Cyril Ramaphosa and the language challenge

Hermann Giliomee says the President can win over the Afrikaans-speakers by securing the future of their language

Text of address by Hermann Giliomee prepared for the centennial festival dinner of the Afrikanerbond (formerly Broederbond), at which the President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, was the guest of honour and main speaker, 7 June 2018.

Binding the nation through language diversity. A challenge to a new President

I have had only one previous exchange with Mr Ramaphosa. He came to the Stellenbosch University campus early in 1994 just after agreement had been reached on the Interim Constitution. After the speech I rose to ask a question; “Why did the different parties agree to an electoral system that was wrong for reconciliation between the white and black communities?”

In his book ‘A Democratic South Africa’, published in 1991 the highly regarded American legal scholar, Donald Horowitz, made it very clear that our electoral system, chosen by the parties at Codesa, namely a Proportional Representation list system, gives powerful impetus to the exclusion and resultant alienation of those ethnic or racial groups not represented in the majority coalition. Given the experience elsewhere, it would have been far better for South Africa to have a variant of the Plurality System, which rewards the party that is most widely spread over the different communities and regions.

Mr Ramaphosa smiled and replied: “Listen here, Dr. Giliomee, I did not come to Stellenbosch to answer difficult questions.”

I thought that was a gentle way of putting down an ivory tower academic trying to be smarter than the politicians grappling with thorny issues. But of course Mr. Ramaphosa was also well aware that the Communist faction in the ANC was pressing very hard for the PR list system. In virtually any other system they would feature far less prominently as candidates in the ANC-led coalition and they would have suffered a great setback in their ambition to impose their National Democratic Revolution.

Ramaphosa belonged to the faction called the nationalist faction, who were mostly drawn from the UDF ranks. What joined them in a coalition with the Communists was the idea of national liberation through de-colonisation. The Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin made the acute remark that national liberation movements that claimed to be fighting for liberty against a colonial oppressor were not necessarily fighting for liberty but for the recognition of the distinctiveness as a nation and for national independence that went further than formal political independence.[1]

The electoral system agreed on in 1993 also suited the National Party. Mr. F.W. de Klerk could tell his caucus that with polls showing 20 per cent support for the NP, virtually all members were assured of a seat in the next Parliament. According to Horowitz with his wide comparative perspective, it is a common error to assume that the politicians drawing up a new constitution have the long term interests of the country at heart. They invariably choose to put the interest of their party first. It was predictable that the electoral system would facilitate and promote the race-baiting that seems to be getting worse.

It also made the position of minorities more precarious especially in the competition for jobs in the public sector and in enjoying language rights. There is no reason to doubt that effective protection for Afrikaans was an important issue for De Klerk. Yet the whole question of official languages received surprisingly little attention from government. The early failure to discuss some key issues, together with the changeover from Gerrit Viljoen to Roelf Meyer as chief negotiator, made later negotiations exceptionally difficult.

In June 1992 a delegation from the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns – the main mouthpiece for Afrikaans in tertiary education – handed De Klerk a memorandum with proposals for a post-apartheid language policy, in the presence of some 50 Afrikaner leaders from all walks of life.

The president pledged to keep the Afrikaans language community informed, using the Akademie as the main channel. But a year later, on 3 May 1993, chief NP negotiator Roelf Meyer told the Akademie’s secretary he did not know of any document on Afrikaans that had been submitted. The only document he was aware of was the ANC’s language proposals. This was startling news for the Akademie leadership, given that at least four Afrikaans bodies had prepared submissions.[2]

Later in 1993 the Akademie published its ‘Language Plan for the Country’. It argued there were eleven main languages, which it depicted as inherently of equal worth and entitled to protection. Citizens had to be given the opportunity to communicate with the government in any of the main languages. It urged retention of English and Afrikaans as official languages but proposed providing the opportunity for all nine other languages to attain official status and offered to facilitate that process thought technical assistance with dictionaries and so on. Language rights ought to be seen as a human right and incorporated in a bill of rights. These rights had to be expanded, not abridged.[3]

It was apparent from the start that the ANC, paying only lip service to multilingualism, confidently expected making English the dominant public language once it was in power. The multi-party negotiating body finally decided to recognise eleven official languages. Lawrence Schlemmer commented that this decision ‘was in fact a decision taken in bad faith’.

Almost from the start the ANC ‘back-tracked on its constitutional commitments, pleading costs and practicality, and it would continue to make very few resources available for effective multilingualism’.[4] The NP secured a clause providing that ‘rights related to language and the status of languages existing at the commencement of [the Interim Constitution] shall not be diminished’ but this provision would be omitted from the final Constitution.[5]

The government and the ANC were soon at loggerheads over the language character of universities and university autonomy. Some ANC members – of whom Kader Asmal, a future minister of national education, was the most vociferous – soon indicated that the new government would have little patience with attempts by universities like Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom to maintain an Afrikaans character even if it was non-racial. Neither the government nor the Afrikaans universities collectively developed a comprehensive plan for the survival of Afrikaans at tertiary level.

Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom simply assumed they could continue using Afrikaans as medium. Rand Afrikaans University and the University of Pretoria made their own plans for dual medium and parallel medium instruction, while the University of Orange Free State opted for parallel medium.[6] As experience elsewhere demonstrates, both dual medium and parallel medium hold the real risk that over the medium term English would drive out the regional or national language.

On 16 September 1993 Minister of National Education Piet Marais warned De Klerk that ‘education was not the priority among our negotiators, which it should be’. He added that in informal talks he had with ANC negotiators he gained the clear impression they ‘displayed an intolerance towards Afrikaans and to the demand that the Afrikaans universities could continue to imbue their mission with a cultural content’.

He urged De Klerk to have a list compiled of bottom lines and undertakings the NP had given to its voters and to indicate which of them it had met. At that stage all the main issues related to higher education had already been settled.[7] De Klerk urged Marais to talk to the ANC negotiators about reopening the issue, but Marais found no one interested.

Language is of vital importance to all minority groups. Without the language being the medium of instruction at some schools and universities, the group, and with it the community inexorably disintegrates.

I am not and have never been a member of the Broederbond, but in the 1990s I was grateful that the Broederbond was still functioning because I was convinced it would help to ensure that the new government would guarantee the right to receive education in Afrikaans at both school and university level. But even in the final stage of the negotiations the NP did not make sure all the loopholes were closed for those majoritarians in the ANC –and I believe this faction was comprised mostly of Kader Asmal and some other members of the ANC’s exile faction- who drove the agenda of English as the only effective national language.

In the negotiations for a final constitution some NP members became increasingly concerned about the vagueness on the issue of language of instruction at both schools and universities. Jacko Maree, who was one of them, told me that he and some colleagues approached Ramaphosa, chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, about their concerns. He pointed out that the NP negotiators had left him in the dark over the importance their party attached to education.[8]

And indeed when the Constitutional Court referred the draft final constitution back to Parliament the NP raised no concerns about the language issue. The ANC had no reason to believe that the NP was unhappy about it.

It was the DA under Tony Leon and Helen Zille who took up the issue of access to Afrikaans-medium schools and universities as a right on which citizens could rely.

Part of the problem lies with the Afrikaner community, The loss of power and the disintegration of the NP have led to a state comparable to a wheel whose hub had been removed. The rim is still there but the spokes are lying about and no one knows how to put the hub back. It is extremely difficult to mobilise Afrikaans-speakers of all colours on the vital issue of the constitutionally protected right to receive education in one of the official languages.

What makes matters worse is the attitude some university principals and council chairman have, who think the issue of language of instruction is the university’s “own affair” on which it and it alone can decide.

Dr. Rolf Stumpf who was at one stage Deputy Vice Chancellor of Stellenbosch University put the opposite view well: “No higher-level development could occur without the Afrikaans-speaking community’s active co-operation. As regards the issue of diversity he said: “I have always believed that Stellenbosch should remain an Afrikaans university from a national-diversity perspective – diversity clearly implies much more than just race and gender. Language coupled with culture are also important considerations for diversity.”

Sadly the current Stellenbosch University council and management happen to think that rising on the world rankings of universities is of greater importance.

In 2017 several eminent scholars warned against the obsession of top South African universities with the ranking system in which only well-endowed universities could effectively compete.

Not only do our universities lack the resources to compete in the world university rankings but it aslso leads to the neglect of the communities that they were supposed to serve in the first place. Abroad, several experienced university administrators begun expressing severe doubt about the value of such rankings except for well-endowed top universities.

The list published by the Centre for World University Rankings show that between 2016 and 2017 the ranking of the top South African universities all fell by twenty points or more.

Drop in ranking of some of top SA universities, 2015-2017:

University of Witwatersrand to 176th

University of Cape Town to 265th,

University of Stellenbosch to 329th

University of Pretoria to 697th

The International Centre for World University Rankings, which ranks a thousand universities shows SU falling from 330th globally (3rd in South Africa) in 2017 to 448 5th in South Africa) in 2018.[9]

Philip Altbach and Ellen Hazelkorn sounded this warning: “The ranking system perverts the true function of the university: namely to transfer the knowledge and skills the graduates would need in the communities they would one day serve.”[10]

By 2018 Afrikaans was used as a language of instruction in all courses at only one of the country’s 37 university campuses (the Potchefstroom campus of University of the North-West). At Stellenbosch University a fifth of the lecturers recently indicated that they are unable to teach in Afrikaans, puting a huge question mark behind management’ claim that there will always be a place for Afrikaans.

In the History department, established in 1904, where I was first a student and then a lecturer for many years, no Afrikaans-medium teaching takes place. A Dutch/Afrikaans history tradition, of which I feel very much part, is on the brink of extinction.

The community that has suffered most is the Afrikaans-speaking brown people forming a majority language community in the Western Cape.

In the mid-1980s large numbers of black students started flocking to the University of the Western Cape (UWC) established in terms of the apartheid policy for the brown people. It put the management under huge pressure to replace Afrikaans with English as medium of instruction. Recently Jaap Durand, Deputy Vice Chancellor at the time, recounted these events as follows:

‘Our experience at UWC was that when we allowed blacks as students, although it clashed with government policy, they began to flock in large numbers to UWC. As a result we were compelled to make English the primary medium of instruction. The result was that the academic performance of our brown students declined markedly. Their limited command of English was a serious handicap. The ability of most blacks to communicate in the class rooms were equally poor. I make no apology for our decision. UWC was in the throes of our battle against apartheid and we had to accept the consequences of our decision. As a result we were not prepared to subject the issue to thorough research. But in retrospect I would say that I am not far off the mark were I to assert that the brown Afrikaans-speaking students were significantly disadvantaged as a result of our decision.”[11]

Presently the brown community has the lowest participation rate in university education. Part of the reason is the low income of their parents, while another is the tendency of parents to choose English as medium of instruction even if the home language is Afrikaans. More than 50 per cent of the Afrikaans-speaking youths of the brown community attend English – medium schools. But there is clearly a burgeoning interest in Afrikaans in this community. At present the largest undergraduate class in Afrikaans is at UWC.

In 2013 the Council on Higher Education commissioned a study to establish the success rate of the different population groups in studying for bachelor degrees during the period 1970 to 2010.The percentage of white and Indian students awarded bachelor degrees rose from 18% to 29%. The figure for blacks dropped from 11% to 9% and that of brown students sank from 10% in 1970 to 6% in 2010.

The signs are that the performance of the latter group is deteriorating further. These figures underline the importance of mother tongue education. Desperate remedial measures are needed and it starts with the medium of instruction.

In the case of Stellenbosch University one can think of establishing a fixed Afrikaans-medium stream and a fixed English medium stream. Students apply for a particular stream and should not be allowed to switch streams during their undergraduate studies. On high school level such a policy has been applied with great success by Grey College in Bloemfontein.

If one uses the existing facilities for twelve instead of eight courses the cost could be as low as 4% of the budget.

Mr Ramaphosa’s call “Send me” has made us prick up our ears. Nothing will ensure the whole hearted co-operation of the Afrikaans - speaking community with his presidency more than offering a fixed, secure and sustainable place for Afrikaans both at school and university level.

Let me end with a story. In January 2000 I wrote a letter on behalf of a couple of organisations complaining about the downscaling of Afrikaans by the Mbeki government. He acknowledged the letter and said that he had introduced an office in the presidency dealing specifically with language and cultural issues. It was headed by Jacob Zuma, the Vice President.

On the appointed hour I arrived in Shell House accompanied by Dr. Van Zyl Slabbert and Mr. Ton Vosloo. I few moments later Zuma arrived. He asked: “What can I do for you gentlemen? I am just the baggage carrier of the ANC.”

There was no official present to take notes and we never had any response to our requests.

When I told Jakes Gerwel the story he smiled wryly and said. “That is Jacob Zuma for you.”

Mr. Ramaphosa: “We don’t want any Jacob Zumas to deal with the vital issue of language, which so important to us as the Afrikaans - speaking community. We also don’t want any other baggage carrier in the presidency instructed with the task of setting up a toy telephone to talk to the minorities. We want you. I can assure you the rewards will be rich.”


[1] Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A life (London: Vitage, 1998), p.227.

[2] Pieter Kapp, Draer van ’n droom: Die geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, 1909-2009 (Hermanus: Hemel en See Boeke, 2009), pp. 139-42.

[3] SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, Nuusbrief, 33, 3, 1993.

[4] Lawrence Schlemmer, ‘Liberalism in South Africa’, Milton Shain (ed.), Opposing Voices: Liberalism and Opposition in South Africa (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2006), p. 86.

[5] Welsh, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, p. 540.

[6] Hermann Giliomee and Lawrence Schlemmer, ’n Vaste plek vir Afrikaans: Taaluitdagings op kampus (Stellenbosch: Sunmedia, 2007,pp. 36-43.

[7] Letter from PG Marais to FW de Klerk and a memo from Marais to H Giliomee, 16 September 1993, and personal communication of the same date.

[8] Interview with Jacko Maree, NP Member of Parliament, 21 April 1998.

[9] International Centre for World University Rankings. 2017-18 edition

[10] “Why universities should quit the ratings game,” University World News, issue 442, Januay 2017.

[11] E-mail communication, 3 April 2016