Proposal reignites the war of words

June 16, 2006

Debate over using Afrikaans, the 'language of the oppressor', on campus is raging, writes Karen MacGregor

Thirty years after the student uprising in Soweto, South Africa's academics are hotly debating the issue that sparked the revolt - the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

The uprising, which began on June 16, ultimately forced the apartheid Government to back down over plans to require black schools to teach Afrikaans.

Afrikaans, which is widely viewed as the language of the oppressors, is a live issue at Stellenbosch University, a mostly Afrikaans-language institution that was once the intellectual home of apartheid. Stellenbosch is now one of South Africa's top research universities, and its own taaldebat (language debate) has pitted academics against alumni.

The university's convocation has made a submission to a review of language policy at the university in support of a longstanding demand that all students and academics be compelled to become proficient in Afrikaans. Its proposals would require all students to take a proficiency test in Afrikaans or to follow language courses in Afrikaans and English. Lecturers who lacked language proficiency would have to take courses to enable them to "deal with both languages equally".

Chris Brink, the vice-chancellor, believes that the move would be exclusionary and would jeopardise the university's academic goals. He wrote a letter in opposition to senate that, he said, "created quite a stir".

He argues that demanding Afrikaans proficiency would drastically reduce the university's thousands-strong core of postgraduate and international students, many of whom operate in English. Such a move would force the university to shed top research staff and to break contracts involving, for example, the South African military, and key research and donor bodies, he said.

Earlier this month, after a two-hour debate, the senate rejected the proposals by a "resounding majority".

Professor Brink said: "That is a battle won, but not the war. Convocation representatives are sure to take the matter up in council."

In his most recent book, No Lesser Place - The Taaldebat at Stellenbosch , Professor Brink explores the language debate, which he argues has been driven by a movement to rebuild Afrikaner identity. He says Afrikaans is the focus of a campaign to maintain the "higher functions" of Afrikaans and that the main battleground is in higher education - especially at Stellenbosch, which is in the heart of Afrikanerland.

The book had with "notable exceptions a very hostile reception in the Afrikaans press" and electronic publications such as Die Vrye Afrikaan ( The Free African ).

He suggests that most South Africans are unaware of the debate because it is being conducted exclusively in Afrikaans and that the discussions are overshadowed by a debate about identity when "Afrikaner nationalism is taking shape again".

He concludes that Stellenbosch should continue to use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction if the academic community decide freely to do so, but not as an obligation determined by history, Afrikanerdom or the state. He says it is not "the business of Stellenbosch University to save Afrikaans".

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