Afrikaans in higher education
By fstimes On 8 Oct, 2013 At 09:14 AM | Categorized As Leader | With 0 Comments

dr mwanikiMunene Mwaniki

THE public intellectual is at it again – speaking home truths, especially to those among us to whom denialism and belligerence are common currency and stock in trade.

Let me make one thing clear upfront: I never aspire to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Not that the accolade is questionable or unattainable, but oft the truths that are suppressed and unsaid in its quest may not serve the advancement of human freedom overall.

Alive to the sensitivities of our circumstances, however, my intellectual north has always been a simple one: tell the truth as it is and let the chips fall where they may.

And boy, trust me, they do fall!

In this instalment I tackle the issue of Afrikaans in education – especially higher education – and let the chips fall where they may.

In such endeavours, however, if one is in the company of intellectual giants, the collateral damage that one could suffer is drastically minimised.

Not that I fear digging in and retreating into the trenches and giving more than I get – when and if it comes down to that.

And talking about the company of intellectual giants, I humbly request the company of Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State (UFS), as I state some home truths about Afrikaans in education.

Speaking at The Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture of The English Academy of South Africa held at the UFS on September 18 2013, Jansen was on target on the improbable place that Afrikaans occupies in South Africa’s education, especially higher education.

The lecture was appropriately titled “Not even colonial born: England, the English and the problem of education in South Africa”.

The good professor was at his usual candid and honest self.

Sample the following polemic as he created a background for his arguments.

“Black parents prefer to have their children study in English,” he categorically stated.

“No matter what politicians might say about indigenous education, or PANSALB about language rights, black parents make the correct calculation that the entire economy is organised on English terms and therefore the chances of success are much greater in the colonial language.”

Is there any right-thinking patriot out there who can contest the veracity of this observation?

In an audacious and apt turn in the lecture, Jansen went on to pointedly remind those in attendance that the language choices of black parents that he had just outlined was “something that Afrikaans language activists cannot understand as they try to bring the non-English languages under one political umbrella in what is a very superficial scheme to advance the one other language that enjoyed status and funding as official language for decades under apartheid, Afrikaans”.


But are we surprised that Afrikaans language activists cannot understand the language choices of black parents?

However, it is when Jansen turned to addressing the issue of language in higher education that the hypocrisy that often accompanies Afrikaans language activists and the beneficiaries of their shenanigans’ all-too-frequent huffing, puffing and posturing was put under the glare.

“At universities with dual language policies, like the UFS, black students make a very different argument for having classes in English,” he observed.

“They see their choice of English as a trade-off that demands a similar give-and-take from Afrikaans-speaking students.

“In other words, let the Afrikaans students give up Afrikaans just as we give up Setswana or isiZulu and let us all learn in English, the common factor in our educational experience.

“There is, by the way, another reason for this kind of bargaining – a deep suspicion on the part of black students that Afrikaans-speaking students get access to examinable knowledge in ways that they do not by virtue of being taught in the language of the lecturer, that is Afrikaans.”

Folks, there you have it and I rest my case!

Before I do that, however, suffice to state that in 2012 I published a research article that on the basis of qualitative and quantitative data collected at the UFS came to the same findings and warned that the dual language policy of the UFS was against the tenets of social justice.

In the article (Mwaniki 2012), I stated that “the results show that language is a critical component in the conceptualisation and actualisation of social justice in South Africa’s higher education.

“The results further indicate that language continues to play the role of privileging access to higher education for some, while curtailing access to higher education for others.

“This reality is contrary to the principles of social justice and the article recommends a radical overhaul of the language dispensation in South Africa’s higher education within the framework of social justice.”

I must hasten to add that since the publication of these research findings, my daily experiences at the UFS as a black academic have conclusively convinced me that we need to confront the issue of Afrikaans in higher education – if not to address issues of access and social justice, then to address the ignorance and arrogance that accompanies Afrikaans usage in higher education.

For how else does one start explaining that we have in UFS some white Afrikaans-speaking professors who bully their black research assistants into learning Afrikaans if they want to still keep their “jobs” – in this time and age?

As we ponder this, let us reflect what the 1949 Nobel Literature laureate William Faulkner reminds us: the past is never dead and buried – it isn’t even past.


Dr Munene Mwaniki is a Senior Lecturer/Researcher at the University of the Free State. You can follow him on Twitter @munenemwaniki.

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