Calling for A Radical Shift: Keep Afrikaans but…

“South Africa is a strange and morally tangled place…”

The University of Free State (UFS) has been running a No-to-Racism Campaign. The campus communities are encouraged to take a stand against all forms of intolerance. As part of this process the university hosted an Assembly on 28th April. Papers were presented on a range of issues that included sport, the curriculum and language policy. The latter drew the most submissions. We provide here a summary of the submission by Dr Willy Nel, a lecturer in the Faculty of Education.

The allegation that the Afrikaans language gets used to exclude some and privilege others has been made loudly at many forums of the university. Given the historical moment of collective introspection and abhorrence of the violent expressions against African nationality difference that is gripping the country, it is opportune for the UFS to open the language issue afresh.

I submit that Afrikaans be retained as a medium of teaching but in a translated format with the main medium of delivery being English. Where practicable, in terms of Afrikaans majority numbers per module, consideration can be given to translation from Afrikaans to English. This submission is by no means meant to denigrate the Afrikaans language because such denigration can never serve the Human Project of our vision. It is meant to bring students together in one class space, as far as possible, for the creative tension that difference may bring in service of continuous transformation. Sotho, like Afrikaans, should also serve as a translated language from English, the medium of instruction at UFS.

Our Language Future

1. My input rests on the assumption that our language landscape at the UFS Bloemfontein campus shifted already, as borne out by empirical evidence concerning our student demographic. Already lecturers and managers are exercising different options to the parallel dispensation, e.g. just yesterday I taught a class of first year students in the medium of English with simultaneous translation into Afrikaans which only one student took advantage of. Another example is the English medium in which most meetings and formal gatherings are held on this campus. So, I will not belabour the point of advocating for a change in language practice; the change is here and it points towards English as medium of communication with Afrikaans and Sotho as simultaneous translated languages.

2. Before I get to my main arguments, I would like to take issue with an embedded assumption in the title of this dialogue: parallel language. This assumption rests on the inherited claim to normality of having English and Afrikaans as languages of teaching and learning in South Africa. Through explicit omission, this assumption commits violence against the many other South African languages which we are apartheid-conditioned to not even think of as mediums of teaching and learning. The assumption betrays the psycho-political damage yet to be acknowledged by the leaders who dreamed up the title of this dialogue.

3. “South Africa is a strange and morally tangled place to live in” (Vice, 2010:323), Samantha Vice wrote in her paper “How do I Live in This Strange Place?” This paper sparked outrage in white circles because some people interpreted her call to an “inward moral project” (p.339) as that she asked of them to remain silent on all matters political. Francis Nyamnjoh recently reiterated his social anthropological analysis of 2006 that our world, as frontier Africans, “is characterized by…interconnections, inextricable entanglements, creative interdependencies” (Nyamnjoh, 2015:6).

Realsing Social Justice

4. Living in such a world of entanglement places on us a responsibility of hard work to realise social justice. Amilcar Cabral, in his 1965 essay “Tell no lies, Claim no easy victories”, cautioned his comrades not to become complacent by halting their political consciousness project as victory over Portuguese colonisation in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde `became certain.

5. What are these entanglements in linguistic terms? Probably every South African language contains words, phrases and meanings derived from other South African languages. By bringing into our expression of thoughts languages different to the one that mainly carries our meaning we link ourselves to the speakers of those languages, consciously or not. A South African linguistic conscience can therefore never be purist nor exclusionist. How we then deal with the pragmatic choices we have to make should exemplify this conscience. Differently put, the reasons we advance for our pragmatic language choices should be informed by the entangled linguistic conscience we, in any case, live.

6. Our pragmatic choices should, therefore, be informed by a strive for inclusivity, not exclusion, or, as Nyamnjoh (2015) put it “a winner takes all logic”. As we make our choice for English it should not be accompanied by triumphalist expressions exclaiming a victory over the “language of the oppressor”, the misguided label given to Afrikaans by over-enthusiastic activists.

7. We are not just private persons, we are entangled in a web of public roles; student, resident, citizen. As public persons we should be aware of the shame and guilt that complicity in violent participation brings. The inward moral project to deal with the shame and guilt that Samantha Vice suggested to her fellow white South Africans, is one that black South Africans can surely also heed.

Horror & Fascination

8. If black South Africans regard Afrikaans as that which invokes horror, we will do well to note that such an abjection is also another entanglement or braid of “horror and fascination” (Kristeva, 1982:209). When we reject contact with Afrikaans from such a position of abjection, we simultaneously express “an unwillingness to have a face-to-face confrontation with the abject” (p.209).

9. Abjection is the revulsion we feel, at a deep psychological level, for that which we reject but which is also part of us; faeces or human excrement comes to mind as an easy example. We do not want to handle it, nor be confronted with it because it is too ghastly to contemplate but still we have some connection to it, as our uncomfortable jokes many times exemplify. The entangled South African linguistic consciousness is linked to this abject of language rejection. The same linguistic consciousness makes us aware of our speech in which the rejected language so liberally features; the Afrikaans word “deurmekaar” is one such reminder when we cannot find the exact descriptive word in the other language we use at the time.

10. Inasmuch as the language shift would pragmatically retain Afrikaans as a simultaneously translated language we should use the fascination that the abjection for its former politically strong position invokes. The fascination that many non-Afrikaans speakers have for the language is rooted in its establishment as an academic medium. This fascination should move us to fast-track the development of Sotho, as another pragmatic language choice, for simultaneous translation.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

11. It is through such praxis that we will avoid the pitfalls of only justification and implementation discourses around the use of English for inclusion and move towards a transformative discourse (Artiles, Harris-Murri & Rostenberg, 2006). The justification discourse is undergirded by an individualistic view of social justice which emphasises access and the power of individual merit. The implementation discourse, although having a communitarian view of social justice, is constrained by the thrust for community consensus at the expense of minority dissent. A transformative discourse seeks complex understandings and practices in all their incompleteness. A transformative discourse works against marginalization at the same time that it notes historical and structural inequities.

12. In conclusion, recognizing that incompleteness is a given in whatever social endeavour we embark upon, the language shift at the UFS should happen such that this university is still attractive to speakers of the Afrikaans and Sotho languages. In an environment that is mono-anything, chances are good that new forms of oppression might arise. It is better to live and deal with the tensions and oppressions that we know than planning for an unknown.