A top South African university has dropped Afrikaans as its official language in favour of English.
The University of Pretoria told the BBC it needed to “transform the culture” to make it “truly South African”.
English is the preferred language of instruction for many in South Africa.
Afrikaans language policy has historically been used to exclude black learners in a country where racism remains deeply embedded 25 years after white-minority rule ended.
The word apartheid, which has now been internationalised and is in the Oxford Dictionary, is in fact an Afrikaans word.
The language is still spoken by millions, but it is hoped that this move will make the many more millions who do not speak it feel welcomed in one of the best academic institutions in the country.
Black and non-Afrikaans-speaking students on Twitter have been discussing the new policy, with many sharing the humiliating and alienating treatment they say they were subjected to at the University of Pretoria.
One said that black students were intentionally humiliated by Afrikaans-speaking lecturers.
Another remembers the language being a struggle for them as a black 17-year-old teenager from a township
And another former student said lecturers refused to speak English, telling students: “If you don’t understand that’s not my problem.”
When asked about these testimonies, the University of Pretoria’s spokesman Rikus Delport told the BBC: “I’m sure there are incidents of that happening.
“That’s what led to the whole coming together, and saying ‘let’s decide how we go forward’. It flowed from that.”
South Africa has 11 official languages – Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Setswana, English, Sesotho, Xitsonga, Siswati, Tshivenda and Ndebele.
Their constitutional recognition came with the advent of democracy, in an attempt to help end institutional racism and heal South Africa’s bitter historical divisions.
“In an ideal world we would like all languages to have equal status in teaching, but it’s not practically possible or feasible, so not a lot happens in other languages,” the University of Pretoria’s spokesman told the BBC.
“The university will still encourage multilingualism. We’ll offer support services to students in their enrolment – where practically possible – in their home language.”
Graduations and other official ceremonies will continue to feature the three languages already in use for those occasions – English, Afrikaans and Sepedi.
South Africa’s top six mother-tongue languages:
- Zulu: 22.7%, Xhosa: 16%, Afrikaans: 13.5%, English: 9.6%, Setswana: 8%, Sesotho: 7.6%
- South Africa has 11 official languages altogether
- English is the most commonly spoken language used officially and in business
Source: SA.info/Census 2011
Demand for Afrikaans-language teaching is falling, according to the University of Pretoria, which says 85% of its students came from Afrikaans-speaking households in 1992, dropping to 30% in 2015. Only 18% of students said they wanted classes in Afrikaans at the last count in 2016.
“Afrikaans will be phased out over time,” the University of Pretoria’s spokesman told the BBC. “Students already in the pipeline will still continue getting their classes in Afrikaans.”
Although the changes came into effect at the start of the year, the university says the decision to switch to English was made back in 2016, prompted by high profile student campaigns across the country like #AfrikaansMustFall and #FeesMustFall.
That wave of protests also led to English being given equal status as Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University in 2017.
The pro-Afrikaner civil rights group AfriForum opposed the University of Pretoria’s proposed reform at the time, and has now accused the university of dishonesty in its changes to languages policy. The university denies this.
“They got it wrong. They associated it with [the appointment of] the new vice-chancellor – but I don’t know where they got that impression, because the change has been coming for some time”.
South Africa’s finance minister has also waded into the debate, saying people will regret the university’s decision to drop Afrikaans in years to come.
“It’s obvious there are people who differ from us, who don’t agree with it – and we have to accept that,” the University of Pretoria’s spokesman said.
“This was a decision made by an extended consultation process over a long period of time, not something that happened overnight.” BBC