[intro]The debate around language mediums at universities is raging around the country. Dr Danie FM Strauss, a Research Fellow at the School of Philosophy, North West University, makes the case for Afrikaans, cautioning against what he called “lingual cleansing”.[/intro]

Professor Theuns Eloff noted that 33 out of 39 tertiary educational institutions in South Africa are English. About 20% of the students at these institutions prefer Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. Taking this into consideration, would therefore justify seven exclusively Afrikaans medium universities.

According to the census of 2011, Afrikaans is the third most widely spoken language in South Africa [(13.5%) – after respectively Zulu (22.7%), and Xhosa (16.0%)]. The 2002 language policy for universities in South Africa rightfully acknowledges Afrikaans alongside English as a tertiary academic language. Also note that there are seven million mother-tongue Afrikaans-speaking people in South Africa of which 60% (4.2 m) are non-white. In harmony with the just-mentioned facts and faithful to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Minister Blade Nzimande recently praised Afrikaans as a developing academic language while expressing the wish that other indigenous languages be developed into scientific languages as well.

Official languages in South Africa

The Constitution identifies 11 official languages in South Africa and stipulates that the “Pan South African Language Board” “must … promote, and create conditions for the development and use of … all official languages”.

No single English-speaking university after 1994 provided programmes for Afrikaans-speaking students in their area – this was solely done by the historical Afrikaans-speaking universities. In Bloemfontein, for example, 7.5% of its population are English-speaking (with 42.48% Afrikaans, 33.4% Sesotho) whereas more than 70% of the UFS students study in English.

Since the majority of mother-tongue Afrikaans-speaking people are non-white, they already suffered from discrimination under the Apartheid regime. Remember also that apart from opportunities within South Africa, Afrikaans opens up opportunities and relationships with Europe, in particular with The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Austria.

Sacrificing your mother-tongue?

Particularly black students currently argue that they are disadvantaged because they have to sacrifice their mother-tongue when studying in English. To rectify this injustice they argue that Afrikaans-speaking students should also sacrifice their mother-tongue.

This contradicts the above-mentioned view of Dr Nzimande. But what about mother-tongue English-speaking students? Would fairness not require that the latter give up their mother-tongue to study in Afrikaans? However, this would lead to multiple forms of discrimination.

Discriminating consequences

  • Firstly, when entering only-English tertiary institutions learners from Afrikaans schools will be disadvantaged in comparison to learners from English schools.
  • Secondly, it will degrade the very existence of Afrikaans-speaking schools by closing their window on tertiary education.
  • Thirdly, this loss will at once preclude benefiting from the European roots of Afrikaans, namely Dutch, German and Belgian.
  • Fourthly, since the majority of Afrikaans-speaking people in South Africa are non-white they will be subjected to a reinforced discrimination.
  • Fifthly, since there is no indigenous academic language black students cannot give up something they do not have so why then require Afrikaans-speaking students to give up what they do have?
  • Furthermore, differentiation does not entail “separation.” The entire school system in South Africa is based upon language differentiation with Afrikaans-speaking and English-speaking schools. Therefore:

  • Sixthly, confusing language differentiation with separation (and Apartheid) violates the constitutional rights of Afrikaans-speaking individuals.
  • The importance of language differentiation obtains further support from the perspective of the “just state” (“regstaat” – a constitutional state under the rule of law).

    The perspective of a just state (regstaat)

    As the fruit of the cultural development in Western Europe since the 12th and 13th centuries, state, church and university started to part ways. This process opened up a domain in which intellectual reflection came into its own – liberated from the grip of both the church and the state. The oldest idea of the university is that of a free community of teachers and students. Eventually personal intellectual freedom (freedom of thought) also acquired recognition in the Bills of Rights and in the constitutions of modern democratic states. This recognition presupposes a multiplicity of non-political societal entities present within a differentiated society, including business enterprises, social clubs, ethnic (cultural) communities, different lingual communities, families, schools and universities – as well as the personal freedom of individuals viewed apart from any societal collectivity in which they merely function as parts of a larger whole.

    Binding together government and citizen within one public legal order disregards ethnic differences, racial differences, religious differences, language differences, differences in economic position and social rank, family differences and differences in dispositions or intelligence. However, the public legal integration achieved by the government should not destroy these differences. On the contrary, it belongs to the nature of the state that in uniting the legal interests of these non-political spheres into one public legal order, their diversity is left intact. Integrating people on its territory concerns merely one differentiated function of them, namely being citizens.

    Avoid moving from support and financing to control and ownership

    Given the distinct academic responsibility of universities, support and financing provided by the state should not turn into control and ownership because this is totalitarian – the very opposite of what the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa stipulates and what Dr Nzimande emphatically declared by acknowledging the distinct academic responsibilities of universities.

    We have to transcend the Paideia ideal of ancient Greece

    The state therefore disregards non-political ties in order to care for the legal interests entailed by them – keeping in mind that the full meaning of being human can never be exhausted by being a citizen within the state. Education therefore does not merely aim at “becoming a good citizen” (which was the Paideia ideal of ancient Greece with the polis, the city state, as the encompassing whole of society), because it should contribute to all the distinct responsibilities of the various non-political domains of life as well.

    Diversity: not lost but protected alongside a public-legal unity

    A just state has to bind together the diversity of legal interests based upon a monopolistic organisation of the “power of the sword” within its territory without interfering in their own internal affairs and without threatening the presupposed societal diversity.

    The violation of rights within the public-legal domain, within the different non-political societal spheres or in respect of personal freedom exercised on equal footing, should be rectified by the appropriate state-organs, namely criminal courts and civil courts.

    Fighting racism certainly should be a priority within a country such as South Africa given its history of Apartheid, but it should not be confused with legitimate differentiation. The latter entails language differentiation which is the opposite of “racial separation.”

    From whatever angle you approach the situation in South Africa there is no ground for attacking Afrikaans in a frenzy of “lingual cleansing.” Such an attitude will ultimately terminate the very freedom enshrined in the South African Constitution, precluding the celebration of our diversity in a mutually enriching way.

    Will South Africa pursue the path of intimidation (with the threat to the lives and property of persons with opposing views – basically a totalitarian political culture) or will it maintain the democratic political culture outlined in the South African Constitution (open to institutional avenues for settling differences and with respect for the lives and property of citizens with opposing views)?