BY BEKEZELA PHAKATHI, 08 JULY 2016 BUSINESS DAY
NOTE: BUSINESS DAY PUBLISHED THIS ARTICLE UNDER THE HEADING “AFRIKAANS UNIVERSITIES GRAPPLE WITH LANGUAGE”
THE recent decision by three traditionally Afrikaans universities — the University of the Free State, University of Pretoria and Stellenbosch University — to give more emphasis to English as a medium of instruction and assessment has sparked an outcry by Afrikaans lobby groups, which argue that the move is unconstitutional and could cause higher dropout rates.
In March, after weeks of student unrest, the council of the University of the Free State reached a unanimous decision to make English the primary medium of instruction from 2017. The council said English would be used at undergraduate and postgraduate level at all three campuses. AfriForum challenged the decision in court and judgment was reserved in the matter.
“Afrikaans has a right to survive. This … is about the supremacy of the Constitution,” Johan du Toit SC, representing AfriForum, argued in the High Court in Bloemfontein.
In June, the universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch adopted new language policies. At the University of Pretoria, English will become the primary language of instruction and assessment, while Stellenbosch University’s policy provides for students who want to study in Afrikaans while improving access to those who prefer to study in English.
This, critics say, will sideline Afrikaans and promote English. Both universities were rocked by student unrest prior to the adoption of the new language policies with calls for transformation growing louder.
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Those calling for Afrikaans universities to remain as such argue that the Constitution guarantees everyone education in their mother tongue. Their general stance is that Afrikaans communities have a constitutional right to demand tertiary education in Afrikaans. “This matter is likely to go all the way to the Constitutional Court, which will need to clarify section 29 (2) of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to be taught in your mother tongue,” says Alana Bailey, the deputy CEO of AfriForum.
According to Bailey, the issue of mother tongue tuition is misunderstood. She says numerous studies have shown that students who are taught in their mother tongue tend to perform better and that this leads to fewer dropouts.
“The ideal situation is to develop all local languages so that they can be a medium of instruction at tertiary level. Afrikaans is the only local language that has been developed up to tertiary level … and if it is being sidelined, what chance is there for other local languages to be developed?
“We are not anti-English but just pro-Afrikaans,” says Bailey.
However, constitutional law expert and Stellenbosch University alumni Pierre de Vos says any university language policy that directly or indirectly excludes non-Afrikaans speakers (because some courses are only taught in Afrikaans) would not comply with section 29(2) of the Constitution.
Neither would such a policy comply with section 9 as it would be discriminating against citizens on the basis of race, he says.
Section 29(2) of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions such as schools or universities, but qualifies this by stating that this can only occur “where that education is reasonably practicable”.
De Vos says the section also states that in order to ensure effective access to, and implementation of, the right to education, the state must consider all reasonable alternatives, including single-medium institutions, but must take into account equity; practicability; and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.
“Although the Constitutional Court has not ruled definitively on this, those who argue that the new (language) policies fall foul of section 29(2) will have an extremely difficult task to convince the Constitutional Court (that they do),” he says
In June Stellenbosch University said its policy explicitly made provision for students who preferred to study in Afrikaans, while also improving access to education for students who were proficient in English only.
“The university accepts and has been advised by senior counsel that the new language policy is valid and enforceable,” says Stellenbosch University spokeswoman Susan van der Merwe.
University of Pretoria spokeswoman Anna-Retha Bouwer says that the goal of the new policy is to facilitate social cohesion and promote an inclusive university community.
The university, says Bouwer, will continue to encourage multilingualism to foster unity and to provide equal opportunities to speakers of all South African languages.