Dark clouds over Matie centenary

Hermann Giliomee says management has been relegating Afrikaans to a marginal position on campus


The University of Stellenbosch (US) is probably one of the few universities worldwide where the management is locked in a constant conflict with its convocation of alumni.

At the same time there are few universities in the world where old-students remain so loyal to their alma mater as in the case of US-alumni.

They see the US as an institution rooted in a very special university-town with Afrikaans as medium of instruction and with graduates who have excelled on a national and international stage.

As someone who studied at US and who spent roughly an equal amount of time lecturing at US and UCT, I can testify that US is a very special type of university with a distinct character, ethos and sense of belonging. It is significantly different from other universities in the old British Commonwealth. At the same time most of the English speaking alumni that I know attach great value to their studies at Stellenbosch in Afrikaans medium.

The special emotional ties with Afrikaans are strengthened through the fact that the office of “Die Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal” (WAT), founded in 1926, is located on the campus.

The WAT-office contributes to awareness of the fact that Afrikaans is, like Heinz Kloss, a German linguist stated, the only non-European, non-Asian language in the world to achieve university status.

At Stellenbosch the critical turning point arrived in the early 2000s with the appointment of a new rector. Prof. Rolf Stumpf, who narrowly lost out on the position, and then left to become rector at the University of Port Elizabeth, declared that the existence and development of US were mainly determined by the Afrikaans community and that no higher-level development could occur without the Afrikaans community’s active co-operation.

Stumpf attached great value to diversity. He said: “I have always believed that US 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.”

Instead, Dr. Chris Brink became US rector in 2002 after declaring to council that a limited English offer could be imported, but that his “good management” would ensure that Afrikaans remain the most important medium of instruction. But he tried to manage the language policy without language-proficiency conditions, rules and supervision, which predictably led to the large-scale undermining of Afrikaans.

In 2006 Jean Laponce, a French-Canadian academic widely regarded as one of the experts on the fate of minority languages, was asked about the future of Afrikaans at US. He took one look at policy and then predicted: “Afrikaans will survive on the US campus but only as a decoration.”

Nevertheless Afrikaans speakers continued to prefer Afrikaans. In the only opinion poll ever that the US-management requested to be conducted by an independent body (the Lawrence Schlemmer report of 2008), more than 80% of Afrikaans speakers and approximately 40% of English speakers indicated a preference for predominant Afrikaans medium tuition. Instead of using the report as a basis for language policy, management allowed the intake of English speaking students between 2008 and 2016 to double from 7000 to 14000 (nearly half of the total). The overwhelming majority were white. Recruiters from UCT had little doubt that the flight to Stellenbosch had much to do with fact that the traditional English campuses were becoming increasingly black,

US not only took in increasing numbers of English-language students but also dropped their demand that newly appointed lecturers had to become proficient in Afrikaans before receiving tenure. In 2016 in the High Court in Cape Town the US admitted that over 200 lecturers (between a quarter and a fifth of the total) were unable to provide tuition in Afrikaans, The university authorities also admitted that the university flouted its own language policy.

Under Brink and his two successors over the past 15 years an ideology was developed whereby management took upon itself the right to redefine the identity and place in the community of the university, and radically change the language policy.

They have tried to justify this by pointing to the fact that the university contributes nearly one-third of the budget from the so-called third money-stream (donations, contract work etc.). This argument is invalid. The third money-stream is only made possible through using the infrastructure which were erected with taxpayers money (Afrikaans speakers were until recently the language group that contributed most to the tax revenue), and the huge donation from Jannie Marais and several old students over the years.

Management also espouses the view that it does not specifically have to address the needs of the Afrikaans speaking community, nor has it any responsibility to ensure the transfer of the Afrikaans culture. In reaction to this John Coetzee, Nobel-laureate, wrote to me: “I fully support you. Management’s policy does not even mention the word culture.”

In 2016 when the university revised its language policy, Fedsas the governing body with whom most Afrikaans school boards are affiliated, declared in a memorandum to US that its members in the Western Cape were unanimously in support of Afrikaans remaining a fully-fledged medium of instruction at US. Management ignored them.

Despite turning the US increasingly into an English medium institution management over the past fifteen years have continued to issue the assurance “Afrikaans is safe at US”. Some utterances boil down to openly misleading the public. The current rector, Wim de Villiers, talks one year of the precious position of Afrikaans on the campus, and the next year during the official welcoming ceremony of first year students he does not utter a single word in Afrikaans.

As a result management has zero credibility with regard to Afrikaans.

On 26 August, 2017 Beeld newspaper made the justifiable observation that the process on the US-campus reminds one of how the late Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, described certain processes of reform. He used the words “duplicity, deceit, faulty assumptions and purposeful blindness”. This can be applied to the US of today.

Since 2002 the US Convocation of Alumni has been the only statutory body at US that has demanded a solid, sustainable full status for Afrikaans. This does not mean the exclusion of English, but rather that the medium of English should not undermine and ultimately destroy that of Afrikaans.

The demand is motivated by the following considerations:

*Afrikaans is indisputably the most effective medium of instruction for those with Afrikaans as mother-tongue.

*The large amount of Afrikaans schools in the province are dependent upon teachers who have studied for their degree and teachers diploma in Afrikaans.

*US has a special task of empowering brown Afrikaans speakers, who are disadvantaged in tertiary education participation. They have the lowest attendance rates of all communities and the regression started in 1990 when the UWC flipped from Afrikaans- to English medium.

In September 2017 Mahmood Mamdani, a highly regarded Ugandan academic who recently emigrated to the USA delivered the T.B Davie Academic Freedom Lecture at UCT. He told the startled audience that the universities on the African continent have failed to develop a specific academic tradition. The exception was the Afrikaans-medium universities. In the course of the previous century it was transformed from a language with a status little higher than that of the other African languages on the continent to one that became the bearer of a specific intellectual tradition. He expressed his dismay that the ANC government did nothing to enable other African languages in the country to attain this status. Sonja Loots, an Afrikaans columnist who attended the meeting wrote: Mamdani caused consternation when he looked his audience in their face and stated unambiguously: “Afrikaans is the most successful instrument of decolonisation on the African continent.”

It is a great irony that 56 kilometers away the University of Stellenbosch was busily engaged in the task of relegating Afrikaans to a marginal position on the campus as a medium of instruction and communication. The year 2018 is supposed to be the year in which the university celebrates its centenary. Instead it looks to become one of the darkest years in the university’s history.

The movement Gelyke Kanse was created after the US-council approved a new language policy on 22 June 2016, which was seen as a policy that would quickly lead to the demise of Afrikaans as medium of instruction. The management of the convocation and Gelyke Kanse believe that US has a unique opportunity to establish a comprehensive bilingual university such as the one in Ottawa, Canada and the one in Freiburg/Fribourg, Switzerland. We live in a country with more than 7million Afrikaans home-language speakers, and in the Western Cape half of its population and two-thirds of the brown population have Afrikaans as a home-language. And where, furthermore, there are no less than three English speaking universities within a stone’s throw from US.

Hermann Giliomee is a previous member of the US-council and a member of the movement Gelyke Kanse.

A version of this article first appeared in Beeld newspaper.