The Constitutional Court. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/NICOLENE OLCKERS
The Constitutional Court. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/NICOLENE OLCKERS

On Thursday, the Constitutional Court upheld a high court decision that Stellenbosch University was correct in implementing its 2016 policy that gave preference to English over Afrikaans.

“This Court finds that the university’s process in adopting the 2016 policy was thorough, exhaustive, inclusive and properly deliberative,” the judgment said. “The university’s motivation for introducing the 2016 policy was to facilitate equitable access to its campus, teaching and learning opportunities by black students who are not conversant in Afrikaans.”

The highest court in the land found that the decision to alter the language policy was warranted and that retaining the previous Afrikaans policy was not reasonably practical, as this resulted in “the exclusion of non-Afrikaans speakers from full participation in tuition and other institutional benefits”.

The Court said evidence showed that, near universally, Afrikaans-speaking first-year entrants to the university were able to be taught in English, with only a small minority being the exception.

The Court also found that the previous policy was an exclusionary hurdle, specifically for black students studying at the university. “The evidence also showed that separate classes in English and Afrikaans, or single classes conducted in Afrikaans — with translation from Afrikaans into English — made black students not conversant in Afrikaans feel marginalised, excluded and stigmatised.” 

Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at tertiary level came under debate in the courts, with the university saying it adopted the English language policy to ensure equal access, multi-lingualism and integration. According to the university, this policy allows for three language specifications: parallel medium, dual medium and single medium — while maintaining Afrikaans, subject to demand and within the university’s resources. This policy was adopted under the Higher Education Act and the national language policy for higher education.

Stellenbosch University argued that this policy, in contrast to its preceding 2014 policy, did not exclude black and English-speaking students from full and equitable access to the institution.

Disagreement

Gelyke Kanse, a voluntary association formed to oppose the 2016 policy, did not agree with the ruling. In its heads of argument before the Court, Gelyke Kanse said it acted on behalf of hundreds of thousands of South Africans who cannot receive tertiary education in their indigenous mother tongue, particularly “the brown, Afrikaans-speaking people of the Western Cape”.

It said Zulu is the indigenous language of the largest group of South Africans, followed by Xhosa, Afrikaans, and only then English. It said that in the Western Cape, Afrikaans is the majority language, followed by Xhosa then English.

“Brown people are the largest population group in the Western Cape — the majority of them speak Afrikaans and many of them, particularly those from rural areas, can receive tertiary education only in that language,” it said. “They are by far the most under-represented group at tertiary education institutions and the dropout figure is by far the highest.”

Gelyke Kanse had submitted that the Potchefstroom campus of the North West University is the only place where one can still obtain a degree in Afrikaans. Of the four universities in the Western Cape, it said, three use English as the exclusive language of instruction, while Stellenbosch University uses it “progressively predominantly”.

Addressing this, the Court said it noted that “the flood tide of English risks jeopardising the precious value of our entire indigenous linguistic heritage”.

The Court highlighted that the world is relentlessly hostile to minority languages but stressed that this cannot be the university’s burden.