SU's turn against itself

Hermann Giliomee replies to Prof Wim de Villiers' dismissive attitude to the university's history

University Stellenbosch turns its back on Afrikaans and the Afrikaans-speaking community

The future of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at university level is to be decided shortly when the Constitutional Court is to hear arguments about the dispute over the language policy of Stellenbosch (SU), in which English enjoys a dominant position. If the ruling goes against Afrikaans only one of 37 campuses in the country, namely the Potchefstroom campus of North Western University, will provides students the opportunity to complete their undergraduate studies in the medium of Afrikaans.

By co-incidence the centenary edition of Matieland, the SU magazine for alumni, has just appeared. It contains a message from the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Wim de Villiers, under the heading "Saam vorentoe" (Forward together). One would expect of him to offer a balanced reflection of what US had accomplished during its first century. However, there are only a couple of cursory remarks, mainly with negative drift.

De Villiers writes:

"Maties began as a "volksuniversiteit" (a university for the Afrikaner people). That was the "idea" that Stellenbosch stood for at the time - upliftment through higher education, but only for some, not for all. Clearly this idea was way too narrow. But this does not mean we are against Afrikaans. Afrikaans is one of our languages of instruction - but on the basis of sound pedagogical principles, not fomented by ideology or ethnic identity."

Here the Vice-Chancellor is treading on thin ice. He is violating the most important principle when one is dealing with history, namely to judge every action within the framework of the time during which it took place.

The Union constitution of 1909 made provision for the effective equality of two official languages. Initially, however, this granted rights only on paper. Within the economically-dominant English community there was the strong expectation that English would soon supplant Dutch (and later Afrikaans) as the public language. As an observer expressed it at the time: “English methods and the English language are bound increasingly to win their way and permeate the whole structure of society.”

The financial means of the new South African state were so meagre that it could only establish one independent university, and even this single university would require substantial support from the private sector. The Botha-government embarked on a plan to transform the South African College in Cape Town into the University of Cape Town (UCT).

In the spirit of the constitution's stipulation that the two official languages should enjoy equal status F.S. Malan, the Minister of Education, wanted both English and Dutch as languages of instruction at the envisaged university. However, the mining magnates who were willing to provide huge sponsorships were strongly opposed to Dutch being used as medium of instruction. They wanted UCT to attract high quality English speaking academics from foreign shores.

It was in these circumstances that the idea of Stellenbosch University was born. Jannie Marais, a Stellenbosch farmer who had made a fortune on the diamond mines, donated a substantial sum for the founding of a university at Stellenbosch on condition that at least half the lectures were given in Dutch or Afrikaans.

To come back to the Vice-Chancellor’s message to alumni in 2018. One wonders what he means when he writes that the development of SU as university that would serve predominantly the Afrikaner community was "too narrow minded".

Surely it is naïve to think Afrikaans could have developed as a language if it had to compete on equal terms against English right at SU from the start. In 1915 only 15% of Afrikaans children progressed further than Standard Five, and only 4% were fluent in English.

In 1915 Langenhoven wrote this satirical poem about Afrikaners pleading for "peaceful co-existence" of the two official languages at SU.

"Friends, let's make peace and keep the peace/ let the lion and the lamb graze together/ the lamb on the grass and the lion on the lamb/ you can be the lion and I will be the lamb/ soon I will become part of the lion/ to the credit of the lamb…and the pleasure of the lion."

The Vice-Chancellor gives the assurance that neither he nor US is against Afrikaans and then continues: "Afrikaans is one of our languages of instruction - but on the basis of sound pedagogical principles, not fomented by ideology or ethnic identity.

The Vice-Chancellor is clearly unaware of the consensus in literature about language maintenance: A sectional or national language cannot maintain itself against a world language such as English, without speakers of the former language regarding it as an important part of their social identity. In the book Language Endangerment and Language Maintenance (Routledge 2002) Stephen Wurm defines the iron-law of language preservation as follows: “One of the most important factors for the maintenance and reinvigoration of a threatened language is the attitude of speakers towards their own language and the importance they attach to it as a major symbol of their identity.”

One does not know what the vice-Chancellor means with the words that the US should not be driven by any “ideology". One cannot help but think of the dictum formulated by the American economist Joan Nelson, "One’s ideology is like one’s breath; one can't smell it."

Is there any university without an ideology? Is the Vice-Chancellor trying to say that a university like University of Cape Town has not been driven by any ideology? In the volume commemorating the SU centenary Prof. Bill Nasson, a celebrated historian with ties to both SU and UCT, writes that UCT was never really driven by a demand for racial integration, but rather by an "anti-Nationalist feeling" which enabled it to position itself with the “besieged anti-apartheid front”.

What astonishes me most about the Vice-Chancellor's review of the SU's first century is that not a single word is uttered of what can be seen as the SU's greatest accomplishment during its first century, namely its resistance against British Imperial ideology, and the establishment of an indigenous intellectual tradition.

In 1918, when SU opened its doors, J.F.W. Grosskopf wrote that SU must keep abreast of humanity’s intellectual heritage and traditions. At the same time it should guard against idolising that which is international, at the cost of what is uniquely South African.

One of the most notable contributions by Stellenbosch University was its key role in developing Afrikaans as a literary and intellectual medium of communication. The German scholar Heinz Kloss expressed this achievement as follows: "In the whole world Afrikaans is the only non-European/non-Asian language to have acquired full university status, and that is used in all branches of life and in the world of scholarship."

Not only was it universal knowledge that was domesticated in the Afrikaans universities but they also incorporated some vital aspects of the cultural heritage of the continent of Europe in their syllabi. One thinks here especially of Roman-Dutch law and of the Dutch/ German tradition of history writing based on primary sources, and the striving to discover “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (how it actually was). Invariably history written in Afrikaans stress cultural as well as economic forces.

In 2017 Mahmood Mamdani, one of Africa's most highly rated intellectuals, said that universities elsewhere in Africa did not represent any specific intellectual tradition. The only exceptions were the Afrikaans universities that transformed Afrikaans into the vehicle of a domestic intellectual tradition. He deplored the fact the South African government does not attempt to emulate the achievement of Afrikaans but keeps on stressing education through the medium of English.

In 2015 the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town reported that the under-achievement of black children at school is such that by the end of secondary school they are at least five years behind their “privileged” counterparts.[1]

In 2016 South Africa’s Statistician General Pali Lehohla expressed “horror” about the failure rates of blacks. They had been taught in their second language, while whites had generally received mother tongue instruction.

SU and other Afrikaans universities transformed racially far too late but they were never institutions that welcomed only Afrikaners. In the mid-1970s the Afrikaans universities attracted more English students than the other way round.

The Vice-Chancellor speaks about a SU which "wants to continue in the provision of the great need for instruction in Afrikaans”, but significantly does not mention a single figure to quantify the current offer of Afrikaans courses at SU. My information is that in the Social Science faculty the departments of History, Sociology, Political Science and Social Anthropology use virtually no Afrikaans. In the Law faculty Afrikaans is for all practical purposes absent.

Back in 2016 when it had become clear where SU was heading with its language policy Prof. Marius de Waal of the law faculty said in Senate:

“It is very clear what the English student can expect in the context of this formulation. The question is what can the Afrikaans students expect? Students who want teaching in Afrikaans. What are their rights, what are their expectations? The cynical or literal interpretation would mean that a few words, a few token words in the course of a lecture, would be in compliance with this formulation.”

This is precisely the policy the law faculty follows today but the Vice-Chancellor keeps on talking about how much value SU attaches to Afrikaans. In his Matieland article he talks about “the great need for tuition in Afrikaans” and declares that this need is the reason which why SU continues to meet the demand for tuition in Afrikaans. Unfortunately the words have no meaning.

In his article the Vice-Chancellor offers an explanation for SU’s virtual abandonment of Afrikaans as a language of tuition. He states that instead of a "volksuniversiteit" SU wants to become a "world-class university".

A rush to climb in the world-rankings is indeed one of the important reasons why SU has anglicised so rapidly. This attempt seems to have been futile. The international Centre for World Universities Rankings which assigns rankings to a thousand universities shows that SU dropped from 330th (third in South Africa) in 2017 to 448th (fifth in South Africa) in 2018.

Philip Altbach and Ellen Hazelkorn have sounded a warning in this regard: 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.[2]

The Afrikaans-speaking community in the Western Cape, which makes up more than half of the people in the province, requires a university where they can be trained in the language with which they can one day serve this community. This applies especially to the training of teachers and legal practitioners.

When SU reviewed its language policy in 2017 the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools which, together with the South African Teachers Union, is the most representative body in Afrikaans education, submitted a memorandum. It declared: "Our members are unanimously in favour of retaining Afrikaans as a fully-fledged language of instruction at US. This means that the use of Afrikaans must in no way be diminished at US. The US should continually promote and develop tertiary education in Afrikaans."

The US management and council ignored this appeal, thereby drawing a line through a century-old relationship.

It was especially the brown Afrikaans-speaking community that was left in the lurch by the SU not providing Afrikaans tuition. In 2013 the Council for Higher Education conducted a study to determine the success rate of different population groups that enrolled for a B-degree in the period 1970 -2010. The percentage of white and Indian students who received B-degrees climbed from 18% to 29%. The figure for blacks dropped from 11% to 9%, and the figure for brown students dropped from 10% in 1970 to a disastrous 6% in 2010.

During the past 15 years the number of brown Afrikaans undergraduate students at SU has remained stagnant at a range of 1300 to 1400. Black numbers rose slowly from about 1000 in in 2010 to 2 336 in 2017 in a undergraduate student body of just below 20 000. The home language of three quarters of them is not English.

By contrast the number of brown English-speaking students multiplied five times from 512 to 2 588, while that of white English-speaking students doubled from 2 384 to 5 458. From this should be clear that the great beneficiaries of SU’s language policy are the white and brown English-speakers.

In 2016 the movement Gelyke Kanse/Equal Opportunities took SU to the Cape Supreme Court for violating its own language policy of 2014 which accorded equal status to Afrikaans and English as languages of tuition. In the court proceedings SU admitted that one fifth of its lecturers could not teach in Afrikaans and that the university violated its own language policy in 268 modules.

My proposal for SU is to implement both an Afrikaans-medium stream and an English-medium stream. It has been calculated that it will cost 4% of the budget. Whether SU will easily follow this route is doubtful. In recent times US has become known for simply following the easiest path when it comes to the matter of language.

In 2005, when the taalstryd (language struggle) erupted at SU, Koos Bekker, MD of Naspers and a SU Council member, made a telling remark in an article that was published in Die Burger If SU becomes anglicised it would signal that the university has chosen he road of papbroekigheid (spinelessness). I fully have subscribed to that sentiment all along

Hermann Giliomee is a historian who received his training from SU. This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in the paper Rapport.


[1] Children’s Institute, University of Cape Twn, “Child Gauge Report, 2015.,

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