ConCourt hears argument in favour of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University
Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at tertiary level came under debate at the Constitutional Court on Thursday over Stellenbosch University’s decision to adopt a language policy that gives preference to English.
The university says it adopted the language policy in 2016 to ensure equal access, multilingualism and integration.
According to the university, this policy allows for three language specifications: parallel medium, dual medium and single medium – while maintaining Afrikaans, subject to demand and within the university’s resources. This policy was adopted under the Higher Education Act and the National Language Policy for Higher Education (LPHE).
Stellenbosch University argued that this policy, in contrast to its preceding 2014 policy, did not exclude black and English-speaking students from full and equitable access to the institution.
Gelyke Kanse, a voluntary association formed to oppose this 2016 policy, did not agree with this.
In its heads of argument before the Constitutional Court, Gelyke Kanse said it acted on behalf of hundreds of thousands of South Africans who cannot receive tertiary education in their indigenous mother tongue, particularly “the brown Afrikaans-speaking people of the Western Cape”.
It said Zulu is the indigenous language of the largest group of South Africans followed by Xhosa, Afrikaans and, then only, English. It said in the Western Cape Afrikaans was the majority language, followed by Xhosa and then English.
“Brown people are the largest population group in the Western Cape – the majority of them speak Afrikaans and many of them, particularly those from rural areas, can receive tertiary education only in that language,” it said.
“They are by far the most under-represented group at tertiary education institutions and the drop-out figure is by far the highest.”
Gelyke Kanse submitted that, of the 26 South African universities not one uses an indigenous language other than Afrikaans as a language of instruction, and that Potchefstroom campus in the North West University was the only place where one could still obtain a degree in Afrikaans.
Of the four universities in the Western Cape, it said, three use English as the exclusive language of instruction, while Stellenbosch University uses it “progressively predominantly”.
Gelyke Kanse "reminded the court" that Stellenbosch University was historically an Afrikaans university, and that its 2014 policy sought to advance the use of English and Afrikaans equally.
The association previously approached the high court seeking an order to set aside the 2016 policy and reinstate the 2014 policy.
The court dismissed the application, finding that white Afrikaans and white English speakers were the beneficiaries of apartheid and were an economically and educationally advantaged group. The court found that the 2014 policy was not equitable as it denied black students access to the university.
It further stated that Afrikaans was not an “indigenous language” as contemplated in section 6(2) of the constitution, since the provision refers to “the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages”. This, it said, clearly excluded Afrikaans, which received massive support during apartheid in contrast to indigenous African languages.
Meanwhile, Stellenbosch University said its 2014 policy was not reasonably practicable as it was inconsistent with the demand for equity and redress.
It contended that Afrikaans-speaking students had no right under section 29(2) of the constitution to demand Afrikaans tuition beyond what the university was reasonably able to provide without excluding black students.
It also pointed out that its 2014 policy possibly constituted unfair discrimination as it violated section 9 of the constitution, and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.