Stellenbosch University decision called a victory for Afrikaans, and a setback for transformation

December 1, 2015, 4:38pm

Protesting Stellenbosch University students march through the town's streets on October 23. Picture: AFP/ RODGER BOSCH

By Bekezela Phakathi, Business Day Live

THE Council of Stellenbosch University has effectively rejected a proposal to adopt English as the main language of instruction and business at the traditionally Afrikaans institution.

Student lobby group Open Stellenbosch has been protesting against the university’s language policy for most of the year, arguing that the policy "safeguards Afrikaner culture" and excludes black students.

In a discussion document last month the rector’s management team proposed that from next year the primary language of communication and administration at the university should be English.

The proposal seemed to have a received significant support from within the institution after a group of academics and staff members issued a statement backing the use of English as the main language of tuition. The student representative council also backed the proposal. The majority of Stellenbosch University’s senate members at the weekend also threw their weight behind the plan.

Only the council can approve changes to the language policy, with the concurrence of senate.

In a statement released on Monday night following a council meeting, the university revealed that the council had requested that the Afrikaans undergraduate academic offering should also be increased. This means English and Afrikaans will be given equal status at the institution.

"Council states unequivocally that language may never be an obstacle for any student who has no command of either Afrikaans or English wishing to pursue undergraduate or postgraduate study (at Stellenbosch). Thus council requests management to expand the necessary mechanisms to this end, and to monitor these continuously. If this should imply that the English academic offering exceeds the set target, it will be supported by council," the university said in a statement.

"Concurrently council states that this may not be to the detriment of the agreed minimum target for the Afrikaans offering. Council requests that the Afrikaans undergraduate academic offering should also be increased. Council confirms that its multilingual academic offering is considered a strategic asset of Stellenbosch University that should be expanded as a competitive advantage."

With regard to the administrative and communication language at the university, the council decided that language may never exclude full participation by students and staff.

"Council accepts that official documents and communication will therefore continue to be in Afrikaans as well as English. Students, staff and the public will continue to be addressed in the language of their choice, either in Afrikaans or in English, and if possible also in isiXhosa," it said.

Council member Piet le Roux told BDlive on Tuesday that the council had effectively affirmed that English and Afrikaans will be given equal status at Stellenbosch.

"This is a victory for Afrikaans … it would have been unthinkable that a few months after council adopted the plan to give Afrikaans and English equal status then Afrikaans is relegated," Mr Le Roux said.

Open Stellenbosch spokesman Sikhulekile Duma said on Tuesday that the group was "extremely" disappointed with the council’s decision.

"Council had a chance to start the process of transformation, but they have chosen to preserve the status quo … we will now be putting procedures in place to escalate this and challenge the decision. We will make an announcement soon … we are definitely not done," Mr Duma said.