Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions (our M&G article)

black and white

[Image: Norman Akcroyd]

[This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on the 4th of March 2016]

Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions – Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd

In the last 2 weeks we have seen a number of protests erupt at former Afrikaans-only universities, specifically at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State. The reasons for the protests were numerous and included workers’ wages, accommodation, fees and the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. At Stellenbosch University, a court case between AfriForum and the University was settled out of court last month and seemed to involve a reversal from the position of making English the primary medium of instruction at the University and instead giving English and Afrikaans equal status. For too long the issue of language in education has been dominated by ideological viewpoints that have little appreciation for, or understanding of, the empirical reality in South Africa. Of course language is inherently political – dealing as it does with issues of power, culture and identity – but those promoting or opposing a particular view need to show how those views square up with the linguistic, historical and socioeconomic context that we find ourselves in. Our aim here is to put some empirical evidence on the table so that we can move away from the anecdotes and ideologies that are currently driving policy and public-perception.

For over 50 years the apartheid government nurtured and resourced White-only schools and universities – both English and Afrikaans – while systematically under-resourcing institutions serving Black students. At the height of apartheid, the government allocated the same amount of resources to one White student at school as it did to 10 Black students at school. Even at the end of apartheid the average White child was receiving three and a half times as many resources from the government as the average Black child in one of the homelands. This legacy lives on in the post-apartheid period with ‘ex-Model-C’ schools continuing to be well-resourced as a result of the inertia of institutional functionality and the on-going investment by parents (of all races) that can afford fees, bequests and donations. The same can be said for former-White-only universities.

At universities the three major barriers preventing Black students accessing high-quality institutions are fees, language and weak academic results (from attending dysfunctional schools). The evidence of financial exclusion and financial inaccessibility is now well known. A research note published by our colleagues earlier this year showed that the cost of a BA degree at Stellenbosch had increased 30% between 2006 and 2015 and now requires 44% of average adult income. However there is far less evidence on the table about how many students are excluded from Stellenbosch because of language.

Of those students who qualified with a bachelor’s pass in matric 2014, every single student in the country took either English Home Language or English Second Language. In contrast, 61% of matrics who qualified with a bachelor’s pass did not take any Afrikaans subjects, either as a Home Language or a Second Language. If one looks at Black African students only, then 86% took no Afrikaans at all. It is reasonable to assume that 86% of Black African students who qualify to go to university understand no Afrikaans at all. How then are these students meant to understand some of their university subjects in Afrikaans if they are accepted at our university?

Frequently these students are told “If you don’t speak Afrikaans then go to one of the English universities”, as if there were an abundance of high-functioning English universities. There are only a limited number of ‘first-choice’ universities, and Stellenbosch is one of them. Under apartheid Stellenbosch, like it’s English White-only counterparts, was heavily resourced for 50 years and cannot now be ‘claimed’ by only one group. Stellenbosch has some of the best facilities and the best faculty in the country and should be available to all students, not only those that understand Afrikaans.

It is an uncomfortable truth that not all of South Africa’s 26 universities were born equal or are equal today – much like the born-frees. In the recent QS University ranking Stellenbosch was ranked the second best university in South Africa (after the University of Cape Town). In contrast, during the last 5 years three South African universities were placed under administration due to gross maladministration and bankruptcy. Of course the QS Rankings (like any rankings) are always dodgy, but Stellenbosch remains in the top 5 universities in the country irrespective of the measure you choose; NRF rated professors, research output, PhD production, students’ ‘first-choice’ etc.

At Stellenbosch there still exist dual-medium English and Afrikaans classes where lecturers switch between the two languages as they teach, essentially excluding (or confusing) those students who do not understand Afrikaans. In some courses there are also interpretation services. (Importantly this is usually from Afrikaans to English, not the other way around). A common thread of student protests at Stellenbosch has been that the interpretation services – referred to as ‘ghost whisperers’ – are inadequate, frustrating and create second-class students in the lecture hall. Having a mediated, second-hand learning experience is extremely frustrating and alienating. The issue of ‘separate’ English/Afrikaans classes and separate residence allocation based on language (which is against policy) is also highly problematic. It often leads to White-only Afrikaans classes or accommodation, which exists alongside mixed English classes and accommodation. How does this lead to integration and mutual understanding?

In a multilingual country like South Africa the ideal would be the development and use of all languages to the exclusion of none. The thing is, we have 11. This is simply not feasible in the short or even medium term. It is our view that in the balancing act between the right to access a historically well-resourced and currently highly-functional university; and the (qualified) right to learn in a home language, the former outweighs the latter. 100% of students that qualify for university do understand English while only 40% understand Afrikaans. Among Black African students, only 14% of those who qualify for university took any Afrikaans at school. We cannot see how excluding 86% of Black students from accessing Stellenbosch University is fair given our apartheid history, or how the University will become more representative of the country without transforming its language policy. In our view, ensuring that all courses are offered in at least English (without translation) is the least bad alternative of those available. It is not the responsibility of public universities to protect and defend any one language or culture. This is especially so when the patterns of historical and current privilege and exclusion are essentially one and the same.

Nic Spaull & Debra Shepherd are researchers in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University.

5 responses to “Afrikaans universities perpetuate racial divisions (our M&G article)

  1. Dr Jane Hofmeyr

    Brilliant because it deals with facts!

  2. Sandra Liebenberg

    Great article, Nic. Sandy Liebenberg

  3. I think there’s a tendency to conflate Afrikaans and white speakers of the language. At Stellenbosch this does speak to the current realities of the institution, but it really shouldn’t be. The Western Cape is a province dominated by Afrikaans speakers, and our institutions should reflect this. Yes, 11 official languages are hard to implement in practice, but English medium is equally likely to benefit a privileged group as Afrikaans- the middle-classes have significantly better access to English than others.

    The issue of the quality is relevant, however if when we take this as given we place undue focus on a high performing students. We cannot meaningfully increase access to higher education without simultaneously improving the quality of poorly run/under resourced universities.

    Language determines who is seen as capable and talented, and for this students need access to information in their mother tongue. While English may be the most widely spoken language across the country it is not the most common mother tongue nationally or within provinces.

    I would argue that shifting towards English instruction is the wrong direction. We need to shift towards quality higher education institutions which represent the dominant languages within the country (possibly using the dominant language spoken as mother tongue within the province as a proxy), with the possibility of English as a second medium.

    The concerns around the quality of dual language instruction are significant, but these are technical problems which need technical solutions.

    I do think Stellenbosch needs to transform however. In particular it could benefit from analyzing why it is currently inaccessible to Afrikaans speaking families of colour around South Africa.

  4. HI Nic,

    I mentioned I’d send the draft proposal we’re putting together on behalf of the extraordinary schools coalition. I love to hear if you have any insights into this. I assume you know about the committee sitting to plan the teacher induction year at DBE. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on that as well.

    Best Sue


    • Thanks Nic but who is this Sue? I would like to know more about the DBE team that is looking at induction

      Dr Jane Hofmeyr
      Education and Development Consultant

      Tel: +27 11 2341719
      Cellphone: +27 82 7849190
      Skype: janehofmeyr

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