The war against Afrikaans at Stellenbosch

Hermann Giliomee writes on the initiative to save the language at the university

Just before his death in 2001 Piet Marais, MP for Stellenbosch and the last NP Minister for National Education, brought me a copy of a letter that he wrote to President F.W. de Klerk on 16 September 1993. This was two months before the National Party and the African National Congress agreed to an interim constitution.

Marais was not part of the NP’s negotiating team but he did have informal talks during the CODESA negotiations with some ANC leaders about a post-apartheid system of education. He told De Klerk that he experienced among some of these leaders “a considerable degree of intolerance with regard to the claim to retain Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at universities and to incorporate a particular “cultural content” (kultuurinhoud”) into the mission of a university. He remarked that some of the ANC leaders he spoke to were “driven by the desire to discard institutions that in their view were stigmatised by apartheid and racist structures.”

Marais also informed De Klerk that he felt uneasy about the question whether the undertakings the NP had given to its supporters about education had been properly incorporated into the documents the party had put on the negotiating table. He added: “I get the impression that education is not the priority among our negotiators that it should be.” [1]

Sadly at that stage all the main issues had already been settled, and the intervention by Marais bore no fruit.

It was the same story during the final negotiations. Once again Marais insisted that insufficient protection for Afrikaans in schools and universities had been provided in the constitution. He did not press the point, but would retire from Parliament soon afterwards. Informally Cyril Ramaphosa, chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly, pointed out to a few concerned NP parliamentarians that the party’s negotiators had left him in the dark over the importance their party attached to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in education.[2]

As a Stellenbosch graduate Marais knew that studying and learning in one’s home language is much more efficient than through a second language. For more than ninety years since its founding in 1918 Stellenbosch University offered instruction effectively in the medium of Afrikaans. In the faculties of arts and social sciences there was a special focus on Afrikaans literature, culture and history of the Afrikaners. After 1970 the focus shifted from a rather exclusive focus on the Afrikaners to one on the larger Afrikaans-speaking community.

By the 1990s Afrikaans was no longer the instrument of a chauvinistic Afrikaner nationalism. Afrikaner historians had begun to stress the multifaceted nature of our history, Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was no longer imposed on black schools and the language had been scaled back drastically on state radio and television.

But Afrikaans-speakers of all colours could still hail the astonishing advance of Afrikaans. Afrikaans, along with only three others (Hebrew, Indonesian and Hindi) were the only languages that in the course of the twentieth century made the transition from a low status, spoken language to a language used in all walks of public life, including literature, science and technology. Hein Kloss, German scholar, made this observation in 1977: “Unless we consider Arabic an Africa language … Afrikaans is the only non-European/non-Asiatic language to have attained full university status and to be used in all branches of life and learning ... All other university languages have their basis in either Europe or Asia.

What Piet Marais could not remotely imagine in 1993 when he expressed his concerns to President De Klerk was that by 2016 Afrikaans-speaking lecturers and university administrators at Stellenbosch would be among the main protagonists of the drive to elevate English to the dominant language on the campus.

What is even more remarkable is the absence of a key concept in a new policy that management is proposing to the University Council that is scheduled to meet on May 9 to deliberate on it. After perusing the policy proposal J.M. Coetzee, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, remarked to me:

“My sympathies are all on your side. The crucial fact, for me, is that the official Taalbeleid document does not once use the word "kultuur." The university management seems to conceive of language as an instrumental communication system without any culture-bearing role.” (Communication to H. Giliomee, 16 April 2016)

Prof. Pierre du Toit, a leading political scientist who long taught at Stellenbosch, argues in a memorandum on the policy that management’s proposal elevates English to the dominant position Moreover, it creates the impression that “the Afrikaans language and culture is not only a second and lesser language and culture and that as an inferior language it has to be treated as such.”

In the case of large classes parallel medium classes (two separate streams) could be offered depending on staff and resources. This leaves some leeway for departments lacking Afrikaans lecturers to avoid offering parallel medium.

Du Toit points out that in the case of smaller classes the proposed policy is heavily tilted in favour of those who wish to receive their instruction in English. The entire content must be communicated in English, and there are no guarantees for any offering in Afrikaans, which “could” be used by the lecturer at the beginning or end of the lecture or by mentors, but all this is dependent on the availability of staff who can speak Afrikaans. Du Toit believes it is grossly misleading to call such a policy dual medium which is based on the equal value of the languages used for instruction

The policy document also mentions the option of instant interpretation from English to Afrikaans. This represents a cruel irony in the case of a university established in 1918 to escape from English cultural hegemony.

In sum, the proposed policy represent a major threat to Afrikaans. The head of one of the best known parallel medium schools in the country has gone on record in predicting that the model suggested by Stellenbosch University’s concept policy would lead to the demise of Afrikaans at the university within five years.

How did Stellenbosch land up at this point? First, it admitted a swelling stream of predominantly white English students without requiring them to be proficient in Afrikaans. Between 1995 and 2015 English students, who were overwhelmingly white, increased from 3 000 to 13 000, while Afrikaans students oscillated between 11000 and 13 000. Between 2010 and 2014 the number of English students at the University of Cape Town dropped from 9 000 to 8 000.

Second, Stellenbosch University landed in the present dilemma by appointing increasing numbers of lecturers unable to teach in Afrikaans. Sometimes these lecturers were exceptionally well-qualified but in other cases the appointees were certainly not outstanding and a temporary appointment could have been made.

Thirdly the movement Open Stellenbosch came on the scene during the past year. The numbers of enrolled students in their ranks probably did not top 200 but they could rely on considerable financial resources from some NGO’s to bus in young people from Cape Town who had no connection with university. They rejected simultaneous interpretation, and in its place demanded regular lectures through the medium of English. It is widely believed on campus that management acceded to this demand.

Fourthly many members of staff resist the introduction of parallel medium because it imposes an extra obligation on them for which they receive no extra remuneration. In the increasingly heated debates in the Afrikaans press some of them make the claim that increasing numbers of Afrikaans students prefer to be taught in English.

This can be taken with a pinch of salt. What student would insist on Afrikaans classes if it is clear that the lecturers are desperate to avoid a doubling his classes to make provision for an offering in both languages? Only one opinion survey has so far been undertaken that was requested by the University Council and carried out by an independent firm. This was the MarkData survey which reported in 2008. It found that more than 80% of Afrikaans students and more than 40% of English students preferred predominantly Afrikaans lectures.

The language debate at Stellenbosch differs from the debates that took place earlier from 2002 to 2014. For the first time coloured educators are entering the debate, articulating the claims of the coloured community. The coloured community has the lowest participation rate in university education of all communities. In 2009 its rate of participation was three times lower than that of the English speaking coloured community and six times lower than that of the white Afrikaans-speakers.

The electronic media is also playing an increasingly important role. People favouring a full offering in both Afrikaans and English at Stellenbosch have established a blog www.gelykekanse.com to spread the message. One of the contributors is Abraham Phillips, a published writer from the coloured community who received only three years of formal education. He remarked: “The decision to found the movement GelykeKanse for the survival of Afrikaans must be welcomed because it aims at preventing the last bit of hope for a dignified existence for the poor, rural Afrikaans-speaking coloured and black people being dashed.”

Danie van Wyk, a consultant for FEDSAS (the Federation of School Governing Bodies in South Africa to which nearly 2 000 schools countrywide are affiliated) states: “There are more Afrikaans-medium school in the Western Cape than in all the rest of the country combined. Students at these institutions, the majority of whom are coloured/black Afrikaans-speakers have a right to be taught in the language of their choice, Afrikaans. The abandonment of Afrikaans as medium of instruction at universities will have an adverse effect on the entire Afrikaans community.”

In a submission to the US Council Paul Colditz, CEO of FEDSAS, states that the body’s members are unanimously in favour of Afrikaans as a full-fledged medium of instruction at Stellenbosch. It adds: “There is a real demand for Afrikaans instruction at schools and there is real need for the training and development of Afrikaans teachers to supply in the needs of Afrikaans schools”.

The Gelyke Kanse/Equal Opportunities initiative has proposed an alternative policy accommodating the demands of both people wishing to study in Afrikaans and those who prefer English-medium

- that University Council reconfirms its policy that was formulated in 2014 and is still on the books to accord equal status to Afrikaans and English as a languages of instruction and of administration and that it recommits itself to give full expression to it.

- That the university every year when it takes in first years allocate 50% of its places to students wishing to study in Afrikaans and 50% for students wishing to study in English

- that students will have to accept that during their undergraduate studies they would remain in the language stream that they have chosen at the outset

- that a special effort should made to explain to both staff and students that this policy is the only one that safeguards the bilingual character of the university, ensuring a fixed, sustainable and full-fledged status for both languages.

Among the people who signalled their support for this proposal so far are:

Fritz Brand, recently retired Appeal Court judge

Breyten Breytenbach, poet

John Coetzee, winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 2001

Paul Colditz, CEO of FEDSAS

Ebbe Dommisse, ex-editor of Die Burger

Theo du Plessis, head of the Unit for Language Facilitation and Empowerment, University of the Free State

Marie Heese, educator and researcher of the methodology of bilingual education

R.W. Johnson, author of How Long will South Africa Survive? (2015)

Rhoda Kadalie, activist and recipient of a Stellenbosch University honorary doctorate

Tony Leon, previous leader of the parliamentary opposition

Lord Renwick of Clifton. Ex-Ambassador South Africa

Hendrik Theys, previous deputy president of the Pan South African Language Board

Danie van Wyk, Goeie Hope initiative

David Welsh, author The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (2009)

Many more names of supporters can be found here.

Readers of Politicsweb can visit the Gelyke Kanse website and express support for this proposal if they so wish. The final list of names will be submitted to the registrar of the university, a day or two before the important meeting of the University Council scheduled for 9 May.


[1] Letter from P.G. Marais - F.W de Klerk and memo of Marais to H. Giliomee, 16 September 1993, letter  lodged in the US Library Ms Collection.

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