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A battle for the survival of the Afrikaans culture

Alexis van den Heever*

The language debate, or rather debacle, has been brewing since before I started studying at the University. Back then I was indifferent to it, and despite the escalation of this debate in the three years that I have been a Matie, it has failed to inspire any nationalist sentiment in me - Afrikaner or English. However, I've decided to throw off the blanket of apathy that envelops most Matie students, in exchange for an actual opinion.

The battle for the survival of Afrikaans as the primary language of instruction belies a much greater battle - a battle for the survival of the Afrikaans culture. This much is clear to anyone. However, as this debate takes place among highly educated academics, it is rather disconcerting that these individuals necessarily seem to equate language with culture. There is no doubt that there is an unequivocal link between language and culture; however, the survival of the latter is not wholly bound to the survival of the former.

I have the honour of being affiliated with both the Arts and the Commerce faculties. This has allowed me the pleasure of experiencing how both these faculties implement the language policy. As an English speaker with a strong background in Afrikaans, I have no qualms about the implementation, or not, of the T-option. Most of my lectures within the Arts faculty are presented simultaneously in both Afrikaans and English and I find the manner in which this faculty has implemented the policy to be quite accommodating, particularly with regard to the numerous international students studying within the faculty. I have no doubt that the decision taken by the Arts faculty is in both the best interest of the arts students and the survival of the Afrikaans language. The Commerce faculty has shown a strong commitment to the implementation of the A-option, particularly at second- and third-year level - to the exclusion of many English and international students. The exclusive implementation of the A-option does not cultivate a respect for or even a slight appreciation of the language. In fact, this only intensifies the "battle" between English and Afrikaans radicals.

The language debate needs to be placed within the greater South African context, which necessarily entails the recognition of a multicultural and multilingual state. Afrikaans, as an indigenous language, forms a part of this country's multilingual makeup, and within an international context, is just as much threatened as any other indigenous language. As it is a minority language it is understandable that Afrikaans-speakers feel threatened by the pervasiveness of the English language. However, it is my opinion that the T-option provides the University with the opportunity to transform along with the rest of the country, to shed the image of this university town as the bastion of Afrikaner culture, and to promote the use of both Afrikaans and English as academic languages.

A commitment to bilingual or dual medium instruction does not contradict or even undermine any commitment to the promotion and expansion of Afrikaans as an academic language. The University is fundamentally a service provider that has to take cognisance of the need for instruction in English - particularly in courses such as winemaking, which are offered exclusively at the SU. Furthermore, in order to produce graduates of an international standard, the University, given the state of the international climate, has to provide its students with a good, workable knowledge of the English language. I believe, albeit rather idealistically, that protecting Afrikaans by isolating it is counterproductive - specifically with regard to the role and future of SU as a higher education institution within a greater multicultural and multilingual South Africa, in terms of the financial implications such an isolation might have, as well as negatively impacting the "value" of SU graduates on the international market.

Historically, Stellenbosch, both as a town and University, has shown an undisputed commitment to ensuring the survival of both the Afrikaans language and the Afrikaans culture. Given this commitment it is doubtful that SU will endure the same fate as the University of Pretoria. Those in support of the T-option are not arguing for the exclusion of Afrikaans, but for the inclusion of English as a dual medium form of instruction to the betterment of all Maties.

Before this debate intensifies and media tirades become of a much more personal nature, a definitive distinction between culture and language needs to be established. Once the synonymous use of the terms language and culture is abandoned, indifferent English-speakers, such as myself, will be able to participate in a debate concerning the survival of Afrikaans in a multilingual state.

* Alexis van den Heever is

  • an English-speaker, bilingual (Afrikaans and English) upbringing,
  • a third-year student, studying BA: Political, Philosophical and Economics Studies,
  • fields of interest include gender studies and philosophy.

LitNet: 07 November 2005

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