The independent student organisation StudentePlein is genuinely concerned that even though the management of Stellenbosch University (SU) has been receiving complaints about the enforcement of English in various residences over the past week, they have still failed to proactively oppose the unlawful enforcement of English in SU student communities. It is of particular concern that as of this stage, no SU official has denounced the proven ban on Afrikaans in at least 5 residences.
The SU management was wrong to firstly accept without investigation that these incidents were isolated, and secondly to imply that newcomers’ experiences around mother tongue use were not real or dignified. The SU management has thus far feebly pointed out that any enforcement of this nature is not their policy, but they have not explicitly repudiated the actions of the relevant residence leaders.
No legal provision allows the enforcement of one language on other language groups, and the Constitution instead places a duty on the South African state and its organs to actively promote multilingualism. Discrimination on the grounds of language is further expressly prohibited in section 9 of the Constitution. Any action that creates a culture of fear, embarrassment and inferiority around mother tongue use in favour of English, as is currently the case in some SU communities, should be investigated immediately by the management on its own initiative.
This includes evidence that students who speak Afrikaans were instilled with fear of arbitrary penalties such as fines and the removal from the welcoming program, as well as that students were reprimanded for communicating in Afrikaans with their friends and parents via cell phone.
StudentePlein reasons that SU, in its media statements, is now hammering at the concept of “inclusivity” as a distraction to disguise the actual violations of rights.
We take note of the intransigent residence leaders of Minerva Ladies’ Residence concerning this incident, which is clear from their acceptance and distribution of a statement entitled “New Narrative”. This statement firstly acknowledges the allegations of English language enforcement and mother tongue repression brought to StudentePlein’s attention. Secondly, the “New Narrative” testifies to a total misunderstanding of the SU Language Policy and of the Constitution’s provisions of a multilingual society and language discrimination. StudentePlein demands that these uncompromising functionaries of SU be addressed and retrained by the Centre for Student Communities or the appropriate body. We insist on appropriate accountability where resistance persists. Pro-discriminatory behaviour, especially by residence leaders, is unacceptable.
We further note the Facebook post by SU Student Affairs that underplays proven incidents of discrimination by firstly not mentioning the problem by name. The ambivalent post makes it seem as if the situation was reversed and it was Afrikaans that was forced on newcomers. Secondly, the post implies that the incident is exclusive to Minerva, while evidence on the public record points to more communities where English is enforced. Thirdly, the post was misplaced, seeing that the issue was still unresolved; if it were resolved, the Minerva HK would not have abused their authority in the absence of the resident head to make an unlawful compromise with newcomers where English would still be enforced at all costs during welcoming activities. Nor would they have endorsed the “New Narrative” statement.
StudentePlein’s management also takes note of a joint statement by the Student Representative Council and the Prim Committee that expresses so-called “concerns” about “issues… related to mother tongue use in residences”. As is the case with the statement by Student Affairs, this joint statement fails to directly address the violation of rights. Furthermore, the joint statement also emphasises efforts by student leaders to create inclusive environments, in line with the “SU Language Policy of 2016”. It is immediately apparent that the joint statement depicted the student leaders who enforced English and were subsequently criticised as the real victims, showing no sympathy for those Afrikaans students whose language rights were violated. On the strength of the joint statement, there is no prospect of real understanding on the part of the Student Representative Council for the demands of multilingual environments.
However, the proven violation of language rights during the welcoming week cannot be laid at the feet of student leaders alone. Those bodies of SU that are responsible for the training of student leaders have failed to cultivate an awareness of multilingualism and have subsequently instilled a distorted perception of inclusivity based on fear, embarrassment surrounding mother tongue use, and prejudice.
StudentePlein demands that the university independently investigates the incidents of the enforcement of English, that an audit of language discrimination practices be launched across the campus, and that correction and apology be offered for each incident. Additionally, SU’s management and their functionaries in faculties now have the opportunity to show a real commitment to Afrikaans teaching with the start of classes by also providing sufficient contact in Afrikaans. With members in nine faculties, StudentePlein will not hesitate to oppose and address unfair language practices in classes in various ways.