SAHRC to call more witnesses in its probe into Stellenbosch University language furore

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The SAHRC hearing into Stellenbosch University continues.
The SAHRC hearing into Stellenbosch University continues.
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  • The SAHRC is expected to continue its probe into the alleged violation of the right to equality on the basis of language and race at Stellenbosch University in the coming weeks.
  • This after complaints that students were banned from speaking Afrikaans in private spaces such as residences, on WhatsApp and park benches.
  • An independent forensic report by Deloitte found there was no instruction given by Stellenbosch University management to prohibit the use of Afrikaans.

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is expected to resume its hearings into the freedom to use Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University (SU) in the coming weeks as it considers who it plans to call next as witnesses in its probe.

The Chapter 9 institution launched an inquiry into the alleged violation of numerous rights, such as equality on the basis of language and race, following allegations that students were being banned from speaking Afrikaans in private spaces such as residences, WhatsApp and even park benches.

This resulted in hearings which saw the SAHRC visit the student town to investigate.

READ | No instruction from Stellenbosch management prohibiting Afrikaans, probe finds

An independent forensic investigation by Deloitte into the complaints found there had been no management or residence leader-issued instruction prohibiting the use of Afrikaans.

The university approached the firm to look into complaints relating to the Minerva, Irene and Francie van Zijl residences and the Capri private student organisation (PSO).

Earlier this week, student community members testified at the commission hearings on their knowledge of alleged incidents, the university said in a statement.

Language

On Tuesday, Minerva women's residence head Mariëtha Lemmer told the commission there had been misunderstandings about the use of language during the welcoming period at Minerva. She said it was made clear that there was no ban on Afrikaans or any other language, maintaining that Minerva had an inclusive approach to language as students from all over South Africa and other countries lived at the residence.

According to the Deloitte report, English had been used during the welcoming period for inclusivity.

Lemmer said a "dark atmosphere" prevailed after media reports on the incident, but "after intense discussions, mediation and counselling, things improved".

The house committee had, however, apologised to the first years, and "the matter was resolved".

Irene women's residence head Riana Engelbrecht reportedly told the SAHRC there was never any ban on a specific language at the residence.

READ | SAHRC robe into alleged ban on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University to resume

The Deloitte probe didn't identify evidence to support the alleged prohibition on the use of Afrikaans during the welcoming period.

Dr Simthembile Xeketwana, resident head of Huis Francie van Zijl on the university's Tygerberg campus, told the commission he had never been instructed to tell students not to speak Afrikaans.

He said:

We are diverse, come from various backgrounds and welcome the fact that people speak their languages.

Xeketwana, a lecturer in curriculum studies, said the Faculty of Education taught and conducted meetings in Afrikaans, while he also spoke isiXhosa at work.

Jethro Georgiades of SU's Centre for Student Communities testified that no official complaints about the use of Afrikaans at the Capri Private Student Organization (PSO) during the welcoming period had been received. According to him, one of the PSOs for which he is responsible, Equité, had even paid for interpreting services in Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa during the welcoming period.

Huis Francie van Zijl primaria Cailin Thorp said the use of language was "not policed", while deputy primaria Caitlin Sithole reportedly said medical students embraced the multilingual environment in the residence as it helped them communicate with patients.

According to the university, an official complaint was lodged with the university's Equality Unit (EqU) for the alleged ban on the use of Afrikaans in the residence, dating back to a period between 2018 and 2020.

It said that it had seemed a "lack of communication might have led the student who complained to believe that attempts at resolving the matter had been futile".

At the start of the hearings, Rector and Vice-Chancellor Wim de Villiers testified that Afrikaans was not banned on the campus and that SU was an "inclusive, multilingual university" with no English-only policy.

SAHRC commissioner Andre Gaum told News24 the organisation would mull over which other possible witnesses to approach for their testimony in the coming weeks before compiling its findings and recommendations.

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