Afrikaans is in crisis, and the DA is silent

Hermann Giliomee asks why the WCape govt is doing so little to defend the language at university level

The Democratic Alliance that was born in the late 1990s as a result of the merger of the Democratic Party and New National Party, led by Tony Leon and Marthinus van Schalkwyk respectively, has always suffered from some identity crisis. It was never, as a liberal triumphalist would have it, the historical product of the founding in 1959 of the Progressive Party, which for fifteen years had Helen Suzman as its sole parliamentary representative.

In actual fact the DA was more of a messy merger that brought together quite distinct parties with fundamentally different pasts and policies. A party developed that favoured pro-market policies, cultural pluralism and equal opportunities rather than equal outcomes produced by draconian state intervention. Leon performed brilliantly in bedding this merger down.

The profile of the DA leadership and staff were predominantly white English-speaking but the majority of its voters in the 2014 election was Afrikaans-speakers, forming more than half its support base.  It is estimated that in the election of that year more than 80 per cent of the Afrikaners voted DA.

Under the astute leadership of both Leon and Helen Zille support of the Afrikaans-speakers was never taken for granted. Both addressed predominantly Afrikaans audiences in Afrikaans and spoke up for Afrikaans-medium schools and universities where “reasonably practicable” as the Constitution formulates it. Zille is proficient in Xhosa.

After the stunning advances the party made in the 2016 election in some metros something changed. Attracting an ever greater share of the black vote has swept aside all concerns of the leadership about its traditional support base. The all-consuming goal now is victory if not in 2019 then for certain in 2024 by attracting a landslide of black support. The reasoning seems to be that the minorities would forgive the party anything as long it can unseat the ANC.

This is coming at a particularly perilous time for the language of Afrikaans. At the traditionally Afrikaans- medium universities Afrikaans as language of instruction have taken hammer blows over the past eighteen months. At the University of Pretoria it was squeezed out after a weird court ruling that teaching in Afrikaans to Afrikaans students constitutes a form of privilege since a Pedi child cannot be taught in Pedi. Unlike Zulu-speakers Pedi-speakers have made no effort at all to develop Pedi as a language of tuition.

In the case of the University of the Free State Afrikaans as a medium is being phased out because  a court found that parallel medium instruction (separate streams of English and Afrikaans) to represent a form of segregation. Equally strange, given, the proud history of schools like Grey College in Bloemfontein and Paarl Boys High.

The Potchefstroom campus of the North-western University still teaches predominantly in Afrikaans, while providing simultaneous translation in English, but the Council for Higher Education has been using extreme pressure to force the integration of the three campuses. That means Afrikaans may perish at Potchefstroom within three or four years. It will probably happen sooner at Pretoria and Bloemfontein  

In 1994 no one would have predicted that Stellenbosch, the oldest Afrikaans university would turn into predominantly English within twenty years. The only independent survey of language preferences that the Council University of Stellenbosch commissioned since 1994 exists was done in 2007-08. The firm MarkData, headed by Lawrence Schlemmer, conducted the survey. It reported that more than 80% of Afrikaans students preferred to be taught predominantly in Afrikaans, while 40% of English students favoured being taught in Afrikaans-medium.

The situation changed over the next eight years as a result a massive intake of English-speaking students fleeing the large intake of  black students at the traditional liberal universities  In 1995 English-speaking students totalled 3 039 or 20% of the student population. The Afrikaans speaking students stood at 10,987 (74% of the total). By 2012 the number of English-speakers had risen to 10 313 or 37% of the total, while the Afrikaans-speakers at 12 843 represented 48% of the total. By 2016 English-speakers formed the majority.

In 2014 the university accepted a policy based on the equal status of Afrikaans and English but in 2016 it admitted to the Western Cape High Court that it had allowed its own language policy to be flouted. In papers submitted to the court the US management reported that 200 of its lecturers (between a fourth and a fifth of the total) indicated that they are unable to lecture in Afrikaans.

Some University spokespeople have claimed that most Afrikaans students prefer English as medium of instruction. Such claims must be viewed with great circumspection. Lecturers have an interest in avoiding a system of parallel medium instruction, which offers no extra pay for repeating a lecture in another language.

Matters came to a crunch in 2016. Pressure by a small band of mostly black students under the banner of Open Stellenbosch together with a parliamentary hearing on the language policy prompted the university to accept a policy in terms of which all classes are now taught in English. Afrikaans is being downgraded to a language of tuition only if there is sufficient demand. The experience worldwide has shown that such a policy reads inevitably to the demise of a language that has to compete with a universal language like English.

The movement Equal Opportunies/Gelyke Kanse, favouring a fully bilingual university as was decided in 2014,took the university to court over its language policy. In a court hearing earlier this week Jan Heunis SC gave a brilliant account of the irregularities, inconsistencies and dissembling on the part of management in its efforts to introduce English as the dominant language of the university. He cited George Steyn, chairman of the University Council, who stated that the members of US management would have been fired if they had worked for a private firm.

The Western Cape has reached the situation where, if the provincial government does not take a strong stand, there will soon be a situation where all four universities in the province offer no or, in the Stellenbosch case, very little instruction in Afrikaans.

There will shortly be no institution in the Western Cape where a new generation of teachers can study in Afrikaans in order to qualify to teach in Afrikaans. They would be unable to take their degree in Afrikaans or even their teacher’s diploma.

There also would be no university in the Western Cape where students can take a degree in medicine, or law despite the fact that the people with whom most lawyers and medical people will deal will probably be Afrikaans-speaking. According to the 2012 census just under half of the Western Cape’s population speaks Afrikaans at home.

Yet the DA, which is safely in control of the Western Cape, has remained silent. It has not availed itself of the opportunity to appeal to the Constitution which makes education a matter in which the central and the provincial government enjoy concurrent powers. 

Universities in several European countries has come under pressure to change the language of tuition to English. Usually it is both management and faculty that exerts pressure for this switch. What stops it in most cases is electoral pressure. Should a university in Switzerland decide to do what Stellenbosch has done the parties would immediately make this a major issue and the sitting member is almost certain to lose his seat. In the case of South Africa all members are elected on the closed list proportional representation. No parliamentary representative of the DA has any incentive to speak up, while the party’s senior leadership is clearly hoping the matter will simply go away.

Afrikaans-medium schools

There is a great irony in the fact that the status of Afrikaans as public language that can be used in all walks of life is facing the greatest threat to its existence at a time that it is doing very well as at schools,

If we take ex-model C Afrikaans schools as a code name for largely white Afrikaans schools there are country wide approximately 750 000 learners in such schools and 24 500 teachers.

In the Western Cape Afrikaans medium is used in 448 single medium primary schools, 199 parallel medium primary schools, 82 single medium secondary schools, and 101 parallel medium high schools. Nationally in 2015 Afrikaans ex-model C schools had a pass rate of 89% compared to the average of 72%. Matric candidates from these schools achieved thirty percent of all distinctions in Maths and physical science. Afrikaans students from these schools are top achievers at university. A relatively large proportion complete their bachelor degrees in the minimum period. A large proportion also enrol for post-graduate studies.

There is no evidence that black students at Stellenbosch would fare better if the university switches completely to English. The university can better help many black students by assisting to develop Xhosa as a medium of instruction at university level. Nationally and internationally there is irrefutable evidence that students perform better if they learn in their home language.

In any event the proportion of black students is small. It declined from 15,4% in 2002 to 14,6% in 2015.

According to the “Child Gauge”-report of UCT black learners are sometimes at least five years behind their privileged fellow learners at the end of secondary school. This is primarily the result of English being imposed at a far too early stage at school.

The biggest winners are white English-speakers who enjoy a situation where all the universities, including even Stellenbosch, teach in English. 

Of great concern is the position of coloured Afrikaans students, particularly those from the rural areas. They are the group with the lowest participation rate in university education. Part of the reason is the low income of their parents, while another is the tendency of parents to choose English as medium of instruction even if the home language is Afrikaans. More than 50 per cent of the Afrikaans-speaking youths of this community attend English –medium schools.

Coloured students fared poorly in a study the Council on Higher Education, commissioned in 2013. Its task was to probe the success rate of the different population groups in studying for bachelor degrees during the period 1970 to 2010.

The percentage of white and Indian students awarded bachelor degrees rose from 18% to 29%. The figure for blacks dropped from 11% to 9% and that of coloured students sank from 10% in 1970 to 6% in 2010. The signs are that the performance of the latter group is deteriorating further. These figures underline the importance of mother tongue education.[1] 

Stellenbosch University’s decision to choose English as the dominant mode of instruction will greatly compound the problems surrounding education experienced by the ‘coloured’ Afrikaans-speaking section of the community. Perhaps the DA should start investigating whether a correlation exists between the relative poor performance of coloured pupils and students and the choice of language of instruction. But does it really care?

Hermann Giliomee’s most recent book is Historian: An Autobiography (Tafelberg) He is a member of the movement Gelyke Kanse/Equal Opportunities.


[1] The paragraphs above are based on a communication, dated 12 July 2017, by the demographer Flip Smit, who was previously UP Vice-Chancellor.