The University of Pretoria in South Africa will soon be ‘phasing out’ Afrikaans as its educational medium. The language will be replaced by English, starting from the 2019/20 academic year.

This is in line with a commitment made in 2016. Then, just 18% of enrolees favoured Afrikaans as their language of instruction amid nationwide protests under the hashtag, #AfrikaansMustFall.

The changes are the result of an “extensive consultation process and recommendations from all interested parties”. The reform intends to “transform the culture” and render it “truly South African.” This will draw to a close 87 years of the whiter-settler language’s dominance at the university. It will not affect current Afrikaner students.

“The change in policy is aimed at facilitating social cohesion, and the university will continue to embrace and encourage multilingualism to foster unity and provide equal opportunities to speakers of all South African languages,” according to university spokesperson, Rikus Delport.

THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID

South Africa is one of the world’s most multilingual countries, with 11 state languages; 9.6% of its inhabitants are English mother-tongue, to Afrikaans’ 13.5%. But, unfortunately, the legacy of Apartheid cannot be separated from Afrikaans and its policies of racially motivated educational exclusion.

Furthermore, English is the lingua franca (the language of business and officialdom). Since 1992, the proportion of Afrikaner students at the University of Pretoria has fallen from 85% to 30% (2015).

But lecturers continue to marginalise black pupils. One alumna has even accused them on Twitter of “deliberately… fail[ing]” students for their lack of understanding of Afrikaans.

THE POLITICAL RESPONSE

Reaction from different political quarters has varied.

Finance minister, Tito Mboweni, has declared that he “publicly, and in [his] personal capacity, DISAGREE[s].” But the governing party of South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), has been far more complimentary.

It “believes the university has taken a step in the right direction and must continue its efforts towards the transformation for all students and members of the university,” adding, “our shared values cannot be achieved if language is used as a barrier to accessing education.”

AFRIFORUM VOICES ITS OPPOSITION

However, the pro-Afrikaner organisation AfriForum has expressed disapproval. It claims to find the adoption of the English language “worrisome.”

It accuses the university of dishonesty and claims that it has “received a number of complaints from students who already in 2018 did not receive [Afrikaans] services.”

Contesting the arguments of the university’s spokesperson, it asserts that “unilingual education… undermines social cohesion and increases the potential for conflict and student non-performance.”

 

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