Afrikaans at Stellenbosch: A delicate balancing act
I remember well my first interview as a student journalist for Die Matie Student Newspaper. My first visit to the vice-chancellor’s office, I was a nervous ball of energy, as I – a first-year – had to interview professor Andreas van Wyk after nine turbulent years at the helm. Asked a question about Stellenbosch’s role in the rest of Africa, he answered, ‘it’s a delicate balancing act’, which we also used as the article head. In fact, twelve years later, this remains the most apt phrase to explain Stellenbosch’s continuous struggle with The Language Issue.
‘Afrikaans is under threat’, proclaims one group, either from government (the usual suspect), or from management (which don’t provide enough ‘support‘), or from English-speaking black and white – to misquote Helen Zille – ‘refugees’ who find the tertiary institutions in their own provinces of too low quality. Or who find (and who would deny them?) the Stellenbosch academic, cultural and natural environment simply irresistible. On the other side, the pro-English constituency point out that Stellenbosch’s reputation as an academic institution of excellence is built on the foundations of the Apartheid system, allowing Afrikaans to develop as an academic language which benefited predominantly white, Afrikaans-speakers and excluded most of the black population. If it continues to teach only in Afrikaans, Stellenbosch will remain a place of white refuge, an Afrikaner bastion, a visual reminder of the South Africa of the twentieth century. There is simply no place in the new South Africa for a quality tertiary establishment that exclude the majority of black South Africans, they argue.
Both sides, of course, embody only elements of the truth. The move to English is undeniable. Afrikaans is officially the default language of instruction at undergraduate level, while English is used predominantly at the postgraduate level. In the Economics department where I teach, parallel medium (instruction in English and Afrikaans in separate classes) is standard practice for first-year students, and in a 2011 decision by the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, parallel medium instruction (in Economics) will be available for the full undergraduate degree in 2014. (Currently, lecturers are required to teach in Afrikaans but often follow the T-option, using both English and Afrikaans in the same classroom.) This shift is no ideological Rubicon moment by the Rector or any of his employees; instead, I argue, this is a pragmatic (sub-optimal) solution to the forces of the market. Let me explain.
Any market is shaped by supply and demand. On the demand side, in order to be the best university in South Africa, Stellenbosch hopes to attract the best learners from the best high schools in the country. Before 1994 (and even before 2000), most of these students would have come from privileged Afrikaans High Schools. Many still do, but the numbers are changing fast. International borders are also opening rapidly: Stellenbosch hosts more than 3800 students from other countries in 2012, and these numbers have increased at exponential rates since the early 2000s. In short: Stellenbosch is becoming an international university, non-Western Cape and non-South African students attracted by the high academic standards, diverse cultural mix, and beautiful surroundings. This globalisation of our campus has enormous economic, cultural and social benefits for our clients, the students. Our region also benefits from the financial stimulus; in an earlier paper Emile du Plessis calculates the economic gains from visiting international students to several million rand (depending on the multiplier used). Foreigners are also more likely to engage in community outreach programmes, and more likely to build networks that result in positive externalities.
Stellenbosch has just joined the list of the top 500 universities in the world. In a globalised marketplace, this ranking is dependent on us providing exceptional services to our clients, both as teaching as well as research outputs. To do quality research, Stellenbosch must find, employ and be able to hold on to the best researchers, regardless of their mother tongue. With the European crisis, for example, Stellenbosch is becoming a lucrative opportunity for young exceptional researchers that cannot find employment in the developed world. A language policy that inhibits the appointment of such scholars, will also inhibit Stellenbosch’s ability to compete with other top international institutions – and, after a while, even other South African universities.
These market forces are pushing Afrikaans into the margins of undergraduate teaching. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Stellenbosch will not retain its Afrikaans character. The Woordfees continues to expand (there is little correlation between undergraduate teaching and this festival’s success, for example). Varsity Cup rugby at Coetzenburg is very much an Afrikaans affair. There is also no reason that the university could not support other “cultural” activities run by the SRC, or extra Afrikaans classes (already popular with foreign students). There is no reason why Litnet Akademie will not continue to see a rise in Afrikaans paper submissions, or the Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns not continue to reward excellent Afrikaans scientists.
The cost of fighting this unstoppable force, though, is high. Already, my Faculty will need to spend several millions of rand extra to teach parallel classes to groups of 40 students that can easily fit into a single class. Resources will thus be diverted from its main objective of supporting science (not scientific language). Stellenbosch will remain a good university (at least in comparison to other South African universities), but won’t be able to compete with the best internationally. We have this exceptional opportunity to be a gateway into Africa and a gateway for Africans into the wider world; viewed differently, an opportunity to welcome the world in Afrikaans rather than to isolate ourselves because of it. Indeed a delicate balancing act.
As Andreas van Wyk mentioned in his interview, the international academic language today is English. To compete for the best students and staff members, Stellenbosch will have to adopt it as language of instruction if it is to remain competitive. Not from government pressure, but because of market forces. That doesn’t mean that Afrikaans will die. Instead, I believe, it will continue to flourish in unforeseen, ironic spaces. Look at the remarkable success of Afrikaans music and movies and festivals. Consider Kobus Galloway’s Idees Vol Vrees (image above). Afrikaans will not survive because it is being taught at undergraduate level to a bunch of Afrikaans kids in separate classes. It will survive because it is beautiful, friendly, versatile and fun. Lekker, rather than lectured.