Following the decision of the University of Pretoria to phase out Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from 2019, we have observed a number of emotionally-charged, and mostly senseless remarks on this topic. The most memorable remark was from our very own Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni, who used social media to voice his disagreement with the decision by the University, as well as make a prophetic warning that, as South Africans, we will regret this decision.
Is the decision of the University a declaration of war on Afrikaans? Is Mboweni’s prophesy scientific, or simply emotional? Is the decision to phase out Afrikaans as a means of transmitting lessons at universities a step in the right direction? I cannot claim to have answers to these problems. I shall only seek to add my views on the matter with a view to provide my stance on this sensitive, but crucial issue.
Afrikaans as the official language
Afrikaans is one of the 11 official languages which are recognised by the Constitution. Like all other languages, Afrikaans enjoys protection from the Constitution, and from all bodies established in terms of the Constitution. If any of these languages were threatened, the Constitution is there to offer protection.
Whilst it is common knowledge that Afrikaans was used by the apartheid regime as an instrument of oppression and exploitation of the black majority, it must be emphasised that our struggle has never been, and will never be, a struggle against Afrikaans as a language.
Just as the liberation movements used their attack on Afrikaans as a symbol of their attack on the apartheid system, the progressive political formations must fight against the imposition of Afrikaans as a means of teaching where those who prefer it are in the minority. The essence of democracy is that the views of the majority must prevail, without necessarily undermining those of the minority.
The use of Afrikaans is not banned at the University of Pretoria. Students and staff can still communicate in Afrikaans. Associations like AfriForum can still establish Afrikaans study groups where Afrikaans could be used. The only part that must not happen, is the use of Afrikaans as a means of teaching. There is no need to be dramatic about this, as it is a reflection of our flourishing democracy.
Did Mboweni use science in his rhetoric?
The most important variables that must be looked at in determining the language to be used as a medium of instruction are; 1) demographics and 2) preference. The other important factor is in the Constitution, Section 6 (2), which states; “Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages”.
According to the University of Pretoria, in the 23 years between 1992 and 2015, the number of students who registered Afrikaans as their home language decreased by 50%. In 1992, 85% of the university’s students registered Afrikaans as their home language. In 2015, the figure had drastically declined to 30%.
This decline is an indicator of the ANC government’s policy interventions. Since 1994, an increasing number of black students accessed higher education through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. This is after those universities were forced by the ANC government to open doors to students from all races.
The 50% decline in the percentage of students who indicate Afrikaans as their home language is a clear indication of changes in the playing field. It is also an indicator of the decline in the demand for tuition in Afrikaans.
The majority of the university’s students have also indicated their preference to be taught in English. It is only sensible and logical that the students must be taught in the language of their choice. The most logical step to follow is for the university to elevate and advance the status of Sepedi, the most spoken indigenous language in Pretoria, as instructed by the Constitution.
It therefore follows from the findings above that Tito Mboweni’s rants are devoid of any scientific considerations. His views are nothing but an expression of emotional hot air, and must therefore be rejected in the realm of sensible deliberations. His prophesy is no more than a nightmarish premonition, and must equally be rejected. We shall not regret this decision.
The ANC, as part of its endeavour to gain hegemony in society, must ensure that people like Tito Mboweni are not deployed in the legislatures or in the executive in future. The people of Mboweni’s calibre must be allowed to retire in peace, so as to herd donkeys and goats in rural Tzaneen and elsewhere.
For the ANC to gain hegemony, it requires intellectually and ideologically agile cadres, who use science, rather than premonitions or emotions, to analyse complex societal challenges and phenomena. The movement requires cadres who are thirsty for fundamental change for the betterment of society, and not those whose fear of change inspires them to block the revolution.
We must welcome the decision of the University of Pretoria to phase out Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. This we do not because of chauvinism against apartheid as a language, or against Afrikaners and coloureds, but because it indicates our maturing democracy, and is also a step towards creating a platform for indigenous African languages to be elevated and advanced, in line with the Constitution.
Afrikaans or any of our language will not be extinguished. No language must be imposed against the will of the people. This is part of fixing our country from centuries of systematic ruin by Apartheid architects and racist colonialists.
Makhele is an African Marxist and a member of the ANC in Mangaung Region, Free State. He writes in his personal capacity.