Undoing a divisive language policy and practice at the UFS

By Dionne van Reenen

English will be the main language of instruction at the University of the Free State with Sotho, Zulu and Afrikaans developed into academic languages. Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the university, made this announcement at the official opening of the university earlier this month. This finally cements into place a new language policy at the end of a long process fraught with difficulties. The Constitutional Court ruling brought the matter to rest at the end of last year. This decision is likely to place more pressure on other universities facing the same practical challenges. The chairperson of the Language Policy Review Committee, Dionne van Reenen, sketches the backdrop to the process and explains what it means practically. She writes in her personal capacity.

In late December 2017, the Constitutional Court handed down their decision to refuse the Afrikaner rights group AfriForum leave to appeal regarding the implementation of the 2016 Language Policy of the University of the Free State (UFS).

Predictably, there has been much rhetoric circulating on various media platforms since then – some of which is valid and useful to the higher education sector; some of which is ahistorical, untrue or disingenuously contextualized; and some of which is more complex and nuanced, requiring further explanation or deliberation.

As the chair of the committee that was tasked to review the 2003 Language Policy and make recommendations to the UFS management, senate and council, I have been asked to respond to these positions. In general, the committee members have been silent, partly in order to preserve the integrity of the review process which was extremely important to us, partly to protect the reputation of the university during a difficult transition and partly to avoid further personal attacks from conservatives which have, at times, been tiresome.

We have been accused of incompetence and being anti-white; such accusations also did not escape the Constitutional Court Justices (Mogoeng, in particular) who made the decision. These repeated digs were expected and, while unfortunate, they ultimately did not stop the slow road towards transformation at our university. Against the opinion of the Deputy CEO of AfriForum, Ernst Roets, I will clearly state, from the outset, that the manner in which these language politics played out at the University of the Free State in its extended policy review process from 2015-2017, which I personally coordinated every step of the way, had absolutely nothing to do with the politics and principles (Roets terms these ‘Leftist ideas’) of the ruling class at the time and everything to do with finding a solution that was possible to implement in a fair manner, as a university collective, under current, higher education legislation and the Constitution.

In 2015, initial submissions from staff and students at the University Assembly on transformation requested a Language Policy review. This was not the first request and certainly not the first time that the parallel policy had been highlighted as a major obstacle to transformation at the university. No matter where one’s leanings went, at least one thing we could all agree on, was that the parallel policy was not working. The rectorate then approved an extensive, formal review process of the 2003 Parallel Language Policy (the practice of which began in 1993). The senate and council then adopted a new policy in 2016 on the recommendations of the Language Policy Review Committee and, after ensuing legal processes in the Bloemfontein High Court and Supreme Court of Appeals thereafter, the Constitutional Court handed down its decision. For those who are interested, the full judgement is worth listening to and considering.

The new policy will be implemented in all faculties with a few exceptions like Theology. What this means, is that all classes will be conducted together in integrated English-medium settings with the same study material made available to everyone. There will not be separate classes repeated for separate language groups on their own. Tutorials will consist of mixed language groups and it is up to lecturers and tutors to conduct and coordinate these with as much assistance for students as possible. Events and meetings will be held in English so that everyone can understand and participate together. The use of additional languages are welcomed and celebrated so long as it does not exclude or compromise university members. Language departments will continue to be capacitated and strengthened to produce scholarly work particular to their histories and literatures.

In this way, all university members can enjoy equal access to and success in the university and employment markets we supply, as well as interact in an integrated global environment.

This was always the motivation behind the recommendations submitted to the university structures and that eventually went before the courts: to serve all our university members with dignity and fairness and to give them the best opportunities to participate in differentiated circumstances, especially those from which many were previously excluded. This approach includes ALL language and culture groups and allows for everyone to be a part of the conversation, to build on successes and work through problems together.

Dionne Van Reenen wrote this piece in her personal capacity.

More stories in Issue 96

Contributors

Dionne van Reenen

Dionne van Reenen is a Researcher for the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice and Chair of the Language Policy Review Committee at the University of the Free State.

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