LINDIWE MAZIBUKO’S LANGUAGE POLITICS CLOSER TO TRUMP THAN TRUDEAU
In a recent Business Day column, the former DA politician turned Harvard scholar, Lindiwe Mazibuko, scolds her party for its support of bilingualism at Stellenbosch University. (‘Young political leaders must seize the moment’, 8 December 2015).
Somewhat gratuitously she compares the DA’s defence of constitutional language rights to the views of Donald Trump, in particular his hostility to the gender-equal cabinet in Canada. When it comes to language politics, she couldn’t have chosen a more bizarre example.
Here’s the thing about Canada, including their Liberals: they represent a world-class model of bilingualism. The equal status of English and French is not only written into Canadian law, but also widely endorsed by social covenant.
No such equality exists in the United States, for instance, between English and Spanish. And if it somehow depends on the xenophobic Donald Trump, Español is likely to remain the language of American outsiders.
The consensus behind Canada’s bilingualism is based on two related concerns, one about individual freedom and the other about an open society that can sustain such freedom. We have much to learn from them.
Firstly, individual freedom includes the freedom to think, act and sound different – even to your fellow countrymen, even when you are in a minority, and even if you risk offending someone. Such freedom extends to the language you choose to speak.
Secondly, an open society does not lightly trade legitimate self-expression for either conformity or cohesion. Compelling me to speak your tongue, only so that we may get along better, is the approach of a bully not a liberal.
So Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, may offer the following reason for his brand of progressive politics: ‘Because it’s 2015.’ But a more complete and compelling story is told by Canada’s tradition of liberal pluralism, and the role of Trudeau’s party as standard bearers of that tradition.
However problematic any sort of quota system, whether based on race or gender, the Canadian initiative of a gender-equal cabinet almost certainly grew from the same ideological seed as the country’s bilingualism – respect for diversity.
The irony is that in her implicit support for ‘English only, please’, Mazibuko is closer to Trump than Trudeau. Unlike Mazibuko, the French-speaking leader of Canada’s Liberals does not see language diversity as a threat to national unity, but an essential feature of freedom.
So here’s the real Canadian lesson, which is also underscored by our own constitution: a free and open society requires the accommodation of different ways of life. A unity that requires such differences to be stamped out, and legitimate individual choices to be invalided, is no unity at all. It is tyranny, not freedom, that pursues a life without conflict.
Afrikaans stands alone as South Africa’s only academic and scientific language other than English. It achieved this status on the back of racial nationalism, but in 2015 most of its speakers are neither white nor beneficiaries of apartheid.
Stellenbosch not only has the facilities to satisfy the choice of a considerable number of students to study in Afrikaans, it also has an Afrikaans speaking, rural and working-class hinterland called the Western Cape.
Afrikaans, at least at one university among many others, is as good for South Africa as gender quality and Gay Pride. Partly because it’s 2015. But mostly because freedom matters, and pluralism is the soil in which freedom is rooted.