Call for English-only songs at annual first-years' show raises hackles at Stellenbosch University

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A Stellenbosch University campus.
A Stellenbosch University campus.
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  • According to student organisation StudentePlein, it had learnt that student leaders of Minerva Residence were "acting uncompromisingly" towards multilingualism.
  • This, after one of its members lodged a complaint that the leadership of the residence had indicated that Molassesêr performances should only be in English.
  • The university says it will engage with the residence "to get an understanding of why the comments by a student leader were made".

Stellenbosch University (SU) on Tuesday said it would engage one of its residences which requested that songs for Molassesêr - an activity which sees group performances by first year students on campus - only be in English.

This, as the SA Human Rights Commission investigates complaints that students were being prevented form speaking Afrikaans in private spaces, including residences, bedrooms, park benches outside residences and on WhatsApp.

The institution itself is also probing what it called the incorrect application of its language policy.

Residences at SU compete annually for the Molassesêr title.

According to student organisation StudentePlein, it had learnt that student leaders of Minerva Residence were "acting uncompromisingly" towards multilingualism after one of its members lodged a complaint that the leadership of the residence had indicated that performances should only be in English.

READ | Stellenbosch University ranks as one of the best among emerging countries

In a statement, the organisation said it was "extremely disappointing and worrying" that the residence leadership was "uncompromising regarding their unlawful enforcement of English in residence communities", saying:

"This indicates a total and even wilful misunderstanding of a multilingual, diverse approach to community building on campus. This can be directly attributed to a lack of language-sensitive training among residence leaders."

"In addition, it is a necessary consequence of a language dispensation that does not celebrate multilingualism proactively and concretely, and which is also not implemented according to the almost identical conceptual language policy 2021."

StudentePlein said the university administration had a responsibility to keep residence leaders, "as functionaries in a great position of power over junior students", in check.

SU spokesperson Martin Viljoen said it was informed of the matter on Monday and would, as a matter of urgency, engage with the residence "to get an understanding of why the comments by a student leader were made".

READ | Stellenbosch University's revised language policy draws flak

"From the information available at this point, it does not seem to be in the spirit of otherwise constructive engagement with student leaders and residences to reach a shared understanding of the Language Policy 2016," he said.

Viljoen added that an investigation into the use of language in residences and social spaces was last week launched by the management of the university "in the interest of transparency and good governance".

This month, SU's senate accepted a recommendation from its Academic Planning Committee that it deviate from faculties' language implementation plans for the first semester of this year.

This would allow lecturers to only have to make new learning material available in English, and not in Afrikaans as well, as stipulated in the university's current language policy.

This would apply only to the first semester of 2021 owing to the additional workload caused by the shift to more online tuition because of Covid-19, SU said, and only new learning material would be affected as learning material that already exists in Afrikaans would still be provided.

Forums

Assessments would not be affected and lecturers would still support students in other forms of learning facilitation, such as online discussion forums and emails, through not only English, but also Afrikaans.

The university last week confirmed to News24 it was investigating claims that certain residences had an "English only policy", maintaining that students should not be prohibited from speaking any language.

It said student leaders in residences mostly used English in formal settings to ensure that crucial information was understood as "not everyone is multilingual, but everyone can at least understand English".

This was in line with its language policy which stated that "in residences and other living environments, language is used in such a way that, where reasonably practicable, no stakeholder is excluded from participating in any formal activities in these environments".

StudentePlein charged that the university's response to the recent language debacles was "both unbelievable and logically untenable".

"Simply because a policy lays down a particular rule or norm, there is no guarantee that it will always be reflected in practice. The influx of evidence that English is being forced is an indisputable fact.

"The university management should not think that the public is blind to this and will accept these half-hearted explanations."

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