz Fanon writes in his Black Skin, White Masks, while the real beings must exercise the right to “linguistic rights”. In this regard, silence about the rights of others is often the mark of deep-seated prejudice, racism and linguism.

Of course, this is not surprising, because the triumph of Afrikaans was based directly on the perceived superiority of one race over the other. It is, therefore, difficult for these advocates to see the world through different lenses. This is the task of the transformation project in our universities: to resist attempts to perpetuate past privileges, while at the same time endeavouring to liberate some of our countrymen and women from the pitfalls of ethnonationalism.

Professor Mandla Makhanya is the principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa