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Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensitivity

Matthew McDonald *

What is a middle-class white boy to do on Stellenbosch campus these days? It seems we can't pass a single term without the language debate potjie boiling over and depositing some of Stellenbosch University's fabulous diversity all over us. This is a contribution from the middle ground, from a student who speaks both languages fairly well, yet still can't make head or tail of the work, and who didn't struggle for freedom for years, and whose culture isn't currently on the defensive clutching at some dwindling linguistic handhold. This is a contribution from a person whose "culture", if we could name such a misanthrope thus, spread across the globe in a siege of colonialism, a plague of coercive civilisation, and festers now, spread so thin over the lands of the world that the edges curl up and shrivel with use, and the centre rots in the slow heat of ages. I do not have a political party, or a language identity, or a socio-cultural axe to grind in this language debate. I just need to get my predicate and pass the exam; get my degree and plunge into the lukewarm job market that waits beyond the outer fences of third or honours year.

In fact, perhaps I am the last person to say anything, in any language, for the very reason that I could do just that. Earlier this month, in a conversation with a fiery young struggler for freedom, I was put firmly in my place, in passing nogal, which bruises all the more as you skid to a bloodied halt. "It's fine for you, Matthew," came the refrain, "you're white and middle-class and speak both languages Ö (and) Ö don't know what it's like to struggle in class." I wanted to retort on the experience of actually going to class, especially with reference to my politically ascendant young opponent, but held my bruised ego in check.

So, as someone who can't make a valid or legitimate contribution by all accounts to the Language Debate (tm), in the spirit of the nascent Social Scientist within, let's review:

The battlefield was quiet the first half of this year, bar some mutterings from the political and language purists' camps scattered across campus. The Arts faculty is at the centre of much of the controversy, given their adoption of the "T" model, compromise incarnate, which makes room for both languages within the lesson structure. Compromise doesn't look good on the mantelpiece, shared trophies are never shiny enough, hence the soft rumbling of discontent from several quarters. Meanwhile, class attendance spiralled to new lows, and debate raged on WebCT, our electronic language resource, mainly over "Where exactly are we writing?" There were some early volleys from the far left as one or two old academics weighed in with their tainted takes on the situation; a delivery well fielded by the University, and the SRC in particular, with a return volley about "hate speech" and "not here you don't". Mild interest recorded among student populace - or was that the series premiere of Desperate Housewives?

Third term and the ANC Youth League with SASCO mustered their forces (alongside a cavalry of high school kids) and presented a memorandum to our beaming Rector on the steps of the Administration building - not the dull one we all have to use, but the shiny glass-fronted one they keep for handing over memorandums and suchlike. The audience for this event outnumbered the actual marchers at least three to one, and, interestingly, there were a variety of expressions to be seen among the people in the crowd: glowering indignation on several faces, beaming pride on several others, frank alarm on a couple, but on the majority, blank disinterest. Perhaps if an Idols presenter had leapt on to the stairs and rallied the crowd their enthusiasm might have been aroused a little further.

I am privileged to be with a motley crew of friends who encourage diverse perspectives on almost any subject: "Why are they here?" grumbled one. "Do you think class is cancelled?" pondered another. "We're going to be on TV!" exclaimed yet another, gesturing obscenely at the roving SABC (or was it e-tv?) camera hovering nearby, acquiring filler shots of protestors waving banners and school textbooks. In summary: mixed reactions to one of the more aggressive, and expertly stage-handled, manifestations of the language debate this year so far.

Final term, and the die-hard Afrikaans contingent (four beaming youths and a visiting professor in the background somewhere) pulled a softly-softly approach and published a petition criticising the University for its clumsy handling of language policy issues thus far, in particular the "T" model, assembling 300 or 3 000 signatures during their fortnight of activity, depending on which day you happened to read the Stellenbosch University website. This was a different approach from one we might have expected - no marching high-schoolers here, only appeals to read the document and put one's name down in support. The message, like much contemporary political rhetoric, was mixed: "We encourage the use of Afrikaans in a multi-lingual context," published on gleaming A4 and electronically in two languages. Erm ... bravo, but don't worry, a version from the African Languages Department is in production; we'll get back to you on that one.

If the ANCYL March didn't quite hit the issue on the nose with a heady mix of aggressive politico-dramatics, then can the same be said of "Die Petisie". What are the real consequences of these actions now that the day is over, local drinking establishments were the beneficiaries of most of the conversational and financial small change of the day, and only the Matie website is left to tell the story to the world at large?

The Rector's beaming assurances aside, what hope for a student march that calls for, among other things, more English, in a multilingual context; and what future for a student petition which calls for, among (albeit fewer) other things, more Afrikaans, in a multilingual context? The University has repeatedly confirmed its commitment to preserving Afrikaans, as it has confirmed its commitment to fostering diversity of ideas and people in (all together now) "a multi-lingual context!" Is everyone on the same page but reading in different directions?

Perhaps the real focus of debate should be less on either English or Afrikaans, as if the two were locked in some bitter custody battle over the University's destiny as a place of learning and human development, but rather on this "multilingual context" we keep hearing so much about. Who could possibly disagree that it is more than justified for any South African to receive instruction or education at any place or institution of learning in a language that he or she can understand? This premise has real and far-reaching logistical implications; this country has eleven official languages. You do the maths. Clearly, this "multilingual context" is and should be the focus of our attention and debate. Not so much which one language should be the one, but what others need to be included, and how we can best effect integration.

It is fair and justified to demand more of one language over another, but is it helpful, given the situation we are in nationally? We must prepare ourselves for a university where more than one language receives attention, and more than one tongue is appropriate, and more than one cultural point of view is actively embraced, not just entertained. Forgive my idealism, but it is all very well inviting everyone to the party, but active participation must be the goal, not just blank attendance. This refers particularly, of course, to the students embroiled in this debate. We are at this party too, and our contribution, or lack of, is crucial to the workability of any language debate or policy.

One of those motley friends of mine observes, "It's not the powers that be at this university that need to contribute actively - we never stop hearing about it from them. It's the students that must get involved!"

The March and the Petition are valuable and important first steps in this process, as is the condemnation of opinions that have little real relevance to the situation at hand, as expressed by Dan Roodt and denounced by the University in general. Conversation and debate, in any language, will be the engines that push forward real solutions to the language debate; the March and the Petition have shown that much, at least. What remains to be seen now is the extent to which compromise is possible, given the stakes that have been set. Is everyone willing to settle for joint first? For something approaching their desired outcome, or will we be locked in another cycle of protest against the status quo in 2006, everyone picking up their placards and pens once more to reset the boundaries of debate?

The Language Policy comes under review soon, possibly as early as next year, and that is the time when all our voices need to be heard once more, even those of us who are privileged enough to deliver them in more than one language.

Matthew McDonald* is an International Studies student at Stellenbosch University. He somehow finds the time to soar academically, participate actively in many campus societies' and outside initiatives, deliver witty and comprehensive analyses in local print and radio media, and be an all-round calm and urbane kind of chap in general. The authorities suspect abuse of muscle relaxants, but they don't have a thing on him - nothing! He is a great proponent of the adage: "Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet, must be stolen."

LitNet: 21 November 2005

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