Afrikaans and the DA: A reply to Hermann Giliomee

Douglas Gibson says the language needs allies and it is not clever to attack friends

Afrikaans needs allies and friends

South Africans who are not Afrikaans-speaking but regard the Afrikaans language as a national asset to be treasured, watch with sympathetic interest but sometimes with head-shakings the efforts of some who try to promote Afrikaans. 

Some of them mean well, but actually damage the prospects of Afrikaans. They would be well advised to think again.  One stayed silent during the recent flurry of comment about the new outreach approach of the ATKV.  Too many people regarded that negatively, instead of welcoming it as a positive step in the fight to have Afrikaans retain its rightful position as one of our eleven official languages.

Attacking friends is not clever and I was appalled recently to read the attack on the Democratic Alliance (DA) by Professor Hermann Giliomee.  I do not represent the DA but I am a strong DA supporter.  The learned professor attacked the Western Cape Government for not doing what it should about the Stellenbosch University (US) language controversy, blaming it for the state in which Afrikaans finds itself. The real culprit, according to him, is the DA.  He remains silent about the ANC which at best is cool towards Afrikaans and Afrikaans-speakers (of whatever race), and at worst, positively hostile.

Referring to developments about language medium at US, he wrote: “Yet the DA, which is safely in control of the Western Cape, has remained silent.  It has not availed itself of the opportunity to appeal to the Constitution which makes education a matter in which the central and the provincial government enjoy concurrent powers.”

Dumbfounded by his statement, I realised eventually that an academic of Professor Giliomee’s stature had failed to read the Constitution of South Africa or, at the least, misunderstood what he read.

Schedule 4 of the Constitution, under the heading, “Functional Areas of Concurrent National and Provincial Legislative Competence” states: “Education at all levels, excluding tertiary education.” Clearly, tertiary education is reserved for national government, is not a competence of provincial government and the Western Cape accordingly has no say about it.

It does have a large say indeed about basic education; here the professor said, “There is a great irony in the fact that the status of Afrikaans as public language that can be used in all walks of life is facing the greatest threat to its existence at a time that it is doing very well at schools.”  He applauds the number of Afrikaans schools, including not only the many single medium schools in the Western Cape, but also the parallel medium schools that are doing very well and producing excellent results both at school level and when the learners progress to University.

The professor would have done far better to have congratulated the DA Western Cape Government for making such an outstanding contribution to the maintenance and the strengthening of the Afrikaans language where it has the power to do so.

His further argument that if South Africa had a constituency system the MP for Stellenbosch would have lost his or her seat because the DA did not do anything about the decision of the university to downgrade the position of Afrikaans is similarly flawed.  He seems to have a rather hazy grasp of the reality of University autonomy and of our electoral system.

Let us be quite clear: US enjoys autonomy and provided it acts within the law and the Constitution, it can take its own decisions about language.  I happen to believe that the decisions it has taken are wrong and are bad in law and might well be a contravention of the constitutional rights of Afrikaans speaking students. I support the efforts of the activist organisation Equal Opportunities/Gelyke Kanse in its attempt to obtain judicial enforcement of the Constitution and prevent English from becoming the dominant language at US.

Professor Giliomee’s statement that the MP for Stellenbosch would be thrown out is nonsense.  Why would the voters of that city throw out a DA MP because of the University’s decisions, especially when the DA has made it clear where it stands on the issue?  In the most recent electoral test, the election last year, the results were as follows:

DA   (Ward and List votes); 78012  30 seats

ANC (Ward and list votes): 22106:  8 seats

EFF  (Ward and list votes):   4160:   2 seats.

Three other parties between them won 3 seats but the  FF+ which attempts to speak on behalf of Afrikaners, polled a total of 799 votes and won no seats at all. Which party would beat the DA on the US issue? The ANC? The EFF? The FF+?

The position of the DA has not changed over many years and certainly not since 2016.  To drag in an allegation that the DA is now only interested in Black votes is a shabby misuse of the race card. As long ago as 1992 I made a speech in Parliament where I pleaded with Afrikaans speakers to realise that the salvation for the Afrikaans language lay not in a bravado approach but in the acceptance that in the new South Africa that was about to be negotiated, Afrikaans would flourish if it accepted the rights of all other languages in a country embracing multilingualism. The days of Afrikaans and English only were over.

Tony Leon and then Helen Zille after him always were positive about Afrikaans.  Leon stated openly that at least US should remain a largely Afrikaans University and Helen Zille has always been a strong proponent of Afrikaans (and of other languages).  When Mmusi Maimane succeeded Zille as DA leader, he made his position and that of the party absolutely clear.  Writing in the Daily Maverick two years ago, he stated, “Over the better part of a century, Afrikaans has developed into a highly capable academic language in fields that range from arts and the humanities, to complex science and medicine.  The language has a rich academic vocabulary, it has journals and libraries of published literature, and Afrikaans academics are respected across the world.  This is not something you simply discard to appease those who happen to shout the loudest.”

Maimane went on to say, “The Constitution provides that every person has the right to be taught in the language of their choice, where reasonably practicable.  Given the demographics of the Western Cape and the history of Stellenbosch, it is ‘reasonably practicable’ to receive instruction in Afrikaans there.  Surely our efforts should now be to develop some of our other local languages to this level of academic capability rather than diminish the one language that is already there.”

The position of the DA could not be clearer. It was re-emphasised by Professor Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s shadow minister of Higher Education that, “The change would see English made the primary language of instruction, and this appears to be in contravention of the constitutional principle that every person has the right to be taught in the official language of their choice, where reasonably practicable. It cannot be argued that teaching in Afrikaans is not “reasonably practicable”. The constitutional rights of Afrikaans speaking students, therefore, need to be upheld while those of other students of different backgrounds are also met. That is what inclusiveness means in a multicultural society.”

Instead of attacking the DA, Professor Giliomee should regard it as an important ally in the fight to uphold the constitutional rights of Afrikaans and perhaps as important as that, to cherish something that helps, together with all our other languages, to make South Africa the unique and wonderfully diverse society that it is.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand.

This article first appeared in Beeld.