A Constitutional Court majority ruled that Stellenbosch University’s choice of English as primary language was inclusive and fair. Picture: ERHARDT THIEL
A Constitutional Court majority ruled that Stellenbosch University’s choice of English as primary language was inclusive and fair. Picture: ERHARDT THIEL

And so eventually the debate on Afrikaans in universities ended not with a bang but a whimper in the Constitutional Court last week. Decades of intense struggles to maintain a few exclusive Afrikaans universities, at one point, and then to retain Afrikaans as a primary language of instruction, at a later point, all came to a screeching halt in the court of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

I lived through the worst of those debates on three historically Afrikaans university campuses; a placard at the University of Pretoria, Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek (Speak Afrikaans or shut up), still disturbs me. It is therefore a relief that the language question has finally been put to bed.

The question of Afrikaans in the classroom was never about language. It was about power. It was about a group that had lost political power now trying to reassert its identity and authority through Afrikaans. It was about Afrikaans as the proprietary rights of the few and not as a linguistic asset belonging to the many.

The taalstryders were both desperate and disingenuous in their struggle to retain Afrikaans dominance on university campuses. On a regular basis an appeal was made to the needs of “die Bruinmense” (the Brown people) based on a long-held fantasy that all those so classified speak Afrikaans. It was also a continuation of a political dance from the past century where coloureds were regularly enticed into some form of racial inclusion at the expense of Africans only to be left out because of the racism of generations of Afrikaner nationalists.

At the heart of the disappointment with the Constitutional Court ruling among language activist groups like Gelyke Kanse (equal chances) is a 20th-century lament that Afrikaans deserves the same status as English. That kind of miscalculation is a sad leftover from the so-called Anglo-Boer War, as if the struggle over language today is still about a political settlement between the dominant languages of two warring white parties.

A third strategy among the Afrikaans strugglers was the appeal to indigenous languages. Suddenly, Afrikaans was indigenous just like Tshivenda and isiZulu, and the public argument frequently made was that our non-English languages should not be neglected. A nice move except that the very people who made massive investments in developing Afrikaans deliberately neglected the other African languages for more than a century because of the political significance of Afrikaans.

Afrikaans students no longer harbour those deep ideological attachments to the language as their parents and grandparents.

A fourth strategy, the most bizarre of all, was to teach all students in Afrikaans and then have interpreters whisper the English translations into the ears of black students. This idea, first punted by the old “Potchefstroom” university, was not only pedagogically silly, it was politically stupid too. But some white Afrikaans speakers can be remarkably blind to the arrogance of power.

All these manoeuvres eventually failed and as soon as a Constitutional Court majority ruled that Stellenbosch’s choice of English as primary language was inclusive and fair, the narrative of apocalyptic doom appeared on the front pages of some Afrikaans newspapers. The end of Afrikaans. Of course, this is nonsense. Afrikaans enjoys so much currency as a spreektaal (spoken language) and more than ever enjoys more and more cultural prominence as a kunstaal (language of the arts).

On campuses Afrikaans will have to learn the necessary lesson that its future can be assured without the dominance that it enforced on non-speakers of the language and that sparked the deadly Soweto Uprising among students in the late 1970s.

But why did this debate end with a whimper? It is largely because of a change in attitudes among white, Afrikaans-speaking students. They no longer harbour those deep ideological attachments to the language as their parents and grandparents. Bitter memories of the war of 1899-1902 against the English, concentration camps and all, have faded with the passage of time.

Afrikaans youth also know the world around them has changed and that they could very well work for a major accounting firm in New York, play for a rugby team in Ireland or live with their families in New Zealand. For this they need competency and fluency in English.

Not everyone has made such a reckoning with reality. Conservative white groups are establishing their own “academies” (they should not be called universities). Do not for one moment believe this is about Afrikaans as a language of instruction. It is about separateness, that “knowledge in the blood” that still flows through the veins of some white Afrikaans speakers who simply cannot countenance the idea of learning and living alongside other South Africans. Afrikaans becomes the handy separator that shields these citizens from engagement with others as equals in classroom, community and country.

There is an interesting explanation for the turn towards English among black students. In the political calculations of black youth, English is the neutral language. This means that Afrikaans students and English students now encounter higher learning on the common ground of a second language, which also happens to be a universal language; put differently, neither group now has a manifest advantage by language. In this context, the retention of Afrikaans was seen as contiguous with past privilege and worse, as a reminder of bitter historical memories of a language that killed.

Fortunately, a growing majority of white Afrikaans speakers have embraced the new SA with all its turmoil and troubles. That is why there was no public revolt against the Constitutional Court. That embrace of the new SA as a multilingual country is the best hope for the future of Afrikaans stripped of any lingering pretentions of baasskap.