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Black students’ dissent on Afrikaans campuses is about more than just language policy

The student movements that emerged at Tuks, NWU-Pukke and Stellenbosch University (SU) in the days before #FeesMustFall protests, challenged the privileges of whiteness at campuses where Afrikaans is a medium of instruction. The tendency was to reduce students’ dissent to just a matter of language. But this would be an injustice, writes PONTSHO PILANE.

A while ago, I interviewed an Afrikaans-speaking student from NWU-Pukke who felt that it was unfair for black students at the campus to demand transformation on the campus. She said there are many universities in South Africa that have English as a medium of instruction and that those who don’t want to learn in Afrikaans should go there.

The perspective that Afrikaans-only spaces should continue to exist is not the problem – it is the expectancy that these spaces should exist at the cost of the inclusion of black students that is a cause for concern.

These language policy debates are nothing new; they have been happening since the early days of our democracy. Speaking at Stellenbosch University in 1996, Nelson Mandela said, “The real issues is not the extermination or preservation of Afrikaans as an academic medium.” Rather, he said, the question is:

  • how to create and maintain an environment for Afrikaans to continue growing as a language of scholarship and science, while
  • ensuring that non-Afrikaans speakers are not unjustly deprived of access within the system, and that
  • the use and development of a single language medium should never, either intentionally or unintentionally, be made the basis for the furtherance of racial, ethnic or narrow cultural separation

Scrapping Afrikaans as an exclusive medium of instruction at universities, in order to make them more accessible to all South Africans, would not mean the death of the language or the culture. If this were the case, there would already be nine other dead languages and cultures in this country.

This fear is unwarranted and it is a distraction from the bigger issues of white privilege and how it lingers on even in universities, the very spaces where young South Africans are told they are equal, regardless of their race, class or gender.

RELATED: NWU VC: “Transformation is not aiming at killing Afrikaans”

There is an experience that every black student has in common – the subtle, but very real presence of your blackness. We are the ones whose parents don’t have university degrees and the ones who often don’t have lecturers that look like us. I am a student at a predominantly black university yet whiteness still seeps through and reminds me of my place –  in addition to the financial burden of university, I have no academic support from my family because my parents never went to university. Imagine what it must be like for black students at Stellenbosch and Pukke, where they are in a minority? I can only imagine how suffocating that environment is.

I would love to learn in my mother tongue, but because of the imperialist and colonialist way this country was set up, I am not afforded that privilege. There are no universities where I can be taught in Setswana.

If black people, who are the majority and the most disenfranchised people in this country, can forsake their own languages to learn in English, then white Afrikaner people, who benefitted and continue to benefit from their disenfranchisement, can do the same. And they should.

To reduce the experiences of the SU and Pukke students to an attack on Afrikaans is lazy and arrogant. But it’s easier to do that than to honestly consider how one would have benefitted and continues to benefit from their race.

The students behind movements like #RhodesMustFall, #TransformWits and #OpenStellenbosch, and the nascent Reform Puk are tired of empty promises. I guess the beauty of youth is that impatience comes with it.

To ask the students at Stellenbosch, UCT, Wits, the university currently known as Rhodes and now Pukke to express their hurt and anger in ways that will make the system that oppresses them comfortable is the highest form of violence. Yet there is an inherent expectation that the process of transformation should happen at no cost to whiteness. This cannot and will not happen.

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– Featured image by DeWet via Wikimedia Commons

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