The Concourt has decided…twice
On 10 October 2019 the Constitutional Court denied leave to appeal to Gelyke Kanse in a case asking the courts to set aside Stellenbosch University’s latest Language Policy. The current Language Policy provides for full tuition in English. Afrikaans tuition is offered to a lesser extent, via parallel and dual medium classes, where justified and feasible. The previous policy had instead favoured Afrikaans.
In the unanimous judgement, Justice Edwin Cameron describes the essence of a legitimate concern for the future of Afrikaans:
“The 2016 Language Policy does maintain and preserve Afrikaans, but – crucially – this is now subject to demand and to available resources. The practical effect is that, while undergraduate classes are still generally offered in Afrikaans, Afrikaans has lost its position of primacy. Instead it is placed on a sandy footing where the deluge of English predominance, both local and global, could well destabilise and eventually topple it. This is what the applicants foresee and what they fear and what they seek to forestall in these proceedings by reinstating the 2014 Language Policy.” Gelyke Kanseand Others v Chairperson of the Senate of the University of Stellenboschand Others ZACC 38,
Nevertheless, the Court found that cutting back the Afrikaans offering was justified because the old policy “created an exclusionary hurdle for specifically black students” and “classes conducted in Afrikaans, with interpreting from Afrikaans into English, made black students not conversant in Afrikaans feel marginalised, excluded and stigmatised”. Crucially, the financial costs of providing full parallel medium tuition are unjustifiably high – some R640 million in infrastructure expenses and R78 million per year thereafter. The court heard that these costs would necessitate a 20 % increase in tuition fees, exacerbating the problem of inequitable access.
In a similar matter in 2017 the Constitutional Court had ruled against Afriforum and Solidariteit in a leave to appeal application. Afriforum and Solidariteit had challenged the move to English as primary medium of instruction at the University of the Free State.AfriForum and Another v University of the Free State  ZACC 48,
Both cases hinged on Section 29(2) of the Constitution, wherein:
“Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable…taking into account: (a) equity; (b) practicability; and (c) the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.”
and Section 6, which deals with languages as one aspect of its Founding Provisions. In Section 6(2) the state is mandated to respond to the historical marginalisation of indigenous languages:
“Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.”
Despite claims made by Gelyke Kanse, Afriforum and others, Standaard Afrikaans has been historically privileged, not marginalised. It attained its powerful status in South Africa by means of and in service of Afrikaner nationalism and the white supremacist megaproject that was apartheid. By contrast, the version of Afrikaans referred to as Kaaps or Afrikaaps, which predates Standaard Afrikaans and is still spoken widely in the Cape, has indeed been severely marginalised. Gelyke Kanse have repeatedly and disingenuously invoked “the brown Afrikaans speaking people of the Western Cape” to advance their cause. However, black and “coloured” Afrikaans speakers have been subjugated by white Afrikaners in every possible way since the language first emerged from the establishment of slavery in South Africa. It is only at opportunistic times that conservative organisations such as Gelyke Kanse, acting primarily in the interest of right wing white Afrikaners, feign solidarity with black and “coloured” Afrikaans speakers.
The legal position of Afrikaans as medium of instruction at South African universities is clear. There is room for teaching in Afrikaans where feasible but never at the expense of equitable access to education for all of South Africa’s prospective graduates. In particular, Afrikaans cannot serve as a barrier to access for non-Afrikaans speaking black students.
The Constitution’s Section 6(2) as quoted above has been frequently invoked in debates about language at South African universities and, to a lesser extent, in schools. However, Section 6(5) is hardly ever mentioned. Section 6(5) makes provision for a Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB). You’d be forgiven for never having heard of the PanSALB. At the time of writing their website was dead. In January 2016 the entire board of PanSALB was dissolved because of horrendous financial mismanagement. The body remains dysfunctional, according to Zohra Dawood writing in June 2018:
“The history – or perhaps recent non-history – of PanSALB does not bode well for a vigorous debate and crucially for an action plan to promote multi-lingualism in South Africa. The institution’s actions and performance contradict its own mission… This broken institution must be fixed with urgency. A new Board comprised of people with the requisite skills and commitment to fulfilling the founding provisions of the Constitution must be appointed post-haste.”Zohra Dawood, No urgency to promotion of language rights in South Africa, Politicsweb, 2018,
It is difficult to point to how, if at all, the PanSALB has helped to give direction to, or provide alternative proposals for a non-alienating role for Afrikaans at South African universities or the re-positioning of Afrikaans in contemporary South African society, in a manner that is honest, accountable and inclusive. This is a powerful Chapter 1 institution that has both a budget and a mandate to provide such guidance but it has failed to do so.
Must English Fall?
Of course there is a strong case for English to be sent the way of the Rhodes statue but calls for languages to fall are misplaced. When the slogan “Afrikaans Must Fall” emerged on some university campuses in 2015 it was rightly rebuked by Open Stellenbosch and other progressive groups. We are stuck with English both locally and internationally. Its predominance is problematic and sadly unassailable. We have South African English as de facto lingua franca, providing a common language of communication for those privileged enough to have learned it, while alienating the majority. Non-native English speakers are cruelly graded (and degraded) according to their accents, with first language speakers carrying an unwarranted sense of superiority. The challenge is to harness English for its utility as a global language, to fully claim and further redecorate the version that is South African English, while constantly challenging its de facto role and have it always exist alongside and regularly be confronted by our other 10 official languages. It cannot and need not be felled but should be scrutinised, twisted, made to submit and be critically dealt with.
While English is the undisputed king of colonial weapon-languages, Afrikaans was essentially born of colonisation. It is intimately linked with both the slavery of the colonial era and the brutal racial violence of the apartheid era. There is no escaping these realities. Reckoning is the only viable way forward. We need to teach our children and students how these languages came to be as dominant as they are. Education needs to challenge the implications of a Standard English and a Standaard Afrikaans and give honour to the creole origins of Afrikaans and the creolised English of the majority of the world’s first language English speakers.
Contesting the hegemonic power of English should include pumping more life into the preservation and development of Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu, along with marginalised versions of Afrikaans, the Khoe and San languages and South African sign language.. This requires strategic planning and plenty of money. While the state should provide leadership, the PanSALB and other such institutions have failed us and cannot be relied on. Communities will need to demand the resources required, demand state intervention in schools, universities and other public institutions and build partnerships to support the implementation of a vision for the development of indigenous languages. That influential well-established Afrikaans language institutions like the ATKV have already begun to broaden their mission to support the advancement of multilingualism gives hope.
Reaching for a beautiful vision
Front page news stories about a language controversy in South Africa are invariably about Afrikaans and usually about language of instruction at a university. Sometimes they are about the discriminatory use of language in schools. This preoccupation with universities, which exist in elite isolation from the vast majority of South Africans, is a huge problem. Looking beyond the single issue of language of instruction at historically Afrikaans university campuses would allow us to pay attention to the numerous other areas in which language preservation and development can take place, often in far more creative and inspiring ways.
A beautiful vision for Afrikaans in contemporary South Africa lies in a beautiful, imaginative vision for multilingualism. The PanSALB needs to do its job better. Grassroots movements promoting indigenous languages through education and the arts to be funded properly, and supported by the state. Learning multiple languages would help us speak to each other’s hearts not just heads. In particular those of us who do not yet speak an indigenous language need to up our game. Additional language learning at high schools and all higher education institutions, and subsidies for adult additional language lessons at work would go a long way towards fixing what is broken.
However, surely more important than any other intervention is the provision of mother tongue education in schools. Our current policy is to provide mother tongue teaching only for the first three years of schooling. This is not enough. There are challenges and counter arguments but, in general, mother tongue basic education as policy is indisputably positive. It needs to be expanded beyond its current offering, including in Afrikaans and, in particular, in historically marginalised indigenous languages. We also need more children’s books published in indigenous languages. Schools tend to be community-based, are much smaller than universities and are widely distributed. The issues of equitable access are very different at this level. With respect to court cases relating to mother tongue education, Russel H. Kaschula and Zakeera Docrat write:
“Recently a group of parents took the Gauteng province’s education department to court because of language https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2018-01-15-education-department-loses-overvaal-school-admissions-case/. They wanted their children to be accommodated in the Afrikaans-medium school and for the school to change its language of instruction to English. The parents and learners in question do not necessarily speak English as their mother tongue. But they fought for English, rather than an African language. This is what South Africa’s former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, ruling in another case related to a school’s language of instruction, called http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZASCA/2009/22.html “collateral irony”. People who speak an African language at home prefer that their children learn in English – with its long colonial history http://www.saflii.org/za/cases/ZASCA/2009/22.html – than in their own mother tongues.”Russel H. Kaschula and Zakeera Docrat, “Multilingualism must be celebrated as a resource, not a problem”, The Conversation, 2018,
We need to change this twisted mindset and provide education to our children in their mother tongues, especially in historically marginalised indigenous languages. English need not be the default in schools and universities are in a powerful position to help us realise these goals. This is the low-hanging fruit of multilingualism that is desperate to be picked as soon as we possibly can.