18 April 2015
From the outset, Open Stellenbosch has made it clear that our aim is not an attack on the Afrikaans language per se, but to highlight the problematic ways in which Afrikaans is used at Stellenbosch University to marginalise and exclude students, especially, many black students. Before we address the minutiae of the Language Policy, it will be important to mention form the outset that our primary concern is with the teleological imperative of the policy, the very purpose of it, rather than its technocratic machinations.
The Language Policy of SU functions to position Afrikaans language and culture as subjected to vulnerability. It is therefore the duty of the policy to ‘protect’ this language, not only as a means of communication, but also as a site of cultural production. It is for this reason that we ought to interrogate the rhetoric of the Language Policy in order to trace in it the apartheid nostalgia that undergirds its very existence. It states in its aims and overview that it is, first and foremost, “committed to the use, safeguarding and sustained development of Afrikaans as an academic language in a multilingual context” (pg 2). This function runs in tandem with the aim to “increase teaching offerings in English” (pg 2). In addition, the Policy “acknowledge[s] language diversity and promote[s] accessibility for staff and students” (pg 2). However, the application of this policy is done through a “pragmatic” (pg 2) approach, which takes into account the resources for “support mechanisms”. We are persuaded to think that the intended aim is to develop ‘multilingualism’, or the loaded term, ‘language diversity’. But the giveaway, as we see it, lies in the defensive rhetoric that seeks to preserve a certain sense of power which is predicated on white privilege and cultural hegemony. And so, the term “safeguard” is used throughout the policy to somehow suggest that Afrikaans – as a historical entity, as a communication tool, as a socio-spacial culture – is under attack. The resultant logic is that the Policy will be its defender.
Interestingly, the Policy is framed in patriarchal rhetoric which feminises SU by referring to the institution and “her partners” (5), thereby turning it into a feminine object of protection, a protection to be carried out by the white male university council. What we have, in this instance, is a discursive strategy that attempts to reconfigure whiteness as actually disadvantageous and not beneficial in post-apartheid South Africa. It is no wonder that many white SU students argue, as they are known to have argued on many platforms, that whiteness in South Africa has become a liability and that they sought refuge in Stellenbosch, the last bastion of a form of Afrikaner nationalism. The suggestion conveyed by the Policy is, in the first instance, a flagging of the possibility that white Afrikaners are increasingly becoming an “unprotected” minority in the country. This idea stems from the view that whiteness generally considers the slate as having been wiped cleaned by the new dispensation and political reforms that have come into place in a post-apartheid context. We have also noted that the proposition from these students often involves an argument that states is that even talking about race is itself racist, since we ought to see people for their individuality rather than as members of a collective group.
This is precisely what we are fighting, and it has been noted even by Vice Chancellors at other universities, including the Rhodes VC Dr Sizwe Mabizela, former VC of Rhodes and now Director of the Mellon Foundation Dr Saleem Badat, and even, however inchoate, Dr Max Price. We call for our own VC to face up to this structural racism, by firstly addressing the very foundations of the Language Policy, and not merely the procedural modifications about teaching and translating. It is the very process of translating that presumes Afrikaans as the normative code, to which every other non-speaker, generally ‘non-white’, is expected to adhere. The Rector at the University of the Free State noted in connection with the passing of the former VC, Russel Botman, that:
“Some of the historically white Afrikaans universities have a perfect alibi for not transforming – Afrikaans. When the Potchefstroom campus of North West University or the University of Stellenbosch is pushed to enroll more black students, they take refuge in language rights protected by the constitution. Somebody must tell these campus leaders that in the wake of our horrific racist past, white-dominant campuses in this country are morally unacceptable, demographically unjust and educationally dangerous. Afrikaans as a language is vital to our multilingual democracy, and must expand, but as the handmaiden of social justice, not racial exclusion”  (para. 11).
It should by now be clear, or shall become clearer as we proceed, that the language question at Stellenbosch is indeed the mechanism through which systemic segregation functions at SU. Having dealt with some of the problematic foundations of this Policy and SU, we can endeavour to explore the intricacies and how they operate in the classroom. The foremost way in which the current language policy marginalises students is by negatively affecting the academic performance of non-Afrikaans speaking students. Many students struggle to understand the content of lessons because they are excluded through the use of Afrikaans in lectures. The interpretation devices given to non-Afrikaans speaking students are inefficient, inaudible and often do not work. They also make students feel uncomfortable, highlighting their status as “those who do not belong” at this university. There are lecturers at this university who refuse to teach or answer questions in English. Non-Afrikaans speaking students are excluded by having to constantly ask their peers for help in understanding the language used in class, distracting them from the underlying academic content. The result is that many non-Afrikaans speaking students come out of lectures feeling as though they have only understood half of the lesson. Secondly, we highlight the obvious impracticality for lecturers of having to teach in two languages at once. One sentence Afrikaans, one sentence English. We ask, how can this possibly translate into a fluent transferal of ideas to students? Lecturers in the movement have emphasized the pedagogical short sightedness in terms of the language policy, and how it translates into the teaching experience.
In residences the marginalisation of especially black students is most evident. Many residence meetings are conducted exclusively in Afrikaans and this feeds into some of the racist traditions which permeate many of the more traditionally Afrikaner residences. Many black students feel they cannot contribute to the Residence experience because they cannot speak Afrikaans. The same can be said about student departmental leadership positions. Following on from this, the language policy directly discriminates against non-Afrikaans speaking students and lecturers by denying them access to other opportunities on campus, such as having Afrikaans as a condition for employment.
We call attention to the clear links between language and white supremacy on this campus. Leadership positions and teaching positions disproportionately favour white, Afrikaans speaking males and we find this highly problematic. Secondly, the unchanged labelling of the department “Afrikaans-Nederlands” denies other important roots of the language, and perpetuates the Afrikaner- nationalist portrayal of the language as of exclusively European origin. Finally we ask, why, at a public institution of higher learning, should paying students be discriminated against on the basis of language? Surely, no student should have to learn Afrikaans – as well as the cultural conscription it demands – simply in order to be visible in the institution. It is for this reason that we insist that at this campus, language is used to divide, exclude and marginalise and therefore we are calling for the discontinuation of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at Stellenbosch University.
 Jansen’s article is clear. Racism at SU is incubated in the language policy. The suggestion in his critical piece, Who killed Russel Botman?, is that the language policy as well as the role play by Afrikaans print media was central to the stress and resultant death of the late VC. It is true, also, as evidenced by the report in Die Burger, which sought to quell any Afrikaaner fears about an ‘uprising’ by referring to our mass gathering as ‘orderly’.
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