/ 12 December 2022

Afrikaans under threat despite there being 7.4 million Afrikaans speakers in South Africa

Stellenbosch University Campus, Stellenbosch, Western Cape
Tyla Dallas believes that the latest threats to Afrikaans arise from the recent Khampepe report on Stellenbosch University (above) and the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill 2022. (Photo by Hoberman Collection/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The continuing erosion of Afrikaans as a recognised official language and as a language of tuition is a cause for concern. Afrikaans is South Africa’s third most widely used language, and is the first language of more than 7.4 million people (12.2% of the population) — more than half of whom are people of colour. 

The latest threats to Afrikaans arise from the recent Khampepe report on Stellenbosch University and the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill 2022 (Bela Bill).

The erosion of Afrikaans is gathering momentum despite the protection that all South Africa’s official languages are supposed to enjoy. Section 30 of the Constitution assures South Africans’ rights to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice. Language rights are strongly entrenched — not only in the Bill of Rights — but also in section 6 of the Constitution, which recognises South Africa’s 11 official languages (soon to be supplemented with sign language as a 12th official language) and requires the government to:

  • Take active measures to promote and elevate the use of indigenous languages;
  • Use at least two official languages at the national and provincial levels;
  • Adopt legislation to regulate and monitor the use of official languages; and 
  • Ensure that all official languages enjoy parity of esteem and are treated equitably.

ISection 29(2) ensures the right of all South Africans to education in the official language of their choice where this is reasonably practicable. Despite these constitutional guarantees, there has been a continuing erosion of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University, which has seen Afrikaans diminished through a parallel system until 2014 (before the entrenchment of English as its only language of tuition). 

Last year, there were shocking allegations that some students were forbidden to use Afrikaans in private communication at the university’s residences. If the recommendations recently made by Judge Sisi Khampepe are implemented, Afrikaans will be further eroded. 

Khampepe, who was asked to head an inquiry into allegations of racism at Stellenbosch University, suggests in her recently released report that the reason some students and staff members who are not white allegedly feel unwelcome at the institution is Afrikaans.  

She suggests that “on the basis of all of the evidence about the tensions and problems created by the university’s multilingual language policy, the university should consider reviewing and revising this policy to remove the possibility of language exclusion through the preference of Afrikaans”. 

The report effectively blames the university’s minority Afrikaans community for all subjectively felt racial tension and incidents experienced on its campus, basing its determination on the evidence of a single witness interview and a mere 0.7% of participants from the University’s 33 000 students and staff faculty. 

This comes after the university revised its 2014 language policy because of the “exclusionary hurdle” that Afrikaans supposedly created for “specifically black students studying at Stellenbosch”.  ​The new policy replaced dual-medium instruction in English and Afrikaans with single-medium instruction in English — with the main points reiterated in Afrikaans. 

But tertiary institutions are not the only places where the government is not observing the language rights of Afrikaans speakers. With a mere 5% of public schools offering Afrikaans tuition in single medium schools, the Bela Bill seeks to take away the power of school governing bodies to determine their own admission and language policies. 

These powers will instead be vested ultimately in the provincial education department heads — some of whom have publicly expressed hostility towards the Afrikaans language. Unsurprisingly, many of the written and oral submissions received by parliament’s basic education committee expressed concern that the Bela Bill would lead to the phasing out of Afrikaans from public school systems until it is completely eradicated. 

Afrikaans speakers can expect little support from our courts, which have, in most recent cases, handed down judgments that have further eroded Afrikaans as a language of tuition. Although former chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng observed — in Gelyke Kanse and Others v Chairperson of the Senate of the University of Stellenbosch in 2019 — that “… Afrikaans is indeed an African language, our historic pride to be treasured by all citizens”, the judgment went against Afrikaans because it “was not reasonably practicable for the University” to return to its 2014 policy of dual-medium instruction.

In 2017, in refusing AfriForum and Solidarity’s right to appeal the supreme court of appeal judgement in University of the Free State v Afriforum and Solidarity, Mogoeng also held that: “Afrikaans became the language most closely associated with the formalisation and execution of apartheid. To a great proportion of South Africans it probably calls up first and foremost associations of discrimination, oppression and systematic humiliation of others. These associations understandably often affect the approaches people take to the role and future of Afrikaans. That association with racism and with racially based practices is often one that Afrikaans-speaking communities will have to confront and deal with.”

But what about the constitutional requirement that “all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”? Mogoeng’s views appear to be based on the notion that languages can be the bearers of historic guilt — in which case, most of the world’s languages, including German, Russian, Japanese and English would be suspect to a review of their respective “role and future”.

Mogoeng’s widely endorsed conclusion that “Afrikaans as a medium of instruction has unwittingly become an instrument of racial and cultural division and discrimination” lies at the heart of the problems that the language is now experiencing.

This was not always the case. In 2002, a report produced under the chairmanship of Professor Jakes Gerwel recommended that the minister of education should approve “the general principle that each one of the official languages be assigned to one or more universities to attend in a systematic and planned manner the broad development of that language”. 

The report also recommended that, in line with this recommendation, Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom universities should be charged “to take as part of their institutional task the responsibility for the continued and sustained development of Afrikaans as a language of scholarship and institutional life”.

Unfortunately, Gerwel’s recommendations were never accepted.  Instead, Afrikaans has been eliminated at all the formerly Afrikaans universities — except the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University and Stellenbosch, where its already marginal status may be further eroded by the implementation of Khampepe’s recommendations. In a similar manner, the Bela Bill may pose a devastating threat to the future of Afrikaans in our public school system.

All this may strike a potentially deadly blow to the constitutional protection that all our languages and cultures are supposed to enjoy. In its annual Human Rights Report Card for 2021-22, the FW de Klerk Foundation highlighted the continued erosion of language rights as one of 10 principal threats to constitutional rights in South Africa. 

The reality is that the government has done little to nothing to promote, protect, and preserve South Africa’s indigenous languages. Instead, it is simply ignoring the language requirements set out in section 6 of the Constitution by failing to enforce its own Official Use of Languages Act; not treating South Africa’s official languages equitably and with parity of esteem; and — with the concurrence of our courts — not honouring the requirement that everyone should have the right to tuition in the official language of their choice.  In so doing, it is eroding South Africa’s status as a multicultural and multilingual country — united in its diversity. 

Government should instead focus resources on developing indigenous languages in partnership with educational institutions so that every person may one day choose their preferred language of tuition. The removal of Afrikaans from educational institutions and social discourse will not propel other indigenous languages into use — it will simply lead to the globally evidenced trend of monolingualism, which favours English, and will further marginalise indigenous African languages.

Tyla Dallas is the manager of constitutional programmes at the FW de Klerk Foundation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.