From 1948 through the 1990s, a single word dominated life in South Africa. Apartheid—Afrikaans for “apartness”

Anger as SA court restores ‘language of the oppressor’ at largest university

Following the end of Apartheid with the coming in of majority rule in 1994, some South African universities have buckled to pressure to drop the use of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in favour of the more neutral English language.

By Cyril Zenda

A RECENT court ruling ordering the South Africa’s largest university to restore a language associated with Apartheid as one of the languages of instruction has infuriated some black hardliners who view the move as an entrenchment of the “language of the oppressor” in the country.

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On 22 September, South Africa’s Constitutional Court (ConCourt), the country’s top-most court ruled that the 2016 decision by the University of South Africa (Unisa) to drop Afrikaans as one of its languages of instruction was discriminatory and unconstitutional and, therefore, should be reversed.

The ruling brought both jubilation and anger to citizens of the “Rainbow Nation”, which is still trying to heal the deep scars of racial divisions entrenched by nearly half-a-century of Apartheid – a white supremacist rule.

AFRIKAANS’ APARTHEID CONNOTATIONS

Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, is a creole language of Dutch origin which was developed by the colonialist Afrikaner white community – the same community that later introduced Apartheid in South Africa.This is why the language still carries connotations of this hated rule, which was based on racial segregation.

Following the end of Apartheid with the coming in of majority rule in 1994, some South African universities have buckled to pressure to drop the use of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in favour of the more neutral English language. This move also aligned with the country’s Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions.

However, AfriForum, an Afrikaner group that fights to protect the interests of the ethnic group as well as stop reverse discrimination in South Africa, has over the years taken some of the country’s universities to court over their decisions to drop the use of Afrikaans.

With each side appealing rulings against it, the cases have reached the apex court, which, in this particular case, ruled that the language be restored because, according to the court’s assessment, its removal was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.

NO LONGER THE LANGUAGE OF THE OPPRESSOR

In its decision, the court stated that Unisa had failed to demonstrate that it was not reasonably practicable to continue with Afrikaans as one of the languages of instruction.

The ConCourt concluded that it was a misconception that Afrikaans was only “the language of whites” and “the language of the oppressor,” as more black South Africans now speak Afrikaans as their first language.

The court held that it was open to Unisa bringing forth evidence to justify the phasing out of Afrikaans in the future, but it could not justify the limitation of the right to receive education in the language without clear and convincing proof.

MIXED REACTION TO JUDGMENT

AfriForum welcomed the judgment and said it was a huge victory for Afrikaans, Afrikaans-speaking students and language rights in South Africa in general.

“This marks the beginning of a new chapter in the empowerment of all who are not first-language speakers of English in tertiary education,” said Alana Baileyn, AfriForum’s head of cultural affairs.

But some black hardliners in South Africa, who are bent on erasing all traces of Apartheid, protested this court ruling, which they see as having the effect of perpetuating Apartheid by entrenching the “language of the oppressor” in South Africa.

The country’s belligerent opposition, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, rejected the ConCourt’s decision to reinstate Afrikaans language as a learning and teaching medium at Unisa, arguing that the court ignored the linkage between race and language in the context of South Africa’s history.

“The selective choice of Afrikaans as a superior language perpetuates superiority over indigenous languages, and is an insult to the standing of Africans and their heritage of rich languages,” the party said in a statement.

“In the grace period to 2023 determined by the court, we call on Unisa to retrace its steps correctly and with lawful and procedural precision, do away with the 1976 language of national oppression, racial segregation, exclusion and supremacy,” the party added.

PREVIOUS AFRIKAANS TRIALS

In 2018 and 2019 the ConCourt ruled against AfriForum and another lobby group in separate cases – against the University of Free State and Stellenbosch University respectively. In both cases, litigants sought to have Afrikaans restored as the primary language of instruction at these universities, and in both the court ruled that it was not “reasonably practicable” to maintain Afrikaans as a language of instruction.

These court rulings drew varied opinions from different people, some of whom pointed out that they were faulty.

In her opinion on the 2018 ruling in favour of the University of Free State, Rosemary Salomone, the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law in the United States, argued that the court had not done justice to “the competing interests that goes beyond a black/white racial binary.”

“Language has been a flashpoint in South African politics since the Afrikaner descendants of the early Dutch settlers forged a language-based national identity in opposition to British rule,” Professor Salomone wrote. “The black population in turn embraced English as the language of resistance and redress against the horrors of Afrikaner apartheid.”

Professor Salomone went on to say that she hoped the public discussion surrounding the decision would give the court a broader understanding of the competing interests involved.

“And hopefully it has given university officials pause to consider alternative programmatic and community building strategies that promote racial integration and relieve racial tension while remaining true to the country’s multilingual character and protecting the rights of all students to learn in the language of their choice.”

CORRECT DECISION

Asked if the latest ConCourt ruling was – in light of her previous views – the correct one, Professor Salomone told FairPlanet in an e-mail response that she agreed with the court’s ruling.

“Yes, I do believe the Court rightly decided the case,” said Professor Salomone, who has researched the three court cases over the past five years, the first two of which are covered at length in her upcoming book titled The Rise of English: Global Politics and the Power of Language (Oxford University Press, 2021).

“The ruling is consistent with the Court’s decisions in Free State, where the parallel program had created racial tensions and segregation, and Stellenbosch, where instruction predominantly in Afrikaans had marginalised Black students,” Salomone said. “The Stellenbosch revised policy removed that dominance while maintaining some instruction in Afrikaans.”

“UNISA, on the other hand, presented a unique set of facts in that it is a distance-learning institution where problems of racial segregation and marginalisation did not arise,” she added.

“Here the university failed to prove that maintaining both English and Afrikaans courses was not ‘reasonably practicable’ as required under Section 29(2) of the Constitution’s right to be educated in the official language of one’s choice. The Court also noted procedural problems within the University’s decision-making.”

COURT RULING EMPOWERS THE POOR

In its reaction to the ruling, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) said that it viewed this judgment as one that empowers the poor and marginalised Afrikaans speakers seeking access to higher education.

The commission pointed out that it was also cognisant of the fact that Afrikaans had been used in the past, by a minority, to subjugate and marginalise other South Africans. Accordingly, the language is still viewed with mixed feelings by many people within the country.

“However, in this democratic era we should reflect on our past with a deep lens and should seek to celebrate our diversity,” the SAHRC said. “Our Constitution makes provision for Afrikaans as an official language and enjoins the state to take reasonable measures to ensure that everyone receives education in a language of their choice.”

A BLOODY HISTORY

The imposition of Afrikaans on local African learners resulted in the 1976 Soweto Uprising, when over 20,000 South African black students took to the streets. 176 protesters were killed and over 4,000 were injured when the police opened fire on the protesting students.

  • Cyril Zenda is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist and writer based in Harare.

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