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The disgrace of a guilty Afrikaner: on Chris Brink’s No lesser place: The taaldebat at Stellenbosch

(Stellenbosch: SUN PReSS, 2006. Beskikbaar by www.sun-e-shop.co.za)

Johann Rossouw

In an article on Afrikaans and the current taaldebat concerning the University of Stellenbosch in Die Burger of Saturday, March 18, 2006, Breyten Breytenbach states in his opening lines:

Although I try to avoid the general custom in public discourses in South Africa – namely “to play the man and not the ball” – and am throughly aware of how any oppositional reasoning is made suspicious and that it may be important to not also operate thus, I am not going to bend backwards to show respect to people from whom I differ: here, as always, there is too much “decency” (ordentlikheid) in the setting-up of ideas against one another, except on websites where the pent-up cupboard rats can mess to their liking since they do it anonymously.
I, and probably for that matter anybody writing in Afrikaans today, could not put it more succinctly when dealing with this debate, and particularly with the disgraceful conduct of some of the participants in the debate. In my public writings over the past 18 years – nearly always in Afrikaans, although occasionally in English and French – I have always tried to stick to the rule of striving for matter-of-factness (saaklikheid), but the shameful way in which some of the Afrikaners participating in this debate have been conducting their business – for a business it is very much, in more than one respect – now brings me to the point where I willingly, for once, cast some of the ordentlikheid aside. When reflecting on the book that Prof Chris Brink, rector of Stellenbosch University (SU), has just published (No lesser place: The taaldebat at Stellenbosch), I find it difficult to do otherwise, for if there is one thing that at times animates me more than my commitment to conducting a debate with integrity, it is my contempt for dishonesty and moralism, to which I shall return later.

It is perfectly unreasonable to expect of South Africans who do not speak Afrikaans, or who are not Afrikaners, to spend much time on these topics. On the other hand, issues of language and identity have a central bearing on the current South Africa (as they always have). One should write at least a small book to bring the many nuances in the Afrikaans language debate to a non-speaker of the language, but I shall try to deal with them in this essay, rather than in the longer academic article that should be written to deal with all the faulty arguments, obfuscation, selective quotes and misrepresentation in Brink’s book.

1. Let me start by saying that there are two things on which I fully agree with Prof Brink. The first is that the debate on Afrikaans (and South Africa’s other languages) should not be conducted only in Afrikaans, but also in English, in order to broaden the scope of the debate. The second is that, certainly before 1994, SU tended, to put it mildly, to overemphasise the particular at the cost of the universal, and that it is of absolute necessity to correct the consequences of glorifying the particular. Where Brink and I differ is in our solutions: Brink simply shifts the overemphasis from the particular (the Afrikaans and Afrikaner character of SU) to the universal (SU as a national asset). It doesn’t take much logic to realise that the problem is not the particular as such (as Brink clearly thinks), or the solution the universal (as Brink also clearly thinks), but a lack of balance and creative interaction between the two.

2. Let me also, for the benefit of readers not familiar with my work, which is usually in Afrikaans, declare my interests in this debate and one or two aspects of where I come from. I specifically do this to distance myself from the age-old strategy, followed by Prof Brink in his book, of publishing a book on an “Afrikaans” debate in English that pretends to be factual while in fact arranging the facts to suit the writer’s non-declared interests and points of departure. I also do this to correct Prof Brink’s skewed picture of my employer and the publication that I edit as “neo-Afrikaner”.

I am currently the research and communication officer for the FAK, the Federation of Afrikaans Cultural Organisations (which Prof Brink labels “neo-Afrikaner” in section 3.3 of his book), in spite of the fact that until about five years ago I would never have imagined working for the FAK, an organisation that was fully tied in with the apartheid establishment between 1948 and 1994, although founded in 1929. During my doctoral studies under Régis Debray at the University of Lyon-3 I came to understand that no community can exist without institutions, and that the FAK and other old Afrikaner establishment organisations were problematic before 1994 not simply because they were institutions, but because after 1948 they changed from being institutions based in the community to being institutions tied to the (colonial) state. It was in the light of this realisation that I accepted a job offer from the FAK in August 2004, on the strict conditions that my intellectual independence would be respected, and that the FAK would commit itself to the new vision that the current chairperson, Prof Danie Goosen, a number of other Afrikaner intellectuals and I proposed for it, namely the vision of an Africa of self-respecting communities, where Afrikaners as an indigenous African community could reinvent themselves in a democratic idiom after the collapse of nationalism and in dialogue with other South African and African communities.

My first assignment was to set up a journal for the FAK that I myself had proposed, namely Die Vrye Afrikaan (“The Free African” – “For Africa’s communities”). One of the guiding ideas of Die Vrye Afrikaan is that language liberation, political liberation and economic liberation (in this order) are some of the keys to regaining Africa’s self-respect and autonomy. Mother-tongue education is the best way to control the hegemonic use of Africa’s former colonial languages and to find a healthy and very necessary balance between the indigenous and former colonial languages.

As these ideas can’t be debated in isolation, I actively set out to recruit leading South African intellectuals, academics and writers from all languages and ideological persuasions to contribute to Die Vrye Afrikaan. These have so far included, amongst many others, people as diverse as William Mervin Gumede, Adam Habib, Moeletsi Mbeki, Mashupye Kgaphola, Xolela Mangcu, Sipho Seephe and JM Coetzee. Special dossiers have been published on ecology, the politics of Islam, the neoliberal betrayal of South Africa’s poor, the South African university and other pertinent current issues. Die Vrye Afrikaan also publishes the South African edition of the world’s leading monthly leftwing newspaper, Le Monde diplomatique, providing readers with international coverage that is simply not available anywhere else in the South African media. Indeed, the variety of topics and writers, as well as the balance between the particular and the universal is, to my mind (at the risk of sounding arrogant) not achieved elsewhere in the South African press. Due to reader demand we became a monthly print publication from July 2005, with 24 full pages of editorial content, or 50 000 words per month.

In the Stellenbosch taaldebat I have been one of Prof Brink and the current SU council’s most ferocious critics, and readers of this piece should bear this in mind. However, unlike Prof Brink, who seems to believe in some sort of dispassionate neutral stance from where one can unemotionally debate matters at hands, I believe that it is precisely one’s passionate engagement that makes a rational debate possible. In my experience the position of the “neutral” observer not only does not exist, but also always covers up the real interests of the “neutral” observer, as I shall point out with regard to Prof Brink.

3. As far as SU is concerned I have found myself in a strange position over the past 18 months or so: although SU (and its language policy) is probably the topic that I have wrtten the most about in this period, I must confess to a historical mistrust and even dislike of SU. Undoubtedly part of this stems, in rather silly fashion, from the fact that I am a graduate of Stellenbosch’s arch-competitor before 1994, the University of Pretoria (where I obtained my BA in 1991). But most of it stems from other things that I, rightly or wrongly, associate with SU: the ideological birthplace of apartheid; a chronic overestimation of its own importance and a concomitant arrogance; a long history of currying favour with government, especially through awarding honorary degrees to powerful political figures; an intolerance of its own dissident voices; an autocratic, patriarchal management culture; and a stifling tradition in some of its male residences. Many of these things should have been changed since 1994, and have been, some of them under Prof Brink’s management. But many of these things are as prevalent as ever: the arrogance from the university leadership, currying favour with the powerful, and an intolerance of dissident voices.

And yet, in spite of my (at best) lukewarm relationship with SU my engagement in the current taaldebat has been everything but lukewarm. Why?

4. It is because I believe that SU at present encapsulates all the current major global and national issues. Of course the future of Stellenbosch as an Afrikaans university is something that I am passionately committed to, but there is more to it: I believe that the SU taaldebat is about the kind of university that we want for a truly democratic South Africa. Here South Africa is a battlefield between two dominant global positions: globalisation that puts the market at the centre, and globalisation that puts the community at the centre; or the market as a function of the community, rather than the community as a function of the market. It is rather peculiar that the nation state, which once, to some extent, restricted the excesses of the market, has now become one of its most energetic collaborators, as South Africa also has under the Afro-nationalists in control of the ANC. As Sampie Terreblanche, Patrick Bond, Ashwin Desai and Dale McKinley all show in the latest edition of Die Vrye Afrikaan, there is an unholy alliance between white corporate South Africa and the Afro-nationalists. In the name of equity, access, representivity and economic growth the gap between rich and poor has widened further, and besides a vote every five years, people have less control than ever over their lives. Just like Afrikaans was central to the corporate-state hegemony before 1994, English now is, with the added advantage of its powerful position by the grace of the American Empire. The power constellation in the current South Africa is one where racist “black solidarity” and racist white privilege often combine seamlessly. The transition to a representative democracy after 1994 obscures the fact that the old colonial state and corporate structures are firmly in place, with the exception that they are better integrated in the global market economy than ever before. One can only wonder how long the combination of white guilt over the past and the illusion of a powerful black middle class will act as a pacifier to those who are excluded in South Africa, on the basis of language or class, from the spoils of the post-apartheid party, ie the majority of South Africans.

5. This brings me to Prof Brink’s underlying position of analysis of the taaldebat. Firstly, Brink displays a shocking lack of critical analysis of the current South African dispensation. Where he is quick to ascribe a nationalist agenda to his “neo-Afrikaner” critics, he calmly asserts that the litmus test of SU’s credibility is the number of “African blacks” at SU (p 134). Not only does he thus show his naïve lack of insight into the latest nationalist project to which South Africa is subjected, but absolutely no weight is accorded to language or class as yardsticks to correct the racial injustices of the past. Indeed, reading Brink’s book one would believe that South Africa’s only problem today is enough time to implement the technocratic solutions of Pretoria’s bureaucrats, rather similar to the logic used by apartheid’s apologists in its heyday. Never does it occur to him that nationalism is bound to create conflict in a diverse society such as ours, even if the colour of this nationalism is black. This is Afrikaner guilt at its most embarrassing level of uncritical acceptance of the status quo. Precisely because Brink accepts the status quo in South Africa today so uncritically he is completely unable to see that his “neo-Afrikaner” critics are not harking back to the past, but debating another possible future.

Secondly, Brink believes that the university is first and foremost a business. Now, it can’t be argued that the books of a university should be balanced, but that is not to say that the university itself is a business. This leads Brink to the following remarkable paradox: while he claims on the one hand that a university must practise a “diversity of individuals” and not of “groups”, he also subscribes to a “multicultural” model of the university. In other words, while wanting to see students as mere individuals, and therefore stripped of the cultural markers that make them different from one another, he claims to be a multiculturalist! This paradox is cleared up when one understands that Brink in fact subscribes to the liberal position that we are all merely individuals, whereas the very things that make us the individuals that we are (language, ethnicity, gender, religious beliefs, etc) should be discarded. This is also the view of the neoliberal market, where we are all only individual consumers. Brink loves the neoliberal logic, seeing the university as a business with stakeholders, where “money and mathematics” (p 156) determine everything in the final instance. In other words, while Brink portrays himself as a multiculturalist, he pulls the classic liberal trick of using multiculturalism to legitimise the corporatisation of the university – eventually leading to a monocultural institution, albeit a culture of economy and consumption. This no doubt also explains why he reckons that Wits University and the University of Cape Town are not “an expression of cultural identity” and English is “simply a medium of communication” (p 154). I have never encountered a single black or Afrikaans-speaking academic at these two universities that has not complained about the very particular white English mindset that still dominates them. But as we all know, English is a neutral medium (as always when a language is hegemonic) and it doesn’t have a particular culture, except its own.

Thirdly, it is Brink’s firm belief that we are all individuals which explains why he falls in so easily with the Afro-nationalist project in modern South Africa. All those who complain about the exclusion of the poor are, of course, “ultra-leftists” souring the President’s palate, just as all those who complain about the exclusion of our indigenous languages are “neo-Afrikaners”, nationalists or dangerous ethnic entrepreneurs.

6. On p 69 in his book Brink writes, “the Afrikaners have always had an authoritarian streak in them”. Fair enough, and at least we are in agreement on this, although the matter is perhaps a bit more complex than that. Nevertheless, there is another quaint Afrikaner tradition, namely that of the historically guilty moralist setting out to correct the wrongs of the past with dogmatic fervour. The only explanation that I could find for the trained logician Brink’s spectacular self-contradictions, illogical jumps and misrepresentations is that he is an exponent of this tradition. I mention a few:

- When his “neo-Afrikaner” critics argue for an Afrikaans university as a precondition to the higher functions of Afrikaans being maintained, they want an “enclave”, but when he quotes former president Nelson Mandela “that a space be created and sustained for Afrikaans to keep growing as a language of science”, the quote is with agreement.

- When his “neo-Afrikaner” critics argue that SU must stay Afrikaans because of the fact that Afrikaans is the main language spoken in the Western Cape, he reminds them that SU is a “national asset”; but when English-speaking “Sipho X” of Kayamandi next to Stellenbosch town has difficulty enrolling in the Afrikaans SU, Brink plays the local card better than his “neo-Afrikaner” critics (p 138).

- In spite of the very real diversity of debates amongst Afrikaners since 1994 on the church, language, apartheid, the Angola War and so forth, Brink blows new life for his English readership into the old spectre of nationalistic Afrikanerdom, whereas a very small minority of Afrikaners today subscribe to nationalism or yearn for Afrikaner unity, which has, to my mind, always marked the low points of Afrikaner history. As there is no truth to Brink’s stereotype of the current state of affairs amongst Afrikaners, he is forced to fall back on the highly insulting label of “neo-Afrikaners”, whereas a good many of the tricks that he uses are plain old Boereverneukery.

- Whereas just about all Brink’s “neo-Afrikaner” critics subscribe to the notion of an undivided South Africa shared by various communities, he accuses them of wanting the SU as a “territory” for Afrikaans, when in fact they are arguing that no language can maintain itself without institutions of transmission. This (deliberate?) slip by Brink from institutions to “territory” does not warrant further comment.

- Brink makes absolutely no reference to the fact that all the historically Afrikaans universities in South Africa have, to varying degrees, turned into English institutions, with the exception of Free State University and the Potchefstroom campus of the Northwest-University. The latter two maintained Afrikaans through proper language planning, which is precisely what Brink’s critics have been asking from SU. But with typical SU arrogance the newly introduced dual medium instruction policy in the SU Faculty of the Humanities will somehow avoid the pitfalls of the normal, eventual domination of English over the weaker indigenous language. South Africa has a long history of “exceptionalist” arguments with disastrous consequences, not the least of which was apartheid.

- In at least one instance Brink makes a gross misrepresentation that borders on character assassination: on p 95 he accuses Hermann Giliomee of “writing in Afrikaans for an extremist Afrikaner website” (namely Dan Roodt’s PRAAG), when in fact the article in question was originally written by request for Die Burger and subsequently republished by several other publications or websites, including PRAAG.

- Brink selectively quotes the CEO of the Afrikaans empowerment NGO, the SBA, Christo van der Rheede, leaving out the fact that Van der Rheede has been one of the SU’s most vocal critics on language of late.

- Brink fails to mention that the current protest against the further erosion of Afrikaans was initially led by Breyten Breytenbach and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, with Hermann Giliomee, Afrikaner dissidents whose moral standing is impeccable. He similarly fails to mention that the biggest petition by Afrikaans writers (black, white and “coloured”) in more than 30 years was recently signed to protest this erosion, as he does the fact that more than 3 000 SU students signed a petition in October last year against the introduction of dual medium instruction in the Faculty of the Humanities. But which moral crusader will allow democratic opinion or true moral critics to stand in his way?

- Brink claims his critics blame the “ANC government” for the increased use of English at SU, whereas nearly all public criticism of this issue has been directed at the current SU management and council.

- Perhaps Brink’s worst misrepresentation, which indeed comes close to lying, is that he maintains throughout the book that his “neo-Afrikaner” critics want an exclusively Afrikaans university. There is simply no truth in this claim. In fact, Hermann Giliomee co-signed a memorandum a few years ago with Rhoda Khadalie, Charles van Onselen, Richard van der Ross and others stating that Afrikaans should be the medium of instruction for undergraduates at SU, whereas English could be used at postgraduate level, to mention but one example, and not to speculate on what Rhoda Khadalie or Richard van der Ross would say upon discovering that they are now also “neo-Afrikaners”.

In closing, it should be remarked that the main contention of Brink’s critics is that SU has, over the past three years, neglected crucial aspects of its own language policy, and that up to the present no proper, scientific language plan for SU has been drawn up. What has become increasingly catastrophic in this debate is his unwillingness to engage with his critics and a growing lack of integrity of argument shown by one of the central figures in the debate, namely Chris Brink himself. With this book, he has outdone himself.

Johann Rossouw is editor of Die Vrye Afrikaan and research and communication officer of the FAK

LitNet: 20 Maart 2005

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