Melanie Verwoerd

'It's not the end of Afrikaans'

2016-06-29 08:52

Melanie Verwoerd

Last week the Universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch decided to change their language policies. Both will be switching to English as the main medium of instruction, with Stellenbosch retaining Afrikaans if requested by enough students.

Predictably, there is great unhappiness amongst some (and I want to emphasise some) Afrikaners about this move. In Rapport this week, one of the six Council members who walked out in protest gave a lengthy interview to Hanlie Retief. John Theron declared that he has now become an activist for Afrikaans - a “language terrorist”. I'm not sure what that means and I find it rather troubling, especially coming from a lawyer who is trained to measure his language. There are many other things I found deeply unsettling about that interview, but what really got my blood boiling was his reference to “my people” - referring to Afrikaners.

I love Afrikaans

For the record, let me make it clear: I am Afrikaans and I love Afrikaans. It is the language of my heart and of my dreams. I grew up in a typical Afrikaner household during apartheid, where my beloved grandmother could find nothing good to say about English, or those who spoke it. “The only good thing the English ever did was bring hot water bottles and tea to South Africa,” was her favourite saying - and she meant it. My father deducted pocket money if we used an Anglicism, and the works of Louis Leipoldt would be our bedtime stories. Despite living in Ireland for 14 years, I raised my children in Afrikaans, and we speak only Afrikaans at home.

But let me be equally clear: I don't want to be included as part of “my people” when Afrikaners say that. For me, "my people" embrace all the amazing people of all races and cultures I have come across over many years, some of whom became my closest friends. Despite language, race and cultural differences, I have a lot more in common with them than I have with the majority of Afrikaners.

I am also a graduate of the University of Stellenbosch. I did my bachelors, honours and masters degrees there. I was on campus from the mid-80s to early-90s, during which time Stellenbosch was unashamedly the cradle of Afrikaner nationalism, providing the intellectual and theological underpinning for apartheid.

After a short break abroad I returned to the university in the early 90s. Little had changed, apart from a small, very vocal group of left-wing students who fought passionately against the university authorities on many issues.

An unwelcoming and unhappy place

In the pre-1994 era of white panic, the university moved swiftly to orchestrate the passing of The University of Stellenbosch (Private Act) 1992 through the last white Parliament. Section 18 of that Act entrenched Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. Many marches and other protest actions were held. It seemed clear as daylight that this was more than an attempt to keep Afrikaans safe: it was also an attempt to entrench whiteness by keeping black students out. The authorities argued lamely that it was not a race issue and that Coloured and Indian parents would like to see their children studying in Afrikaans – a point still argued today. The obvious rebuttal was that in practice the majority of students in this country would still be excluded.

Stellenbosch is thankfully not the place it used to be – at least not in its statutes and governance. But 21 years later, as we saw from the Luister documentary, Stellenbosch is still an unwelcoming and unhappy place for many students who are not Afrikaans.

The point is that language isn’t just a way of communicating. With it come cultural practices, history, and even sometimes political ideology. As one of the Rhodes-must-fall students told me: “My first week at Stellenbosch, the social in the residence was a ‘sokkie’ (a dance popular with Afrikaners). The next week it was a ‘sokkie’ and the third week and so it went on. I don’t mind ‘sokkie’ but could they not have mixed it up a bit? As African students we were never able to integrate into social life”.  

The message of the (mainly) black students at Stellenbosch and the other historically white campuses around South Africa is that they feel alienated with no sense of belonging. They do not feel heard or even seen and are tired of being “accommodated” rather than being legitimately and integrally part of the student body.

Then there is also the overt racism that exists. The shocking fact is that many of the white “born frees” of this country are as racist as those who were on campus in the pre-1994 years.

Equal the playing field

Of course racism is not unique to university campuses. It is endemic in our society. But it appears to be a far too big a problem at the historically white universities and together with the sense of alienation felt by so many black students it is creating a very explosive and dangerous environment. It is equally true that the language policy change per se will not deal with the racism. But it will take away the sense of “we were here first” and “we are kindly accommodating you non-Afrikaans speaking people”.

It will equal the playing field a bit more and it will bring down some of the barriers of otherness. At a recent workshop on redefining Afrikaner culture at Wits, I asked one of the Rhodes must fall students from UP, whether it would not be better to have multi-lingual policy – so bring in more of the African languages. “No, that will only create more barriers, between Sotho’s, Xhosa, Zulu’s etc. We are not against Afrikaans. We want inclusivity and equality. And the only way we can see that happen, is to have English for all of us,” she said.

In the Rapport interview, Johan Theron argues that “many Afrikaner young people are so ashamed about the history, so punch drunk because of all the accusations and insults and comments that they don’t want to get a degree in a country where they are not ensured of work. They therefore go for the easy way out. And that is English”.

From my perspective there is a lot that we should be ashamed of in our history and frankly from what I can see on social media the Afrikaner young people are often the ones doing the punching and insulting.

Faith in my language

However, there are many young Afrikaners, who have a strong sense of where they come from, with a healthy recognition of the sins of their fathers and thus their responsibility to make things right in the future. They accept that it includes changes to hurtful policies such the universities’ language policies. They are modern, global citizens who love South Africa and believe that they have a future here. And they still love Afrikaans and want to raise their children in their mother tongue.

Those young people are part of who I call “my people”, because ultimately they understand that our country requires far more complex thinking and a resistance to pulling lager and simple pro- and anti- positions.

I do not believe that the 22 June was the beginning of the end of Afrikaans as some prominent Afrikaners will have us believe. I have far more faith in my language. I saw with my children, who were educated in English, that if the language is spoken at home, the language will continue to thrive.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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