Stellenbosch University wants Afrikaans recognised as an indigenous language in the policy promoting multilingualism

Published On: 4 October 2021|

One of the main challenges of the South African government’s new language policy framework for public higher education institutions is that it excludes Afrikaans as an indigenous language.

“And this,” said Professor Wim de Villiers (left), Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, “is something Stellenbosch University disagrees with, and would like to see amended”.

De Villiers was welcoming delegates to the online Colloquium on the New Language Policy for Higher Education, which his institution hosted from 28 to 29 September 2021 under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). The Colloquium was a joint project between USAf, its Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) and Stellenbosch University.

The meeting was the first in a series of consultative engagements that universities will host on the new policy framework, which was promulgated in October 2020 and is effective from 1 January 2022.

De Villiers’s presentation was on the challenges of implementing the new language policy framework, which is essentially about providing “a framework for the development and strengthening of indigenous languages as languages of scholarship, teaching and learning and communication at higher education institutions”.

Yet its definition of indigenous languages excludes Afrikaans. It defines indigenous languages as those with “heritage roots in Africa” and which are “native to a region or country and spoken by indigenous people”.

But the definition includes the proviso that indigenous languages “belong to the Southern Bantu language family, where ‘Bantu’ is used purely as a linguistic term”. This rules out Afrikaans.

De Villiers said the draft policy of 2017 had presented Afrikaans as an indigenous language of South Africa. “Stellenbosch University supported the position in that draft,” he said.

Universities were, however, not given an opportunity to comment on the final version of the policy framework, a fact which SU had brought to USAf’s attention. “We have stated from the release of this new policy framework that we remain committed to Afrikaans as an indigenous language as part of inclusive multilingualism,” he said.

The Stellenbosch University Council has now taken a stance on this exclusion. At its meeting on June 21, 2021 it accepted a motion, which read, “SU has taken note with concern of the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET’s) classification of Afrikaans in the Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions. SU supports the view that Afrikaans, and the Khoi and San languages, are indigenous languages. Council requests SU’s management to take appropriate steps to engage with the DHET to address this issue”.

Professor de Villiers made it clear this action does not imply a lack of endorsement for the principle of multilingualism. The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning’s policy advocacy brief, Why and How Africa Should Invest in African Languages and Multilingual Education, published in partnership with the Association for the Development of Education in Africa in 2010, revealed “more than enough evidence that multilingualism is an asset to the development of a nation,” he said.

One of the brief’s recommendations for policymaking in multicultural and multilingual Africa was to “normalise multilingualism for social cohesion, individual and social development through language policies that build the natural mastery of two or more languages. Such policies should be embedded in the social vision of a country, operationalised in legislation, and reflected in planning, budgeting and research covering all societal sectors”.

This showed that “higher education in South Africa is on the right track” because “normalising multilingualism is, in part, what the new policy framework is trying to achieve,” said De Villiers. “In the South African context I truly believe that a policy of multilingualism will give students broader access, more options, and a better future,” he added.

He said that simultaneously with the Council’s stance, SU was committed to the increasing use of isiXhosa “to the extent that this is reasonably practical”, and to developing it as an academic language. SU is already using isiXhosa to facilitate effective learning and teaching, “especially where it may be important for career purposes,” he said.

Existing initiatives in this regard include:

  • short courses in basic isiXhosa communication skills for staff and students;
  • printed and online career and discipline-specific terminology guides and phrase books;
  • medical students being taught vocational communication in Afrikaans and isiXhosa, with similar modules in the Faculty of Education;
  • a Faculty of Theology module presented in isiXhosa and interpreted into Afrikaans and English;
  • isiXhosa and other interpreting used in the extended degree programme in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences;
  • the Language Center translating podcasts and teaching material into isiXhosa; and
  • the Faculty of Education’s Multilingual Subject-Specific Terminology platform known as MobiLex, which provides students with glossaries and definitions of terms in Afrikaans, English, and isiXhosa, in specific subjects.

He singled out MobiLex for giving support in both languages, as well as conceptual knowledge. And pointed out that, unlike terminology lists developed by other universities in South Africa and elsewhere, MobiLex stood out because it was online, available in a user-friendly tailor-made mobile application format, open sourced, on an undergraduate level, and included Afrikaans and isiXhosa.

Now SU’s challenge is to “keep this momentum going, and to figure out ways to do the same for other indigenous languages across South Africa. And this is where collaboration with other institutions in the higher education sector comes into play. We have to work together to make this happen,” he said.

Not just a policy on paper

De Villiers said universities had to consider the consequences of implementing the policy on a practical level because different faculties will have different requirements. “And here, flexibility is key,” he said. ”I’ve often spoken about the significance of agile institutions, and how adaptability is necessary for universities to thrive. The actual circumstances of academic multilingualism should be in step with professional environments and expectations.“

SU’s language policy of 2016, itself under revision — states that each faculty must determine its own use of languages for learning and teaching, before submitting it to senate for approval, and all other internal university structures to interpret and use accordingly.

“Implementing the new policy framework will therefore require institutions in the higher education sector to develop, sustain, and monitor extensive plans to promote multilingualism; and part of this includes setting up transparent mechanisms, to ensure this implementation. And not to just accept the policy framework on paper,” he said.

SU’s formalised mechanisms for annual reporting and planning of language implementation had opened up the process for reflection: “We believe this has resulted in a shift from 2017 to 2021 in the conversation from a language rights to a language justice discourse”.

Cost is a big challenge in implementing the policy

Professor de Villiers said the main challenges in implementing the policy range from financial implications, lack of investment in multilingualism in basic education, bridging the gap between high school and higher education, and the continued trend towards the globalisation, internationalisation and English education of higher education.

He noted that paragraph 32 of the new language policy framework could have huge cost implications. It states: “All official internal institutional communication must be conveyed in at least two official languages other than English, as a way of cultivating a culture of multilingualism. Institutions must consider all possible options to accentuate the use of indigenous African languages in official communication and ceremonies”.

De Villiers said this is “certainly a laudable ideal but depending on the definition of what is classified as ‘internal institutional communication’, it could possibly not be financially viable”.

This made universities’ interpretation of the terms of the policy framework a challenge in itself, which is why this colloquium was so valuable, he said, describing it as a “sense-making of what we can do as a collective”. While the financial impact of formalised multilingualism presented challenges, it was “crucially important to collaborate to find solutions”, he said.

Just implementing policy is problematic

All sectors face challenges in implementing policies. De Villiers quoted from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s research, which stated that in tertiary education specifically, different stakeholders hold different views on higher education’s roles and goals, and so also diverged about the strategies and policies needed to achieve these goals. This made it necessary to build consensus.

De Villiers also quoted public administration and organizational theory expert Äse Gornitzka, now Pro-Rector (vice-rector) of the University of Oslo in Norway: “For organisations to change as a result of government initiatives, a normative match is necessary, i.e. congruence between the values and beliefs underlying a proposed programme or policy, and the identity and traditions of the organisation.”

“I believe colloquia like this will really help with this congruence,” said Professor de Villiers.

In his closing comments for the day, Professor Bawa reiterated what Professor De Villiers had said: that the major challenge of the policy framework is the challenge of implementation. Bawa added that it was also about “finding the will and the political will, the leadership and the resources to ensure that we do make progress with implementation”.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa