Dr Linda Meyer (left), Director: Operations and Sector Support at Universities South Africa (USAf), chaired the session titled The Nexus Between Language and Transformation, which formed part of the vice-chancellors’ recent consultative Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions.
She summed up some of the panel’s observations and findings:
Doctor Elias Malete, from the Humanities Faculty at the University of the Free State (UFS), spoke about the intellectualisation of African languages and how language is a key instrument in humanising science. He examined the influence and impact on African languages by missionaries. As an example, he cited dictionaries which served as enablers but also as detractors because they were written with a particular narrative in mind. He reflected on the epistemological concept of indigenous language. “Scholarship in African languages has not broken away from the context in which it was conceived; the focus is on the structural study of the languages and their literature,” he said, indicating that it was imperative to solve these challenges.
North West University’s Professor Robert Balfour, Deputy Vice Chancellor (teaching and learning) and Dr Keaobaka Seshoka, language director at the Language Directorate, discussed the transformation of the university’s language policy. Their presentation focused on how this modality of language planning has to be grounded in data. They went into detail of how mechanisms to support students and staff with active programmes, that are founded in sound policy and planning, need to be developed and supported from the highest echelons to ensure that social networks and social constructs support the transformation and the advancement of the myriad of African languages that need to be interfaced.
Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, Dean of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University, looked at African languages as the panacea for the transformation of higher education. We need to move away from English being the underpinning foundation. He emphasised that language policy requirements are important for transformation (and what transformation actually means) and time frame requisites. It must be remembered that if we want to decolonise our minds that we need to have a clear agenda but also one that doesn’t just pay “lip service” and that we acknowledge the marginalisation of African languages, and the counterproductive elements that have been endorsed as anti-intellectual pedagogical theory of measuring intellectual capability.
Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa – who is Dean and Head of the School of Arts in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN – addressed attendees on using African languages in teaching and learning in higher education and what UKZN is doing in this regard. She presented an engaging reflective of how, thanks to the country’s apartheid history and its enforced Bantu education, black South Africans protested against being denied access to English as the language of teaching and learning. English was seen as the way to liberate people and yet this very instrument is becoming an impediment as we fight to normalise. If we speak about languages being equal, then we need to have programmes of advancement and English should not be continuously advantaged in the debate of monolingualism and cost mechanisms.
Professor Leketi Makalela, founding director of the Hub for Multilingual Education and
Literacies at the University of the Witwatersrand, addressed attendees on Advancing African Languages for Social Inclusion and Success in Higher Education and Re-imagining an African University. He talked about how we speak about ubuntu but, on the flip side, we still argue for a monolingualism construct, which is not enabling. We need a platform to ensure systemic transformation. Multilingual students continue to be disproportionately disadvantaged and marginalised and epistemic access is compromised. We need to insist on an inclusive, as opposed to a narrowing discourse, and true ubuntu needs to be at the centre of transformation. Multilingualism stands in stark contrast to Eurocentric Western discourse. We need to ensure that as Africans, we embrace what is uniquely ours so that we can advance our own agenda.
Senior executives from USAf and government were then asked to comment on how they see the country’s education structures involving themselves in the implementation of the new language policy framework.
Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer – Universities South Africa (USAf)
“There were clear indicators that show the way in which we now need to proceed. One is that this is a national project. That doesn’t take away the responsibility of institutions but we have to address it in a national form and that means developing strategic partnerships and collaborations. From USAf’s point of view, the one major area of engagement will be to keep the momentum going with all 26 universities. The sessions also emphasised the extent to which we have to bring together government departments, universities, The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the like because this is of national importance. This has to be shaped in the context of the larger decolonisation debate and the social justice imperatives that face our universities.
“I am amazed by what is going on at our universities and it does provide us with a fantastic platform. What will come out of this will be the need for a number of really significant research projects which will provide us with an evidenced-based approach to address these big issues. In particular, I am intrigued by the way in which we are also integrating the use of the new digital technologies so it opens the way up for increasing interdisciplinary collaboration. We must keep this momentum going.”
Doctor Thandi Lewin, The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Chief Director for Institutional Governance and Management Support in the University Education branch:
“USAf will have a critical role to play through the teaching and learning strategy group and through CoPAL (Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages). We need to keep the momentum going and the work that’s already taking place in institutions needs to continue growing and developing. Given that it’s a national project and that resources are scarce, we certainly see that formal collaboration is going to be necessary at some level, certainly when we look at the issue of ensuring that we have strong African language departments across the system. It is going to require us to work together to ensure that we’re not duplicating efforts. However, institutions will also develop their own projects in their own ways; that will be critical. The role of DHET will be to provide some oversights of the policy implementation while working closely with USAf and CoPAL.”
Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University:
“Universities are really doing a lot more than they have been given credit for and yet there is still much more to be done. However, it requires political will to implement what we have committed ourselves to. So the real question for me is, besides the issue of funding, do we have the political will to ensure that the development of languages – and indigenous languages in particular – and the advancement of multilingualism is advanced?”
Dr Antoinette van der Merwe, Senior Director: Division for Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Stellenbosch University, reporting to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor:
“I want to support what Dr Mabizela said in terms of what’s being done at universities. There is a lot of institutional good will. To do it on a national level we will need to collaborate and pool resources. Otherwise each institution will go their own way and I really believe that with synergy, there’s so much more value.”
Dr Linda Meyer, Director of Operations and Sector Support at USAf:
“We must hold ourselves to the highest standard. Once the transformation agenda (is confirmed), we mustn’t use money and resource constraints to argue against implementing what is necessary.”
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.