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  • Die Taalsekretariaat
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  • A note on the demand for an Afrikaans-medium university

    Neville Alexander

    Director: Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa
    University of Cape Town.

    South Africa is a multilingual country, a fact that is recognised in the constitution adopted in 1996. The constitution enjoins the government to ensure that all the official languages enjoy “parity of esteem” and are “treated equitably”. It also vests the right to choose the language of tuition in the individual and stipulates that the state has to ensure that such tuition is provided in public educational institutions, unless there are insuperable obstacles. On the other side of the coin, the constitution prohibits the use of language (and of a few other things) by any institution or person to discriminate against or to exclude any person from any public institution.

    The demand for a predominantly Afrikaans-medium university is, therefore, based on a proper reading of the constitution of South Africa. It is also based on the universally recognised right of linguistic communities and of individuals to educate themselves and their children in their “mother tongue”, if they choose to do so. In my view, the only constraint on the exercise of this right is the availability of material and human resources. In a democratic set-up, however, this is a matter that can always be resolved given time, good will and political commitment. Those flat-earthists among Afrikaans-speaking people in this country, who want an “Afrikaans university” in order to keep so-called black people out, cannot be cited as a sufficient reason for opposing such an institution. The struggle against the views of such people is a separate political issue that has to be tackled in the context of the larger battle against racism.

    Progressive Afrikaans-speaking people are demanding that one university in the south of the country and one in the north be accorded the right to provide predominantly Afrikaans-medium tuition at undergraduate level. They are motivated by, among other things, the realisation that any language ceases to be useful for advanced scientific, technological and other analytical functions if it is not used consistently as a language of tuition at the level of tertiary education. Theirs is an eminently reasonable demand and it would be the merest ostrich-like behaviour to refuse to acknowledge this. Compare this approach with the fact that this university does not allow any language other than English to be used for purposes of tuition and assessment in non-language subjects, a practice that is in conflict with both the spirit and possibly even the letter of the South African constitution. Those who are proponents of the Afrikaans-medium university option I am referring to are as aware as everyone else in the world that English is a global language and that for all the reasons we all know, it will increasingly be used at postgraduate level in most of our tertiary education institutions. The real implications of this proposition for ourselves and for the rest of the world is a matter for a much longer discussion.

    The ethnic-tribal connotations of language policy in South Africa will not in years to come have the same divisive value that they have today. In a few decades’ time we will in all probability have universities and other higher educational institutions that will be predominantly Zulu, or Tswana or even Venda-medium institutions. They will be none the less South African institutions for that. The experience of the one or two Afrikaans-medium institutions will then be of inestimable value. They will, in this benign sense, have been real voortrekkers!

    This issue represents one of the defining moments in contemporary South African history. It is about our understanding of all those slogans we mouth so thoughtlessly, such as multiculturalism, non-racialism, national unity, democracy and human rights. We should avoid the kind of mistakes that lead to civil wars such as that in Macedonia currently. There, as we ought to know, the recognition of the Albanian language as an official language and of three Albanian-language universities is at the heart of the conflict.


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