Albie Sachs, political activist and retired judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, began his talk at the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy for Higher Education with an anecdote.
Speaking in the plenary on The New Language Policy Framework for Higher Education – Kindling the Communications for Change, Judge Sachs (left) asked delegates to go back in time and imagine they were in the old, temporary accommodation of the Constitutional Court, a tiny room, jampacked, and where you could feel the heightened emotion.
The issue at stake was the Gauteng Language Education Bill whose main provision was that language should not be used as a barrier for entry into schools. This was being challenged by Afrikaans-speaking community language groups, who were saying that for the Afrikaans language to thrive and survive, they needed immersion in schools that are centered around people living in the Afrikaans community, speaking Afrikaans.
“We heard the argument. And I remember the anguish and the passion of one of the counsel for the Afrikaans language group, and, in a strange way identified with him, indirectly. It reminded me of the apartheid days, when I was appearing in court with anti-apartheid beliefs that having to deal with judges appointed by the apartheid government, laws that overtly expressed apartheid, the whole ambience was racist. And this counsel, this advocate, was feeling he was in a setting — he probably would have called it liberal — that has no sensitivity towards responsiveness towards community languages, and what it means.
“His anguish was that if he failed in his argument, his nasie, his nation, his people, would suffer. And I took myself back to the days when I was so afraid, fearful as an advocate, feeling that my … could be my comrades, it could be people from other political organisations — that they would possibly lose their lives, they’d go to jail, that kind of anguish.”
The outcome of the case was that the deputy president of the court ruled that schools could be single-language or single-religion, but not racist. And therefore, there should be open access, with no privilege for monolingual schools.
Justice Sachs asked to write a concurring judgment, one agreeing with the outcome, but arriving by a different route. “I stressed the fact that if Afrikaans medium schools were now trying to survive as Afrikaans medium schools, we had to see the background. And part of the background was the policy of the British after the Anglo-Boer War, to suppress Afrikaans, to anglicise Afrikaans-speaking people. So, there was active suppression of Afrikaans and marginalisation.
“But I also said we must take account of the fact the Afrikaans language is spoken by millions of South Africans from all backgrounds – rich farmers, poor working-class people, homeless people, and people with more than one home. It’s a creole language, very, very South African in character. And it has produced some great literature, important work in law, in science, in radio, in song. It is one of the treasures of South African cultural expression.”
With this reminiscence, the retired judge touched on the complexity and tensions at play when delving into language in education, the key topic of the colloquium.
He immediately launched into another anecdote. This time the setting was “a very tense moment at the World Trade Center”, drafting the language clauses in the Constitution. Baleka Mbete (who went on to become Speaker of the National Assembly) and he were on the ANC side. They faced a huge array of professors and language specialists, and the former spy boss, Dr Niël Barnard, then Director-General of the Department of Constitutional Development, on the side of the South African government.
African Languages must enjoy parity of esteem with English and Afrikaans
“I think they were thinking this is a crisis moment: the whole constitutional project will collapse if the Afrikaans language is going to go under, and I think they were rather amazed when Baleka and I came up with what was the ANC policy. And that was not to diminish the existing official languages – which were English and Afrikaans, and, in some of the Bantustans, an African language – but to upgrade and advance the African languages.
“So it wasn’t a question of domination and suppression and new kinds of domination. The key thing was to upgrade and advance the utilisation and significance of the African languages. And lo and behold, we got that language clause through relatively quickly.”
Judge Sachs said he also proposed the existence of a Pan South African Language Board (today’s PANSALB) to foster multilingualism. “And the board was not to be created by representatives of different languages fighting each in their own corner for their language; it was to have a multilingual philosophy and approach from the beginning.”
Stepping back into the present-day tensions at universities, Sachs suggested they could foster their regional indigenous languages, noting “if I can call Afrikaans indigenous, it’s become indigenous to the Cape”. The University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape could focus on the history, culture, and geography of isiXhosa; and the University of Zululand could take a developmental interest in developing isiZulu. “It hasn’t quite worked out that way,” he said.
“I think the tension between enabling a minority language – that feels threatened – to flourish and develop, versus the need for open entry, has affected every single university,” said Sachs, adding that it was most pronounced in Stellenbosch, the Free State and most recently, at Unisa, where the emphasis was to allow “Afrikaans-sprekendes, people who are comfortable in the Afrikaans language, to also feel comfortable there”.
He said he did not think the court had any fixed position but looked at the facts in each case. His own expectation is that “Afrikaans is far less threatened than some of its defenders feel, in terms of the lack of what they see as constitutional protection. There’s a relatively wealthy community speaking Afrikaans who can support newspapers, and theatre, and films, and quite a strong culture. The real protection comes from the fact it’s a very lively language,” he said.
“And where The Constitution comes in, is to defend its right of expression, the space for expression, the freedom to speak, and use Afrikaans in these multifaceted ways,” he said.
He said African languages had to go through the transition that Afrikaans supporters had pioneered for Afrikaans in the 1930s to 1960s. “I remember the first legal textbook in Africa in 1946, by LC Steyn, and it was greeted with jubilation as a kind of a breakthrough. And we look forward to the first textbooks in the African languages.”
He said the vice-chancellors’ colloquium needed to be “very, very thoughtful, and not to be polemical, but search for ways forward that will make a significant contribution to achieving that at the level of higher education”.
The retired judge also participated in the Q&A following the plenary, which was chaired by Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, Dean of Education at Stellenbosch University.
Question: “Should Afrikaans be included in the definition of indigenous languages of our country? It has been excluded as one in the language policy framework.”
Response: “In the context of South Africa, it’s quite clear that ‘indigenous’ is used as a counterpoint to the official state languages of the apartheid era. When we spoke about the official languages not being reduced or diminished, it was to protect Afrikaans. English doesn’t need protection. English is like the air you breathe, to English speakers it is not even a language, the language is those things that other people speak.
“So it is really to protect Afrikaans that we said non diminution (reducing benefits). But you don’t upgrade Afrikaans in that sense, you develop Afrikaans, because it’s has been the beneficiary of huge state resources in all sorts of ways in the previous era. The point of having indigenous languages is not to emphasise the indigenous character, but to emphasise that they were subject to oppression in the past, to marginalisation, and exclusion, and there has to be special investment, special backings, special support so they can flourish in the way Afrikaans has flourished,” said Sachs.
Question: “The development of discipline-related jargon is central to the use of indigenous languages as a medium of instruction. Who will be responsible for this task?”
Response: “Everybody is waiting for someone else. It should be just the other way around, everybody should be acting. So the people in the community, the speakers of the African languages, should be mobilising at a community level, and also business people, professionals and others. Not in the apartheid separate way, tribalistic and inward looking; in a proud way as South Africans contributing something to the richness of everything.
“Clearly, the Department of Education has to be involved.
“Start with some pilots, don’t try and do the whole thing all at once. Try out some teaching at some levels. I believe very strongly much more should be done at schools, and something proactive at each university. But if everybody’s waiting for everybody else, then nothing will happen. I think the speaker, the person who posed the question, should be the first one to start,” he quipped.
Stellenbosch University hosted the online colloquium, which was held from 28 to 29 September under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) as a joint project with its Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL).
Close to 200 delegates attended this initial round of consultation. They comprised vice-chancellors, their deputies and language experts from most of South Africa’s 26 public universities. Higher Education policymakers and other government stakeholders were also in attendance.
It is envisaged that henceforth, the senior university executives will lead the process of developing a strategy for the sector on implementing this policy. To that end, it is anticipated that they will drive follow-up institutional dialogues and lead in the crafting or strengthening of their own institutional language policies, strategies and implementation plans.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa