-The language policy at Stellenbosch University- a practical issue? Or a symbolic one?

On the 20th of August 2015, the documentary Luister was released, in which 32 Stellenbosch University students were interviewed, recounting experiences of racism experienced at the University, as well as their feelings on the language policy. Some students feel very strongly about the use of Afrikaans in lectures

Open Stellenbosch, the organisation behind the Luister movement stated that: “A complete change of the language policy is of utmost importance and [they] maintain the stance that no student should be forced to learn in Afrikaans.”

The discussions around this language policy lead to the question- is this language policy at Stellenbosch a symbolic problem or a practical problem? This question refers to whether students feel so strongly about certain lectures being taught in Afrikaans because they feel the language symbolically represents issues of the past, relating back to Apartheid, or whether their discontent is purely because Afrikaans is not their home language and they therefore cannot understand what is being taught.

Joshua Musson, a second year student at Stellenbosch University, sees the language policy as both a practical and symbolic problem. He believes it to be practical, because “people are being disadvantaged within [the] educational institutions”, but symbolic in the sense that “it is a minority culture preserving itself over the national need to include a majority.”

The interview with Musson revealed that while some students cannot identify with the issues addressed in “Luister”, they can certainly understand them. Musson believes the main problem that arose is “the bigotry, patriarchal culture of our country and how we have created prejudice due to history, socio-economic and cultural exclusion”.

However, the issue that many students have with the Luister documentary and its language policy argument, is that the students who are upset about it were aware of this policy before they applied to the University. Bianca Scheffer, a first year student at Stellenbosch, agrees with this, and sees it very much as a practical problem. “I don’t believe their feelings are justified as they were aware of the language policy in place before choosing Stellenbosch as their University.” Many will agree with Scheffer, and perhaps she is right but there is an issue that lies behind this argument. Many of the students have not considered how difficult it is for students who speak Xhosa or another African language as their first language, and has had to learn English and is now expected to learn Afrikaans. “To expect someone to learn all [three languages], when they are part of the majority population, without considering the fact that they are disadvantaged from a language perspective, is ignorant and arrogant,” Musson says.

Jade Scheffer, also a first year student at Stellenbosch, sees the language policy as symbolic of South Africa’s past but believes that “people need to move on from the past”. While it is clear that many students have differing opinions regarding the language policy, it is undeniable, from watching Luister and other recent student movements, that change is needed. However, one can agree with Musson, that this change “has to be done in a responsible way.”

As George Bernard Shaw said, “We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”

Students marching.
Students finally speaking out.
Students finally speaking out.
Students marching.

By: Rachael Layzell


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