A full bench of the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria has dismissed an application by AfriForum and Solidarity to set aside the University of Pretoria’s decision that English would be its main language of instruction.
The organisations maintained the June 2016 decision took away the existing rights of Afrikaans-speaking students to be instructed in the language of their choice, discriminated against them on the basis of language and was unconstitutional because it was reasonably practicable to offer tuition in Afrikaans.
The university opposed the application, arguing that retaining Afrikaans discriminated against the majority of its students and that the decision was justifiable, as only 25.1% of their students were Afrikaans speaking and the decline in the enrollment of white students and the demand for Afrikaans was likely to continue.
The university maintained retaining Afrikaans would perpetuate racial segregation and that the new policy would facilitate social cohesion.
Judges Peter Mabuse, Jody Kollapen and Selby Baqwa dismissed the application with costs.
Judge Mabuse said while language was indeed a positive and affirming component of human identity, history was also replete with examples of how powerful elites were able to harness language as a tool of domination, subjugation and exclusion.
He said it was unassailable that providing tuition in Afrikaans was not reasonably practicable, as the data indicated a steady decline in the demand for Afrikaans and of white students at the university.
“The new policy cannot be discriminatory simply because it ceases to offer Afrikaans as a language choice of instruction. … [Making] English the sole language of instruction … may well constitute some levelling of the playing field but in a constructive and forward-looking manner.
“… Given the enforced separation that was the hallmark of our society for so long, we have the choice of continuing to thrive ensconced in our separateness or embracing the unifying diversity our constitution contemplates for our society,” he said.
He said the university’s language policy choice was consistent with the constitution and also signalled “a deep an sincere commitment to place the university at the forefront of being an agent in advancing social cohesion and in providing an important intellectual space where South Africans, in their bewildering diversity, can together reflect on the kind of issues and debates that a young and vibrant society such as ours must confront”.