Afrikaans, English, and the Stellenbosch University Debate

Note: this will be the first in a series covering the languages of South Africa, and some of its complicated politics surrounding it.

For a country of 55 million people, South Africa has a lot of languages: eleven official ones, along with a wide range of dialects that vary from region to region–or even from one town to the next. Between English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, and Zulu, these four languages account for approximately 31 million of South Africa’s population. The remainder of the population speaks a number of other tongues, from the Sesotho language, spoken by members of the Basotho people (as well as citizens of Lesotho, a country-within-a-country) to Swati, the language of the Bantu peoples.

This diverse linguistic heritage is a goldmine for anthropologists and cultural studies specialists; for bureaucrats and residents alike, however, it can be extremely difficult juggling this wide range of languages, both official and semi-official (but widely used).

English vs. Afrikaans

Language is also something of a hot topic in South Africa today. In 2016, Stellenbosch University, one of the oldest (and most scenic) universities in the nation, announced that it would conduct courses in English only.

The change came about only after concerted opposition by a vocal group of students, (specifically the Open Stellenbosch movement), many of whom objected to being taught in a language with a highly controversial history. Interestingly, the University of Stellenbosch was long seen as an unreformed holdout from the apartheid era: many of the architects of apartheid studied at the university, and more importantly, its reliance on the use of Afrikaans excluded a vast majority of South Africans, many more of whom spoke English than the Dutch-based tongue.

Many students, especially the majority of those who did not grow up speaking Afrikaans, complained about being left out, their coursework undecipherable due to subpar translation services. In one article, researchers noted that the vast majority of black graduates of South African universities (86%) understood no Afrikaans at all.

Certainly the change was not an easy one, fraught instead with history and politics. Though many students lauded the change, heralding it as a step forward for multiculturalism and a boost to South Africa’s competitiveness in the world economy, there was a small minority that was opposed to the decision: Afrikaans speakers, including parties like the conservative, right-wing Freedom Front Plus party, condemned the resolution. Despite the troubled history of Afrikaans-only universities, politician Anton Alberts hailed the event as a dark day for Afrikaans speakers, using the language that had previously been reserved for left-wing advocates fighting against apartheid.

Still, the hard-fought campaign was, in the end, successful, despite some false starts, as Stellenbosch University administrators went through a cycle of issuing (and retracting) edicts granting English official status. Ultimately though, English won out.


Originally published at henristeenkamp.org on June 28, 2017.