Language must not decide where you can study

Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi   PHOTO: nasief manie
Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi PHOTO: nasief manie

Afrikaans will not simply disappear if it is no longer the main language of instruction. Just ask other people who speak their language despite it not being the preferred medium, writes Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi

White South Africans will never understand what the experience of racism really means to black people. It is a daily psychological violence that manifests itself in every area of our lives. It manifests in our religion and the way we perceive ourselves; it manifests in our economy, our politics and even infiltrates our education.

White people will never understand what it is like to be taught the history of your own people not in your language, in a building named after a man who thought you were intellectually and scientifically inferior.

To be studying at a school or to have a degree from an institution literally built on the labour, the suffering and land of your own people, and then to be confronted with that every day, is a distasteful experience.

This is not something we were supposed to simply get over in 1994. The reality is that a system that was racist, patriarchal and unconscionable in its capitalism on April 26 (1994) before the vote did not magically change on April 28 after the vote.

The problem is that in South Africa we are not 100% convinced our past was unjust – unlike the Germans who, barring the right wing neo-Nazis, are so embarrassed about their history that Nazism and the glorification of Adolf Hitler are criminalised. There is no “in between” that maybe some parts of Nazi Germany were nice and other parts were not.

This year is the one in which white South Africans must take the back seat and listen to conversations about race, power and privilege.

Black South Africans had to give forgiveness in 1994 simply to get a vote. In 2016, if black South Africans are to continue with that mantra, it must be reciprocated with compassion and active forms of retribution.

To those who believe that my thoughts and perspectives are an attack on Afrikaans and white South Africans, I want to make it very clear I have no wish to stand against any racial or language group.

The elephant in the room is the issue of language. The thing with language and how we use it is that it is never neutral – especially in the context of South Africa and Stellenbosch, where language is as personal as it is political. For me it is important to recognise that the University of Stellenbosch is a South African university. It belongs to all South Africans and not to a single group. Unless we want another Codesa, we cannot now start to delineate and decide who gets to study where on the basis of what language.

I also want to talk about this issue of the protection of a language. As you can hear, I speak Afrikaans very well. I’m not an Afrikaner and I did not learn Afrikaans at Stellenbosch, but I love the language. For me, there are words and feelings I cannot express better in another language.

But I don’t think the primary function of a university is to protect a language or culture, but rather to provide higher education to the sons and daughters of our country.

Where this access to education for all South African students is restricted by language, we need to reassess whether the university is doing its job.

Afrikaans will not simply disappear if it is no longer the main language of teaching. Just ask other people who still speak their language despite it not being the medium of instruction.

Finally, I want to talk about the language itself. The big question here is: Who does Afrikaans belong to? The simple answer is that it belongs to Afrikaners.

But who owns Afrikaans? The Cape Minstrels with their ghoema music should rightfully also own Afrikaans. The people of District Six and the Bo-Kaap should rightfully also own Afrikaans. The face of Afrikaans at our university and in South Africa should not and cannot be only the face of a white man, but also the face of coloured Afrikaans women and black Afrikaans women.

The larger truth is Afrikaans is many languages; it is many different cultures. We must admit that in our history and, even today, Afrikaans is often used against people who are not white.

If we want to defend an Afrikaans university, then we have to accept that it would include a defence of Afrikaaps, Swartland Afrikaans, Boland Afrikaans, Overberg Afrikaans, West Coast Sandveld Afrikaans, Karoo Afrikaans, Eastern Cape Afrikaans, Orange River and Gariep Afrikaans, Boesmanland Afrikaans, Griqua Afrikaans, Namaqualand Afrikaans and Richtersveld Afrikaans. And then we have to admit that its face in general is not the face of a white Afrikaans man.

We must admit that few people are committed to the protection of all forms and all faces of Afrikaans in the new South Africa.

We must admit that the development and maintenance of Afrikaans as an academic language, as a culture, and as a powerful economic and social tool never was intended or destined to protect a black population. Thus the existence of an Afrikaans-speaking coloured population cannot be used as an excuse to maintain the university as it is now.

That shows that we are only interested in coloured students and people when it suits the purposes of a white Afrikaans agenda, and this is very dishonest.

As South Africans, we have the choice to reclaim our humanity. Both apartheid and colonisation dehumanised us all by giving white people a superiority complex and black people an inferiority complex.

We must dismantle this inhumanity that we are all products of by reclaiming our collective humanity.

We must reclaim our histories so that our children will know exactly the truth about themselves. We must reclaim our languages so that those who choose to speak them do so out of pure love (as I do) and not out of obligation.

I look forward to the day when I won’t have to talk to my children about racism or sexism. That is really my dream for South Africa and Africa as a whole. To accomplish this, we need to know about the roles we need to play.

Those who listen, must listen. Those who need the chance to cry, must be allowed to cry. Those who need to be angry, must be allowed to be angry. Those who need to talk, must be allowed
to talk.

But none of us gets to claim an easy victory. Because there is no victory in our collective pain, there is only closure. And South Africa desperately needs closure.

. Chidinma Nwadeyi was born in Nigeria and grew up in Queenstown. She has a Bachelors in International Studies from Stellenbosch University, a Masters in Peace and Conflict from Uppsala University and is a student activist. This is an edited and partly translated version of a talk she delivered to the university’s convocation last week

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