Every other week AfriForum or Solidarity win a court case in favour of keeping Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at institutions of higher learning. But are these victories consistent with the project of nation-building in this country?
The subject of languages in education is almost as emotive as the discussion of race. It’s one if the few topics that usually don’t end well when discussed on social media. But discuss it we must. It’s not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, Afrikaans always appears to be the victim in our discussion of languages in education. But that’s not coincidental.
When institutions of higher learning seek to remove Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the classroom or make amendments that affect Afrikaans, the custodians of all things Afrikaner (most notably AfriForum) throw their toys out of the cot, crying foul. They claim Afrikaans is being sidelined and driven to oblivion.
In an ideal world, all 11 of South Africa’s languages would be afforded the same status academically in institutions of higher learning. AfriForum never misses a chance to trumpet the advantages of mother tongue education, thus appearing to be advocates not only for the preservation of Afrikaans and its place in South African society, but also to imply that all of the other languages should be upgraded to Afrikaans’ status.
What’s really being asked for?
“The current government must do for all the other indigenous languages what the Afrikaaner government did for Afrikaans.”
This is a very sober argument, but it ignores the actual process that got Afrikaans where it is. Exclusively Afrikaans schools and universities were established over a long period of time at a great cost to indigenous languages. Were the government to do for each of the other languages what has been done for Afrikaans, that would in effect be a threat to the existence of Afrikaans because it would mean that Afrikaans would be relegated to the same lower social status level that Tshivenda or isiXhosa were in the past.
That most of the indigenous languages developed academically to the level that they have is through the sheer tenacity of the few academics using those languages. There was never a deliberate government plan geared towards developing any of these languages as was done for Afrikaans. We are suddenly told by AfriForum that “all those advocating for the removal of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction do not appreciate the value of mother tongue learning”. Sure we do. No one can argue against the strides of countries that use mother tongue learning. Germany, Japan, France, China and England are prime examples of mother tongue learning successes. But none of those countries is in transition from the kind of past we have gone through, and none is as heterogenous as our society.
To deny that Afrikaans has enjoyed an artificially created privileged position in our society is to deny the history of South Africa. That privilege was earned at the expense of other languages in South Africa. Before you froth at the mouth, I’m not advocating for a reverse situation where Afrikaans get the same treatment the rest of South Africa’s languages got. Far from it.
It’s a zero-sum game
The point is that in this period of transition, there are very limited places at institutions of higher learning. This shortcoming has to be fixed in the short term, and until we get to a position where all languages enjoy the same social and academic status, there will have to be compromise on the part of Afrikaans at institutions of higher learning that have been exclusively built with just Afrikaners in mind. That people ask for English to rank alongside Afrikaans is in itself a compromise on their part. It is therefore disingenuous for those whose mother tongue is Afrikaans to scream that they are being sidelined. The rest of South Africa has not only been sidelined for Afrikaans to advance, they’ve been denied.
Nation-building efforts have been quite lopsided. People such as Professor Jonathan Jansen have been hailed as nation-builders of note because they have managed to engineer situations whereby the rest of society has quietly been assimilated into situations that are quite normal for Afrikaans speakers.
This not only exists in universities. Many former Model C schools offer English as the medium of instruction, only offering Afrikaans as the alternative second language. Again, kids whose home language is not Afrikaans or English are advised that “the government should be providing schools that have other languages as the main languages of instruction”. But we are a country in transition. It didn’t take Afrikaans only 20 years to get where it is. It will take each of the other languages just as long to develop to that level.
But wouldn’t it be revolutionary if schools that currently offer Afrikaans only as a second language offered an indigenous language instead? Would it not do more for nation-building than the current setup?
It’s not self-hate, it’s practical
We have allowed ourselves to be led to believe that the ideal situation is one in which all our languages thrive equally at all institutions of higher learning and that for one to accept anything less is self-hate. In situations as cosmopolitan as Gauteng, the government can provide the framework for each language to thrive, but it is quite possible that, as we evolve as a nation, we will reach levels of natural acculturation, where different cultures fuse to result in a culture that is generally acceptable to those in that part of society – but that can only happen when all parties go into that society as equals.
Instead of continuously creating artificial situations where indigenous cultures are made to fuse with already existing Anglo-Boer cultures we should be striving for a situation where English and Afrikaans speakers are prepared for life in Africa, getting to appreciate the cultures of their fellow countrymen. What better way to learn and know about your fellow countrymen than through taking deliberate measures to learn one of their languages, as they’ve had to learn one of yours?
We have to move from the current premise that says anyone saying I’m not comfortable with being lectured in Afrikaans is seen as saying Afrikaans must be wiped off the map. That’s almost impossible. Afrikaans will always have its place in our history. Our aim should be to ensure that everyone else’s language develops enough to play a meaningful role going forward. In the meantime, compromises will be required.