Language is the foundation for community and culture. It allows us to communicate, learn and collaborate with one another, but it can also be exploited as a means to enforce segregation. The case of Stellenbosch University in South Africa shows the power language can have as a tool or as a weapon. Over the past few months, Stellenbosch has been ground zero in the South African language war in terms of both emotion and even violence.
Until the fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, Stellenboch University was a predominantly white Afrikaner university. While the Afrikaner language was originally weaponized to uphold apartheid, the country eventually adopted 11 official languages. Over the past two decades, the university has slowly been integrating English with the goal of it eventually reaching equal academic footing with Afrikaans. For example, some classes are offered on parallel language tracks and others are offered as bilingual.
Unfortunately, many primary and secondary English-speaking students — blacks, whites and Indians and Africans of neighboring countries — feel Stellenbosch University is moving too slowly to institutionalize English equally. Instead of using language as a force for progress, they feel the university is using Afrikaans as an apartheid relic that obstructs their academic opportunities.
Open Stellenbosch, an organization pushing for change, regularly organizes protests on the Rooiplein — the equivalent of Georgetown’s Red Square. It created a documentary in August called “Luister” (Listen) highlighting stories of more than 30 students and faculty members who have faced discrimination. In academic settings, some students cannot understand the professor while other professors do not translate their Afrikaans lecture slides to English. Because classes are only 50-minute periods, every moment of confusion takes a toll. There are also stories of discrimination in everyday life, such as being subjected to racial slurs, or excluded at bars by bouncers for not being white. These serious allegations caused a national and political thunderstorm as both of South Africa’s major political parties called for investigations at the university and demanded reform.
Reform is a popular buzzword, but it is much easier said than done. Reconciling and building a diverse nation after a half century of apartheid — literally, apartness — to include 11 national languages in education, business and government is not an easy task. To ensure that diverse identities are complementary identities under one unified South Africa rather than competing identities that split the country apart is an incredibly difficult domestic task for a country to face.
Stellenbosch University’s administration must use its finite resources to carefully prioritize which classes should receive more professors instructing in different languages. It must determine how to change curriculums to make classrooms a place for discussion and learning, leaving room for flexibility in the case that someone can’t understand everything said, rather than adhering to a model of lecturing all the course material so that one must understand everything said to pass exams.
Most importantly, the language policy at Stellenbosch cannot be seen as a battle of good versus evil. This is a dangerous path, but it’s one that some students have already taken. Afrikaans being institutionalized to uphold apartheid is a form of racism, but Afrikaans being spoken in an academic setting and not being systematically used to exclude students is not apartheid.
Violent exploitation of issues like language to appease political ideas is not new to South Africa. The Economic Freedom Fighter is a radical Marxist political party known for its bright red uniforms and disruptive protests. Following “Luister,” EFF members and student supporters blocked predominantly white students from entering a testing site at another college in Stellenbosch. They proceeded to violently assault students with whips. The result? White students, especially Afrikaners, were in fear. These acts impede reconciliation and dialogue in South Africa.
While abroad, I’ve had the opportunity to make friends from all different ethnicities and language backgrounds, and I’ve heard diverse opinions on Open Stellenbosch and transformation at the university. Some feel it is completely necessary to allow students of all backgrounds to reach their full potential. Others, including English speakers, quite frankly believe Open Stellenbosch is just making unnecessary noise.
Clearly the language policy and transformation at Stellenbosch go far beyond signing a decree on paper to properly ensure students of all backgrounds receive an equal education and an equal opportunity to unlock their potentials.
What’s happening in Stellenbosch can serve as a learning experience here at Georgetown. For example, I have heard an argument against Casa Latina that creating a house for Spanish-speaking Hoyas to converse in their native tongue will lead to self-segregation. Is it not possible to have multiple, complementary identities? Do you yourself not feel various amounts of salience and loyalties to overlapping communities — your family, community, school and nation? Is it seriously not possible to be a Baptist and a Democrat? Gay and Republican? A Spanish speaker and a patriotic citizen of the United States?
If Stellenbosch is to achieve the transformation it aims for, and if Georgetown is to be a welcoming home for Hoyas of all backgrounds, we all must adhere to the virtues of patience and dialogue. It is the only way we will unlock the potentials in ourselves and in one another.
Alexander Bobroske is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Oh The Places You’ll Go appears every other Friday.
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