Three years ago, the historically Afrikaans University of Stellenbosch implemented a new language policy that in effect elevated the status of English in an effort to open its doors to black students who were not fluent in Afrikaans.

Tuition in Afrikaans would still be provided, but within the practical and financial constraints facing the university.

The move came hard on the heels of the Open Stellenbosch and Fees Must Fall student movements, in which students organised on a scale not seen before in postapartheid SA to pressure the government to remove financial barriers to tertiary education.

Yet despite this newfound politicisation among the student corps, the University of Stellenbosch’s new language policy prompted only pockets of opposition on campus. Nor was there an uproar from staff. Instead, the university found itself facing a legal challenge from an Afrikaans lobby group called Gelyke Kanse, which saw the move as a threat to the future of the language.

According to Stats SA’s 2016 community survey, about 12% of SA’s population consider Afrikaans their mother tongue. To put this in context, Zulu was cited as the most common home language (24.6%), while English ranked sixth at 8.3%.

Unanimous ruling

Gelyke Kanse first took its fight against the university’s 2016 language policy to the high court in Cape Town, asking it to set aside the policy and reinstate the institution’s 2014 language policy, which gave equal status to English and Afrikaans and provided for parallel tuition. The high court dismissed the application and held that the university’s obligations under section 29(2) of the bill of rights were limited to providing Afrikaans education where it was reasonably practical. The court also found that the 2014 policy was unfair as it excluded black students who were not fluent in Afrikaans, and that the university’s position was consistent with the national language policy for higher education.

Gelyke Kanse then approached the Constitutional Court, asking it to set aside the 2016 policy on the basis that it violates section 29 (2), which reads that everyone has the right to education in the language of their choice where reasonably practical. In a unanimous ruling, the apex court dismissed Gelyke Kanse’s appeal and praised the university for the “thorough, exhaustive, inclusive and properly deliberate” manner in which it went about developing its new policy.

It judged that the university’s downward adjustment of Afrikaans, without eliminating it, was justified — not least because the university estimated that parallel tuition would have led to a 20% increase in fees. The university’s language policy not only tackles English and Afrikaans, but also strives to include the other major Western Cape home language, Xhosa. The institution’s medical students and aspirant teachers are expected to learn Xhosa to better prepare them for their professions.

Training college

A separate, concurring judgment penned by chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng appealed to citizens to help preserve Afrikaans and develop other indigenous languages as vital tools for imparting knowledge, suggesting that resources be deployed to private institutions, as envisaged by section 29(3) of the constitution.

Trade union Solidarity has already begun constructing an Afrikaans-medium occupational training college, Sol-Tech, and plans to build a second tertiary institution, Akademia. But it is doubtful whether they will attain the status of SA’s internationally recognised universities.

Gelyke Kanse’s attorney, Danie Rosseau, has describe the ruling as “the end of the road” for mother-tongue education. He is right, in the sense that the university’s language policy comes at a price, a point eloquently made by the Constitutional Court when it said Afrikaans was placed on a “sandy footing where the deluge of English predominance could well destabilise and topple it”. The inexorable march of English jeopardised SA’s entire indigenous linguistic heritage, it added. But as the court pointed out, the demise of indigenous languages is not the University of Stellenbosch’s problem.

Gelyke Kanse also ignores the fact that despite the proven benefits of home-language instruction in the early stages of a child’s education, a significant majority of the population in SA wants to see their children taught in English. Two-thirds of the people surveyed in the SA Social Attitudes Survey by the Human Sciences Research Council said they preferred English as the language of instruction during the foundation phase of primary school.

This is a reflection of their conviction that proficiency in English opens the doors of opportunity, a rational belief given that about 1.5-billion of the world’s 7.5-billion people speak English. By contrast, a mere 7-million people speak Afrikaans.

The 100-year-old University of Stellenbosch will not do itself or its students any favours if it fails to move with the times. Long gone are the days when it can comfortably serve the narrow interests of an Afrikaans-speaking white minority, secure in the knowledge that its graduates are virtually guaranteed jobs in an apartheid state.

The university is a nationally funded, research-intensive institution that needs to produce graduates who are at ease in the lingua franca of international science and business and can find a place for themselves in the labour market. Without English as a medium of instruction, it hobbles its capacity to recruit staff from beyond SA’s borders and risks becoming irrelevant and parochial.

• Kahn is Business Day science, education and health writer.