The South African Constitutional Court’s latest unanimous determination upholding Stellenbosch University’s coverage favouring English is essential in each substance and tone for its evolving narrative on language, race and historic wrongs.
To totally perceive what was at stake within the case, one has to return to Stellenbosch’s beginnings. Achieving college standing in 1918, the intent was to supply increased schooling to Afrikaans-speaking college students. As time went on, Stellenbosch grew to become an elite stronghold of Afrikaner custom and a significant power in preserving apartheid separatism.
That historical past nonetheless haunts the establishment though, as of 2018, solely 58.1% of the scholars have been white and never all of them have been Afrikaners.
With the tip of apartheid within the early 1990s, the college supplied English instruction on a restricted scale to accommodate primarily non-white college students. In 2014, the college adopted a coverage that supplied parallel-medium instruction in English and Afrikaans with deciphering, largely from Afrikaans to English. Postgraduate instruction was in English and Afrikaans, although English predominated.
In 2015 and 2016, Stellenbosch and its language coverage grew to become caught up in campus disruptions throughout the nation. What started because the Twitter initiative #RhodesMustFall on the University of Cape Town regularly grew right into a nationwide name #FeesMustFall, which then advanced into #AfrikaansMustFall, and #OpenStellenbosch with calls for for ‘decolonialising’ increased schooling and for all-English instruction at former white Afrikaans universities like Stellenbosch.
Throughout the controversy, language grew to become each an finish in itself and a proxy for airing deeper financial and social grievances. Leading the cost have been poor and working-class black college students, a lot of whom didn’t communicate English as their dwelling language. English supplied them social and financial mobility but in addition a impartial various to Afrikaans and the subordinating position it had performed below apartheid.
For white Afrikaners, the controversy was about preserving their social standing in addition to their identification, of which Afrikaans was a essential half.
Many different blended race college students, whose dwelling language was Afrikaans, have been much less seen and vocal, although they too clung to the language for each pragmatic and identification causes.
Responding to campus protests, the college established a working group that developed the 2016 Language Policy. Taking impact in January 2017, the acknowledged intent was to advertise “equal access, multilingualism and integration”.
The college agreed to equally supply parallel courses in English and Afrikaans “where reasonably practicable and pedagogically sound”. Where that was not the case, courses can be ‘dual medium’, that’s, taught in English with a abstract or key notes in Afrikaans, whereas questions can be answered within the languages during which they have been requested.
Afrikaans courses would nonetheless be supplied within the first yr. Subject to scholar demand and institutional assets, Afrikaans undeniably misplaced its longstanding “position of primacy”.
The court docket determination
Those are the info that introduced Gelyke Kanse, a voluntary affiliation whose title interprets to ‘even chances’ or ‘equal opportunities’, together with six white and blended race Afrikaans-speaking college students, to problem the 2016 coverage in court docket. Rebuffed within the High Court, Western Cape Division, they sought direct enchantment to the Constitutional Court of South Africa on the constitutional claims.
The group primarily argued that the coverage violated the precise below Section 29 (2) of the Constitution to “receive education in the official language” of “one’s choice” in public instructional establishments the place “reasonably practicable” making an allowance for “equity”, “practicability” and “the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices”.
It additionally raised the state’s obligation below Section 6 (2) to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use” of the nation’s 11 official languages, together with English and Afrikaans, and below Section 6 (4) to deal with all official languages “equitably”.
The court docket’s evaluation is placing on a variety of counts. First, the choice is unanimous in distinction to the court docket’s 2017 ruling upholding the English coverage on the University of the Free State, which elicited three dissenting opinions. There the brand new coverage aimed toward relieving racial tensions; right here it was racial marginalisation. There the court docket upheld a coverage that successfully eradicated Afrikaans; right here Afrikaans was solely “diminished”.
Though certain by the sooner ruling, the bulk and two concurring opinions tackle a extra conciliatory and fewer politically charged tone. They make solely fleeting references to the wrongs of the previous as in comparison with Free State’s overarching theme of redress and “radical” transformation with repeated references to “healing, reconciliation and reparation” to undo a historical past of “racial supremacy”.
Weighing the prices and the advantages, the court docket recognises that monetary issues can set limits on particular person rights in judging what’s “reasonably practicable” below the Constitution. The court docket agrees with the college that providing parallel streams in English and Afrikaans on an equal foundation, as Gelyke Kanse proposed, would show “enormously, if not prohibitively, expensive”, elevating the fee to college students by 20%.
The court docket accepts the college’s proof that the earlier coverage’s twin medium courses, with deciphering from Afrikaans to English, marginalised and stigmatised black college students who couldn’t communicate Afrikaans. It acknowledges the intent underlying the 2016 coverage to grant “equitable access” to educating and studying to black college students who weren’t proficient in Afrikaans however have been predominantly isiXhosa-speaking.
Looking on the proof objectively, the court docket notes that the majority Afrikaans-speaking first-year college students may very well be taught in English whereas a big minority of entrants lacked the abilities for Afrikaans instruction. The 2014 coverage made these college students, overwhelmingly black, really feel “marginalised, excluded and stigmatised”.
Finally, the court docket locations the language query and “equitable treatment” on politically impartial terrain. It notes the “global march of English” and its results on the nation’s whole linguistic heritage, whereas recognising Afrikaans as a “cultural treasure of South African life”.
A cautionary story
Similar considerations for indigenous languages are echoed within the two concurring opinions. The first, written by the chief justice, appears to the non-public sector to take up the cost whereas calling on the state to face prepared as quickly as public assets enable. The second, written in each English and Afrikaans, is what it calls a “cautionary tale” on the implications of the choice for multilingualism and language rights all through education in South Africa and past.
Rather than dwelling on the previous, the opinion appears to the current and the longer term, underscoring the connection to race, language and poverty and the significance of language in shaping self-identity. It particularly argues for mom tongue instruction in each Afrikaans and different indigenous languages, not solely as a matter of legislation, however as a matter of excellent pedagogy primarily based on sound analysis.
It instantly takes on English because the dominant world language and the way it favours extra privileged white first language English-speakers, in addition to white, blended race and black second-language audio system, who attended English language non-public colleges or well-resourced public colleges.
It makes the case for mom tongue instruction for marginalised blended race college students whose dwelling language is Afrikaans, who’re the bottom in numbers attending increased schooling, and who “suffer most” from an schooling restricted to English.
Within this multilingual narrative, the opinion argues for shifting past the previous, the place Afrikaans admittedly was a method of energy and oppression, to a spot the place Afrikaans audio system may be happy with their language and audio system of different indigenous African languages can declare their proper to “use their language anywhere and everywhere”.
The multilingual flip
The long-awaited Constitutional Court determination, in each majority and concurring opinions, opens a window on the route the court docket appears to be taking in its wrestle to use the letter and spirit of the Constitution in resolving the tensions amongst English, Afrikaans and different indigenous languages.
Without forgetting the wrongs of the previous, the court docket seems to be shifting towards current inequities and a extra inclusive and fewer politically charged multilingual narrative.
It stays to be seen whether or not that shift can reshape public discourse and insurance policies on language and schooling, particularly given the worldwide dominance of English, and whether or not it might transfer the nation towards the Constitution’s promise of transformation and redress.
That being stated, the result undoubtedly is a heavy blow to the various Stellenbosch alumni who’re deeply invested in preserving the college’s Afrikaans custom. It is a fair heavier blow to the petitioners who misplaced a three-year battle.
The court docket, nonetheless, means that they might mount a future problem to the coverage as carried out if it offers credence to their fears that the coverage is “sidelining” Afrikaans, although the evidentiary bar could also be insurmountably excessive.
Given Afrikaans’ previous position, each actual and symbolic, in sustaining racial exclusion at Stellenbosch, the Constitutional Court’s determination diminishing the language’s present-day relevance is certainly historic, not only for the college however for South Africa.
Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law, United States. She is the writer of True American: Language, identification, and the schooling of immigrant youngsters (Harvard University Press) and is at the moment finishing a guide on world English, identification and linguistic justice for Oxford University Press.