The proposed policy of the University of Stellenbosch regarding the admission of students to university residences raises questions not only about the future of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch but also about the future of South Africa as a multilingual and multicultural society.
In terms of the proposals, admission to residences would be based on two core criteria: merit and the need to promote diversity on the campus. Originally, the policy contemplated an ideal residence profile that would be 35% brown, 20% black, 40% white and 5% Indian - in which 45% of students would be Afrikaans-speaking; 40% would be English-speaking and 15% would speak other languages.
The original formula was rejected by elements within the University community who announced their intention of opposing it via a motion at the next meeting of the University convocation - comprised of former Stellenbosch students - which took place on 11 April. They initially argued that the policy was unconstitutional because it unfairly discriminates against people on the basis of language and culture and because it contravenes the right of people who belong to a specific language or cultural community to "use their language and participate in their culture."
The University authorities reacted to the debate with several amendments to the original policy - most importantly by removing the racial and language targets. The University administration evidently wants a mandate to determine diversity targets itself - while others within the University community insist that targets should be set by the University council. Those opposing the policy felt it should be scrapped as it was vague and transferred all meaningful authority - regarding the admission of students to university residences - to the university administration.
At the convocation meeting on Thursday, 11 April, their motion - which had been amended by its proponents - was rejected by 120 votes against 116. A subsequent motion by the supporters of the policy was accepted: "The University of Stellenbosch deserves the support of the convocation for all initiatives that strive to create a more inclusive institution."
The University council will now have to take a final decision on the policy.
However, the council must contend with many competing pressures. Although the University is autonomous it is under pressure because of the unrepresentative demographic profile of its students and staff - specifically regarding "the colour distinctions that we inherited from the apartheid era." It "acknowledges its contribution towards the injustices of the past and is committed to appropriate redress and development initiatives".
On the other hand, the University is also under pressure from a significant proportion of alumni, students and staff to retain a special place for Afrikaans on the campus. The officials who drafted the residence admission policy had to take all these factors into consideration and also ensure that merit was rewarded. Hence the policy it originally produced with its vision of integrated and multilingual residences in which Afrikaans would still have a 45% share.
The trouble - as everybody knows - is that in any institution where Afrikaans-speakers are reduced to a minority, English very soon becomes the dominant language. Sooner, rather than later, the outcome of the University's residence admission policy would be the disappearance of Afrikaans-language residences and the further erosion of the once Afrikaans character of the university.
Those who oppose such an outcome are, according to Prof Pierre De Vos, "whipping up racial and jingoistic sentiments". They are "white" South African beneficiaries of "past unfair racial discrimination" who are trying "to protect their unearned privileges by fighting to retain the status quo."
However, the ability to use one's language and practise one's culture are rights - and not privileges.
Our Constitution makes ample provision for the multilingual and multicultural nature of our society. It establishes 11 official languages and requires that they should enjoy "parity of esteem". It recognises everyone's right to education in the language of their choice - including single medium institutions - subject to certain conditions. Everyone has the right to "use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice" and persons belonging to cultural, religious or linguistic communities "may not be denied the right to form, join and maintain cultural religious and linguistic associations and other organs of civil society."
Multiculturalism and multilingualism cannot survive without publicly supported institutions in which communities can practise their cultures and use their languages. Such institutions cannot - and should not - exclude anyone on the basis of race, but they should not, however, be subject to racial or language quotas. The application of national racial demographics to all institutions in the private and public sectors - in line with the ANC's National Democratic Revolution ideology - would impose majority domination throughout society and sound the death knell for diversity.
Is it really "jingoistic" for Afrikaans-speaking students in a province where Afrikaans is the majority language to want at least some residences - on a non-racial basis - where Afrikaans will be the predominant language? Students who prefer culturally integrated English language residences - along the lines of the University's proposed model - should have the freedom to choose that option. Such an approach would promote diversity on the campus far more effectively than the de facto imposition of English on everyone.
What do the language and cultural rights in the Constitution mean if there is no place for publicly-supported Afrikaans institutions in a province in which Afrikaans is the majority language? What is the value of the University's commitment to Afrikaans - if there is no place on campus for non-racial Afrikaans language residences? This is not about the completely acceptable idea that Stellenbosch must be an "inclusive institution": it deals with the question of whether there will be room for non-racial, predominantly Afrikaans residences at Stellenbosch.
We agree with the alumni who opposed the new policy: these decisions should not be taken by the diktat of University officials - but rather by the University council. The council must also take this opportunity to offer a clear, unambiguous indication of how it views the future of Afrikaans at Stellenbosch.
Written by: Dave Steward
Picture credit: www.politicsweb.co.za
- Dave Steward is Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation. This article was published on www.politicsweb.co.za.