The South African Constitutional Court’s recent unanimous decision upholding Stellenbosch University’s policy favouring English is important in both substance and tone for its evolving narrative on language, race and historical wrongs.
To fully understand what was at stake in the case, one has to go back to Stellenbosch’s beginnings. Achieving university status in 1918, the intent was to offer higher education to Afrikaans-speaking students. As time went on, Stellenbosch became an elite stronghold of Afrikaner tradition and a major force in preserving apartheid separatism.
That history still haunts the institution even though, as of 2018, only 58.1% of the students were white and not all of them were Afrikaners.
With the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, the university offered English instruction on a limited scale to accommodate primarily non-white students. In 2014, the university adopted a policy that offered parallel-medium instruction in English and Afrikaans with interpreting, mostly from Afrikaans to English. Postgraduate instruction was in English and Afrikaans, though English predominated.
In 2015 and 2016, Stellenbosch and its language policy became caught up in campus disruptions across the country. What began as the Twitter initiative #RhodesMustFall at the University of Cape Town gradually grew into a nationwide call #FeesMustFall, which then evolved into #AfrikaansMustFall, and #OpenStellenbosch with demands for ‘decolonialising’ higher education and for all-English instruction at former white Afrikaans universities like Stellenbosch.
Throughout the controversy, language became both an end in itself and a proxy for airing deeper economic and social grievances. Leading the charge were poor and working-class black students, many of whom did not speak English as their home language. English offered them social and economic mobility but also a neutral alternative to Afrikaans and the subordinating role it had played under apartheid.
For white Afrikaners, the controversy was about preserving their social status as well as their identity, of which Afrikaans was a critical part.
Many other mixed race students, whose home language was Afrikaans, were less visible and vocal, though they too clung to the language for both pragmatic and identity reasons.
Responding to campus protests, the university established a working group that developed the 2016 Language Policy. Taking effect in January 2017, the stated intent was to promote “equal access, multilingualism and integration”.
The university agreed to equally offer parallel classes in English and Afrikaans “where reasonably practicable and pedagogically sound”. Where that was not the case, classes would be ‘dual medium’, that is, taught in English with a summary or key notes in Afrikaans, while questions would be answered in the languages in which they were asked.
Afrikaans classes would still be offered in the first year. Subject to student demand and institutional resources, Afrikaans undeniably lost its longstanding “position of primacy”.
The court decision
Those are the facts that brought Gelyke Kanse, a voluntary association whose name translates to ‘even chances’ or ‘equal opportunities’,