Today I found myself in an impossible position. After my lecture – I’m teaching an introduction to South African history to the first year undergraduates – I was approached by two students. One asked if he could read my lecture notes because he, an Afrikaans speaker, was having difficulty following my lectures (I lecture in English). The other, an exchange student from Germany, complained that she hadn’t understood a word of her tutorial that morning because it had been in Afrikaans.
I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Based in the wine lands region near Cape Town, the University is one of the best in South Africa, has a growing international profile, and a difficult history which casts a long shadow over its activities in the present. Stellenbosch was closely associated with the apartheid government, educating Prime Ministers and nationalist ideologues. That said, the first questioning of apartheid within Afrikaans society came from Stellenbosch as well, and, since 1994, the university has worked hard to encourage a more socially-diverse campus.
One of the remnants of Stellenbosch’s contact with Afrikaner nationalism is its commitment to being an Afrikaans university. Afrikaans – which evolved from Dutch in the kitchens and slave quarters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – was transformed into a language of academia and science at Stellenbosch during the 1930s. After 1994, debate turned to whether Stellenbosch should remain Afrikaans.
I taught at Stellenbosch during the early 2000s, at a time when the taaldebat (language debate), was at its most ferocious. Afrikaans students were fiercely protective over the language. One group distributed stickers bearing the slogan ‘Engels, Engels, alles Engels’ (English, English, everything English) which echoed the rallying cry of the first Afrikaner nationalist group to emerge during the 1870s. When there was a mix-up over the translation of notes from English into Afrikaans for a course I was teaching, both I and my Head of Department were inundated with complaints.
But even then it seemed as if the pro-Afrikaans lobby was fighting a losing battle. By 2005, half of the undergraduates at the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences were English-speaking. This faculty adopted a bilingual teaching policy, and I was, and am, free to lecture in English, as long as all the course reading was available in both languages and students could ask questions and write assignments and examinations in whichever language they preferred. In 2006, Stellenbosch’s revised language policy decreed that postgraduate study would be in English, and that undergraduate courses could be bilingual.
This is the case at other universities too: McGill and Ottawa Universities in Canada have a similar set of rules as regards English and French. But the difference at Stellenbosch is that Afrikaans is spoken exclusively in South Africa. For Stellenbosch to be recognised internationally, it needs to operate in English, and students themselves are beginning to realise this – and to effect change.
When I started teaching at Stellenbosch again this year, I realised that things had changed when I noticed that Afrikaans students preferred to use the English course reading packs. When I taught a module on revolutions in world history, the course readers were only in English because of the dearth of Afrikaans-language scholarship on the topic. Not one student complained. These are young, middle-class students – both white and black – who are bilingual and who expect to work in English-speaking environments. Many plan to work and travel abroad. They feel comfortable in a globalised world.
Nevertheless, there are Afrikaans-speaking students, those who are white and from the country’s rural areas or who are working-class and ‘coloured’ (a non-pejorative term in South Africa), who attend Stellenbosch precisely because their English is poor. They resent the creeping Anglicisation of Stellenbosch, but they are in a shrinking minority. As a result, their voices are seldom raised in protest.
I find myself as a lecturer in an impossible position: between two groups of students who have equally valid claims to be taught in either English or Afrikaans. As an academic, I resent having to spend time translating notes into Afrikaans, but sympathise with Afrikaans students who feel that they were mislead into believing that they would have a fully Afrikaans tertiary education.
Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. Her research project, ‘Imperial Babies: Mothercraft and the Politics of Childhood in the British Empire’, considers the global impact of the Mothercraft Movement between the two World Wars. She is interested in histories of age, the body, food, and consumerism, and writes a blog, tangerineandcinnamon.wordpress.com, on food history. Sarah also volunteers for Right2Know, a freedom of information campaign. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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