On one of our museum trips, we watched a short documentary about the Soweto Uprising. We had the opportunity to watch real footage of students protesting a mandate from the apartheid government that instruction in Soweto schools be given in Afrikaans — in a community where Afrikaans was not predominantly spoken. Language in this case became a tool for oppression and a barrier to education.
Fast forward nearly forty years, and you will find a jarringly similar dialogue on the very campus at which we are studying. At Stellenbosch, teaching faculty essentially have the option to teach either in English or Afrikaans or a mixture of both. And most times, students will find that some required courses for many majors are given all in or in a significant portion of Afrikaans. This becomes problematic when you consider that a small percentage of students – of whom are predominately black – have little to no background in Afrikaans at a school where the translation services are still clunky at best. For a university that is publicly funded, this policy seems to contradict the country’s promise for equal access to education.
Of course, the problem then falls onto lines of culture and race as Afrikaans is historically linked to the white Afrikaaner-dominated apartheid government. The students and faculty supporting the Open Stellenbosch movement are using the dialogue of the apartheid struggle in order to claim their own voice in their education. The biggest concern with the Open Stellenbosch movement is the fact that Afrikaans is so ingrained in the historical and institutional fabric of the city of Stellenbosch and the university. (Another concern: some of the strategies the students of Open Stellenbosch employ are kind of questionable.) An overwhelming majority of students and faculty are defending Afrikaans as something that makes Stellenbosch unique, with many Afrikaans-speaking individuals evoking questions of institutional memory. The question is then, what is it that Afrikaans represents in people’s memory? Some see it as the language of the oppressor; others, the language that arguably saved the university. This is an oversimplified account of the whole Open Stellenbosch movement and the dialogue around it, but it is just one example of the complexity and messiness that South Africa faces as it adapts to its newfound democracy.