Nov 18, 2015

Afrikaner: Language Erosion at University of Stellenbosch

The use of Afrikaans at the University of Stellenbosch is under threat after a controversial internal decision attempted to enforce English as the medium of instruction and official communication. Over the past fifteen years, Afrikaans has fallen from being used as the only medium of instruction to a secondary language of instruction by the end of 2015. The university’s decision reveals a strategy of attracting English-speaking students, but in so doing, sacrifices Stellenbosch’s unique cultural heritage. The demise of Afrikaans as an official language at universities in the Western Cape reflects a common trend largely due to government pressure. 

Below is an article published by Politicsweb


A war over language

A fierce clash has broken out at the University of Stellenbosch (US) over the university executive’s decision to make English the medium of instruction and official communication. Proceeding without following proper procedures, it was forced to back down after a special meeting of the University Council’s executive. It has just announced that it intends to introduce a 100% English-medium next year while leaving the Afrikaans offer at 65%. The issue seems far from settled.

It is generally recognized the mother tongue is superior to second tongue education in the case of a language that has “domesticated” all scientific concepts. Afrikaans is such a language.  In 1980 it was 25th in the case of articles whose abstracts appeared in Index Medicus and 32nd in the case Chemical Abstracts. It was a position higher than both Hindi and Arabic occupied.

Over the longer run the demise of Afrikaans at US will detrimentally affect high school education throughout the Western Cape. Belinda Bozzoli of the Democratic Alliance pointed out that Afrikaans-speakers of all colours will be deprived of their constitutional right to study in Afrikaans.

Coloured Afrikaans-speakers are the community with the lowest participation rate in tertiary education. A switch by Stellenbosch to predominantly English-medium instruction will be a lethal blow to this community’s hope to shake off centuries of neglect under slavery, segregation and apartheid.

The move away from Afrikaans single medium education at universities started well before the transition to an inclusive democracy. For a few years there was a sense that this move should not go too far.

In 1996, when the US offered Pres. Nelson Mandela an honorary degree, he stated: “To put it in the simplest and starkest terms: it surely must be possible in a system with more than twenty universities to come to an agreement that there would be at least one university whose main task would be to promote the sustained development of Afrikaans as an academic medium.”

In 2001 the Mbeki government appointed a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Jakes Gerwel to investigate the matter. It recommended that Afrikaans as a medium of instruction had to be guaranteed at least two institutions. There had to be statutory obligation on them to promote Afrikaans “systematically” and conscientiously” as a medium of scientific research and public communication. There had to report annually to Parliament. Unfortunately the Afrikaans vice chancellors wasted this opportunity.

Universally the experience has been that dual medium (two languages of instruction used intermittently in the same lecture) quickly kills off the minor language, especially if it has to compete with English. In the case of parallel medium (separate streams) the death throes are more prolonged.

The French-Canadian scholar J.A. Laponce puts it well in his path-breaking Languages and Territories: “Bilingualism in education is thus generally a bilingualism of transition, which in the long run facilitates linguistic assimilation.” He adds that even when a system of parallel education is balanced at the level of courses it is in fact unbalanced in favor of English (or Russian in the Soviet Union), which dominates the environment outside the school. [1]

A tale of five universities

In the course of the twentieth century Afrikaans developed from a low status, informal language to a public language used in all walks of life. This achievement is matched only by Hindi, Malay-Indonesian and Hebrew. Afrikaans is the only non-European/non-Asiatic language in the world to have attained full university status.

By the 1990s Afrikaans-speakers, who at that point formed 15 per cent of the population, paid 38 per cent of the personal income taxes and contributed 26 per cent of the domestic spending on education. They offered an important market for universities.

In 1995 a third of all pupils who received Matric exemption were Afrikaans speakers; 42 per cent of all advanced degrees were awarded to Afrikaans-speakers and 37 per cent of all science and technology degrees.[2] More than 85’% of Afrikaner parents insisted on Afrikaans as medium of instruction in schools and universities. 

Until approximately the mid-1980s there were six universities that taught predominantly through the medium of Afrikaans: Potchefstroom University (PU), the University of Pretoria (UP), Randse Afrikaanse University (RAU) which changed its name to the University of Johannesburg (UJ), University of the Free State (UFS), the University of Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Stellenbosch (US). The University of Port Elizabeth (UPE), used both Afrikaans and English in a parallel-medium form of instruction.

Over the following three decades a rapid transformation took place with English medium instruction in various forms being introduced in all universities. The Afrikaans universities became Historically Afrikaans Universities. Afrikaans-medium teaching disappeared at UWC and UPE. Nevertheless by the year 2005 the position of Afrikaans at tertiary level was not cause for alarm. The language still seemed fairly secure, with approximately 44 000 Afrikaans students spread over five campuses.

Between 2005 and 2015 the position of Afrikaans at the Historic Afrikaans universities deteriorated drastically for three reasons. First government policy has become increasingly hostile to Afrikaans. From the degree of pluralism under Mandela and Mbeki the government increasingly followed a policy of language fascism.

All Afrikaans-medium education and technical colleges have been wiped out. Increasingly the universities have faced government demands that at all institutions English-medium instruction has to enjoy a paramount position. At some institutions the demand is surfacing that classes in Afrikaans have to be prohibited altogether on the grounds that only English is a language of inclusion

In the second place there has been a large proportional reduction of Afrikaans students as a result of a substantial flow of both white English-speakers and black students to historically Afrikaans universities. The decline of the proportion of Afrikaans students is shown in the table below.

Table 1: Proportion of Afrikaans students enrolled

Institutions          2005                 2012

US                         60%                  48%

UP                         35%                  30%

NWU (Potch)            85%                 80%

UFS (Bloem)            38%                  36%

CPUT                      22%                  19%

A National Plan

A major reason for the decline of Afrikaans at university level is government policy.

In 2001 the Department of Education published its National Plan for the Higher Education in South Africa. It was published in a context in which several of the HAUs had introduced parallel medium instruction without receiving additional state subsidies. Classes were given in both Afrikaans and English in parallel streams with no compensation in terms of salary or leave. Nothing similar has happened at either the Historically Liberal Universities or the Historically Black Universities.

Colloquially Afrikaans lecturers refer to the “language tax” they have to pay, since non-Afrikaans lecturers are not expected to perform a similar task. Inevitably the exercise of doubling the number of their classes have been impacting negatively on research output and there are indications that for this reason some of the top researchers are transferring to single-medium universities.

It is instructive to note that Wits and UCT, the two institutions with the largest highest proportion of scholars with a rating by the National Research Foundation, both use single medium instruction.

The National Plan makes no mention of this or of the efforts of the HAUs to introduce parallel medium classes. Instead it criticizes the HAUs for not introducing parallel medium in a more comprehensive manner. Indeed the general impression one gets from the document is that Afrikaans was considered an obstacle and a nuisance rather than a resource and a model for the other non-dominant languages to develop their full potential.

The question is what role business leaders who were Stellenbosch alumni played in this. On this issue it is necessary to be circumspect. In 2005 Koos Bekker, who at that point was CEO of Naspers, wrote a strongly worded article in which he argued that there was a need for Afrikaans-medium universities since there existed s a surfeit of exposure to the Anglo-Saxon culture.

Bekker ended with the strong warning: “If US becomes anglicized it chooses in my view the road of cowardice. It turns our backs on our roots in Africa and our brown brothers and sisters. What kind of community do we build in this way in the Western Cape?” (To forestall criticism that he is an interested party Bekker pointed ou0t that only 10 per cent of the Naspers turnover depends on Afrikaans-based products. Today the proportion is probably less than half that figure). [3]

By contrast Edwin Hertzog, then CEO of Mediclinic and chairman of the US Council, pitched his argument in the terms of “language pragmatism” and the free market. He referred to the imperative of transformation which government considered non-negotiable.

Hertzog also stated: ‘The US council believes in pragmatism with respect to language arrangements, not in a blunt confrontation designed to disturb the good order in the classroom.” Moreover, the policy had to take the financial constraints into account.

Hertzog went on to write that if the US insisted on exclusively teaching in Afrikaans it would suffer an ‘unaffordable loss of students’.[4] It should remarked that there was no evidence for Hertzog’s assertion that the US would suffer a serious loss of students if it had insisted on Afrikaans-medium teaching.

Some proponents of the increased use of English use a different argument. They contend that both the constitution and government policy make it impossible to use predominantly Afrikaans-medium instruction. In a legal opinion delivered in 2001 Jan Heunis SC disputed this. He wrote that a language policy that uses Afrikaans as the default language and allows English to be used in particular circumstances is in conflict with neither the constitution nor government policy.

The retreat at US  

Under both Dr. Chris Brink and Dr. Russel Botman, who successively served as Vice Chancellors between 2002 and 2014, the language issue was a major bone of contention. In April this year dr. Wim de Villiers assumed office. Unlike his predecessors he was born and bred in Stellenbosch. His father, A.B., was dean of the law faculty.

In a major announcement earlier this month De Villiers announced that English, which he described as the “common language of the country”, will become the  language of instruction at the university. In large classes (250 plus) Afrikaans-medium instruction will still take place as part of a parallel-medium offer. English will become the main language of official communication and of public communications in residences.

The announcement specifically thanked the Open Stellenbosch movement for its input, an organization with approximately fifty full-time US students, according to informed sources. This while the Rector has ignored requests for a meeting over the past three months from the chairman of the Convocation of US, a body with more than 100 000 members. Nor did he meet with Adam Tas, a pro-Afrikaans student movement.

The proposed policy of De Villiers and his team was clearly in conflict with the university’s published language policy which can only be altered by the council. Predictably an uproar ensued. After an extraordinary meeting of the Council’s executive on Sunday evening, management appeared to retreat.  

But in a statement issued a day later, on 16 November, management appeared defiant. It hints that the offer in English will be expanded. At the same time it pledges not to dilute the Afrikaans offer. This probably means that the English offer will upped to 100%, while the Afrikaans offer will remain at 65%. The statement says nothing about language issue in administration and residences, but management insists that it has retracted nothing.

The ANC applauded the US move. A cartoon in Beeld newspaper depicts Dr Blade Nzimande welcomes the vice chancellor with the words “Comrade De Viliers I presume” with a banner reading “Maties wil Engels wees”.

How did the US, founded in 1918 to serve the white Dutch and Afrikaans community end up at a point?

The immediate reason was the pressure from Open Stellenbosch and Blade Nzimande but the driving force the past 15 years was the flight of white English students from campuses in the throes of transformation. The dramatic fourfold increase of their numbers at US appears from the following table.

                        Afrikaans               English                  Total          

1995                10 985 (74%)       3039(20%)           14 946       

2005                11 338 (59%)        7364 (32%)          22 569

2015                12 754 (44%)       13 316 (44%)        30 150

Approximately 90% of the category English-speakers are white. The increase was the product of unplanned growth.  Early in this century the council planned to limit the student body at US to 15 000 but nothing came of that.

According to Nzimande the proportion of black students declined from 15,4 per cent in 2001 to 14,6 per cent in 2015. The proportion of Coloured students increased by half from 10,2% to 15,5 %, but many them are fluent in Afrikaans.

According to the US statute control over the university is vested in the Council. Over the past 15 years the Council never received clarity about the optimal student numbers for the US. This is not unusual. When I asked a senior administrative official of UCT why numbers has escalated at his university his blunt answer was “carelessness.”

Over the past 15 years the university never carefully considered the issue of the optimal numbers of students for either the university or the town of Stellenbosch, which is now bursting at its steams. I was a member of the council between 2007 and 210 and cannot remember any discussion of this topic.

The issue of the language of instruction was also never properly debated. It became acceptable to dismiss proponents of Afrikaans as ‘taalbulle” mourning the loss of Afrikaner power.

To cap everything the council made the fatal mistake of allowing some faculties to follow their own language of instruction policy. This is something against which the European Community’s language advisors specifically warn. From 1998 the Arts and Social Sciences admitted growing numbers of white English-speakers and spoke more and more English in class in a spirit of language friendliness. No demand was made these students to become proficient in Afrikaans.

In this way the infamous “T-option” (bi-lingual option) was born, according to which Afrikaans and English had to be used on a 50-50 basis in class. No proper supervision was introduced. Dr. Van Zyl Slabbert labelled this option “pedagogic nonsense.” When he heard of the T-option Jean Laponce declared: “Afrikaans will survive at Stellenbosch but only as a decoration.”

Only one scientific survey has been undertaken by an outsider. In 2008 Lawrence Schlemmer published the results. He found that 83 % of the Afrikaans-speaking students and 43 % of English-speaking-students accepted or were neutral towards a policy of predominantly and consistently using Afrikaans single medium.

Council shelved the report. The evidence from other universities is that Afrikaans students, rather than protesting, resign themselves to the situation when English becomes the dominant mode of instruction

Black students consistently preferred parallel-medium, but most lecturers desperately want to avoid it because no additional staff were provided.

And so one has witnessed a cultural tragedy unfolding with Afrikaans being steadily reduced to a bywoner status. The majority of the US council allowed management to determine language policy; top management deferred the decision to the deans of faculty. Deans, who have to stand for re-election every four years, permitted more and more English. No one accepted responsibility.

A professor at another university where Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was wiped out within ten to fifteen years, sardonically described the process: “As far as staff are aware the transition to English medium alone never took place. It is a creeping illness that no one wants to admit to – very much like leprosy or Alzheimer’s disease.” 

Of course the vice-chancellors have kept on giving assurances. Dr. Chris Brink said in 2002: “The way in which we distinguish ourselves is by saying we teach in Afrikaans”. His successor, Russel Botman, gave parents the guarantee their children will continue to be taught in Afrikaans.” Wim de Villiers states: “We are not an Afrikaans, English or a Xhosa university.”

Thus Afrikaans at US has declined in fifteen years from the only medium of instruction, to the default language of instruction, to equal status with English with protection, to equal status without protection, to the secondary language of instruction by the end of 2015. As noted above the management team has now proposed its abolition as the language of administration and public intercourse in residences.

Much of this has been justified in terms of a pursuit of excellence. But as a retired university chancellor told me. “No university that has doubled of its numbers, and has changed its language of instruction, can maintain standards.”

Every time in the past 15 years when the management team changed the policy in a way that left Afrikaans diminished it said. “It is inevitable. There is no other choice.”

It reminds me of the closing words of Margaret Marshall’s magnificent book on the unplanned outbreak of the First World War, entitled The War that ended Peace: How Europe ended peace for the First World War (Profile Books, 2013). “If we want to point fingers from the 21st century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be, and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.”

The fundamental choice the US made in sacrificing its unique cultural heritage was in order to take in white English-speakers fleeing from transformation at the traditionally liberal universities. It also chose to abandon its obligations towards coloured Afrikaans-speakers in the rural Western Cape. All the talk of access and inclusivity is window-dressing.