Trevor McArthur

Language, belonging and the decolonial moment at South African universities

In recent months the spotlight has, yet again, been shone on universities in South Africa. This time, the focus was on the fact that leading institutions (all of whom were previously designated as for “whites only”) remains largely untransformed. This time around, though, the focus was not only on numbers (even though that remains an important component, which others have discussed at length) but also on the curriculum as well as the heteronormative institutional traditions and practices. These practices, members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and asexual (LGBTIA) communities reflect, are exclusionary and oppressive. The issue of language, particularly at universities where Afrikaans remains the dominant medium of instruction (and communication), were also raised as a source of exclusion and oppression.

In essence, interest groups are demanding a decolonised curriculum (that is: a curriculum that teaches African literatures and theories) relevant to our context as well as globally competitive (this, by the way, is not mutually exclusive); a university demographic that (as far as that is possible) reflects the racial makeup of South Africa; campuses that welcome and promote gender diversity and the freedom of sexual expression, as well as a concerted effort particularly by university managers to destabilise patriarchy at their universities, and finally; universities that encourage (or enforce?) language policies, which include (rather than exclude) communication and critical engagement.



I need to perhaps state at this point that I in no way claim to represent or reflect the views of the said interest groups. I am merely reflecting on communiqué I follow on Facebook and other social media platforms by key informants affiliated to movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellenbosch. These movements, along with pockets of young people associated with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Progressive Youth Alliance (this student alliance is made up of branches of the ANCYL, Sasco and the YCL at tertiary institutions, particularly at Wits University) were instrumental in advancing the transformation agenda at campuses across the country. I shall limit my reflection to my experience at two universities (at both these universities I was a student as well as a member of staff) – the respective homes of #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellenbosch

The demand that universities have more inclusive language policies, in my view, does not require further debate. It’s pretty straightforward and I am flabbergasted that universities fail to see the urgency of the matter. Being able to communicate and engage intellectually is crucial for teaching and learning. In the same vein, I don’t think English is the answer. Similarly, I am not suggesting we discard English, but I am proposing that we recruit and train academics to be multilingual (in at least three of the dominant languages of a particular province). In this way, both academics and students can express themselves in a language they feel most comfortable in. For a student from a small Karoo town that may well be Afrikaans, or a student from rural Eastern Cape that may be isiXhosa. It is an educational imperative that teaching and learning takes places in environments that encourage dialogue and critical reflection. This however, can only take place where learners feel comfortable and confident to communicate. To that end, schools, colleges and universities should begin a process of introducing teaching and learning in indigenous languages. How about teaching Maths in isiZulu? Physics in Sesotho? Geography in isiXhosa? Teaching medicine in Swahili or sociology in Tshivenda?

Language, however, goes beyond teaching and learning! It’s about attachment and belonging — it’s about feeling at home. To illustrate this, Máiréad Nic Craith in her book, Narratives of Place, Belonging and Language: An Intercultural Perspective reflects on immigrants from Asia and Africa mimicking how “Londoners” spoke and pronounced their words in order to fit in and belong. The same happens at universities across the country — particularly those currently under the spotlight. In fact, it’s a common joke on the Cape Flats to tease those who went to UCT about how they speak English when they return home during weekends or vacations. It’s about how they say the “R” word. Upon returning from UCT folks now pronounce the “R” as if it rolls from the tong (like a silent “R”) — like white people do. At UCT (at least in my day) the majority of students were white English-speaking folks. I suspect my peers from the Cape Flats, like the immigrants in London of which Craith talks about, were mimicking their white counterparts, in order to fit in — to belong. At Stellenbosch University, I recently found myself eavesdropping a group of coloured students (I assume they were from a nearby township) poking fun at one of their peers who “suddenly speaks Afrikaans like white people”. They were joking about how the said student would “oorond” their words. I could not contain my laugher, because many of my peers did the same. This was a déjà vu moment.

I realised once again that language operates at multiple fronts. For the students I mention above (more so for their peers, I guess) language and particularly how they spoke, was important to fit in. In South Africa — a racially polarised society — black people’s intellect and personhood are often judged based on their ability to speak either English and/or Afrikaans. This is rather shallow, extremely racist and highly problematic — but I shall return to this another time. Why, I asked myself (then, and now again), did students feel the need to fit in. Why did they have to go through so much trouble just to belong?

Judging from the stories, it’s clear that students are fed up with accepting their heteronormative (environments that privilege whiteness, heterosexuality, middle-classness, English/Afrikaans etc) universities. It seems students who are black, poor and who do not subscribe to gender norms are particularly isolated in such spaces. These students refuse to continue mimicking their white counterparts. They are demanding spaces that allow them to be themselves. They want to be taught a curriculum that recognises their humanity and their ancestors’ contribution to “knowledge(s)”.They want to love and be intimate with whom they choose. Getting accepted into university and completing a degree is challenging enough. Why add all the other unnecessary crap? I think universities benefit more from students who speak and look differently, hold different ideological/religious views of the world and embrace the plurality and complexity of society.

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    • Pierre Aycard

      I think that is a very good paper, and a much better one than other papers I read on the issue that’s been rocking SA universities.

      Your suggestions are full of common sense, and they are motivated by the will to make institutions of learning opened to everyone. However, some of the suggestions you make, that seem simple enough, should lead to extremely complex systems to be implemented. Teaching three languages to academics, especially up to a level of fluency fit for academic teaching, is tremendous task. It cannot be done in a matter of years for one person.

      In addition, questioning colonialism and its legacy should not only lead you to take the language issue form the perspective of how to implement official languages in academia. It should start with questioning what those langues are, that you mean to teach.

      Official African languages are, in many ways, colonial inventions. As much as part of the population may relate to them, mostly due to formal teaching, another huge part of the population does not. Gauteng township kids, especially, but also many others around the country, struggle in standard African languages at least as much as they struggle in standard English. The colionial origin of languages applies also to Afrikaans, as you know about Coloured people.

      In addition, academia is not primarily of place of teaching. That is only the secondary purpose. The primary purpose is to establish knowledge, on reliable and universal epistemological grounds. But for new knowledge to be useful, it must be accessible.

      Could students who practice maths in seSotho let their advances be known to other researchers in the country and around the world? And could they access work done in around the world in a satisfactory way, as to implement advances made by others? The point of universities is to be opened to all knowledge, not just national or ethnic knowledge.

      The situation is difficult. Today, English is largely seen as the target everyone should aim at, but obviously this results in some inequalities. Maybe the issue should rather what English is used, than why English is used. For instance, today, the varieties covered under the umbrella term Black South African English do not benefit from recognition, and certain typical forms may be unacceptable in academia.

      Most importantly, the issue of making universities accessible to all cannot only be solved by and within universities. It is a much wider issue. I hear students complain about the place that they feel restricted to in academia, and they blame academia. But who has been asking for free schools ? Who has been pointing at the complete failure of the present government to provide adequate education to all? Who has brought up the issue of of financial inequalities in schooling and universities, other than through the race lens? Inequalities exist between classes, not races. As such, when UCT decided to grant bursaries on income criteria rather than racial criteria, those who complained are the rich Black kids, who love to be seen as disadvantaged, even when daddy buys them and Austin Mini for their 18th birthday. And those who benefited are the real disadvantage, who didn’t see their bursaries being awarded to some who did not deserve them.

      Finally, beware paradoxes in your suggestion: if ‘African knowledge’ must be taught, there is a high chance that sooner or later, issues of tolerance towards LGTB people will arise. And issues of what African identity is. For now, those who speak of African identity or African knowledge are often unwilling to discuss what those concepts entail. Instead, they rely on short-sighted and nationalist identity pulsions, rather than reason. And if such people get their ways, LGTB people will see their status go back 50 years in time.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Made me smile at memories. Don’t feel special though, everyone does it. Humans are pack animals and we try to fit in. One of the ways we recognise our ‘tribe’ is by the way they speak. White people do it just as much as black people do. The desire to fit in is universal.

      What I can’t understand is why this is an issue. My cell phone can take a photo, of a sign, and instantly translate it into a whole bunch of languages. Stellenbosh University has a system where the lecture is translated into more than one language (I’m reliably told they are including Xhosa into the system). The predominant language of the Western Cape was always English and Afrikaans, that is why they had two universities.

      The problem comes when you get to Gauteng – we are a gamorse of languages! We also have students from other provinces and countries here. Whilst isiZulu is the most spoken language, in South Africa, the variety of isiZulu spoken in Gauteng is not really anything close to pure and the kid from Malawi is going to struggle a bit with it (heck, the kid from KZN wouldn’t understand it!)

      Then we come to the fact that there are provinces who don’t have universities or they have more than one language in the province. What do we do with them?

      To be honest, I think that we made a big mistake, right in the beginning. Instead of 11 official languages, we should have gone with a generic Nguni and Tswana version. We are good at making up languages and it would have been a hell of a lot simpler.

    • ian shaw

      As long as there is no English-Zulu or English-African language dictionary of technical terms, you will not be able to use African languages in engineering, or life sciences. It is absolute nonsense to teach sociology in Tsivenda, literature in seSotho, geography in isiZulu etc. Teaching only African literature and history and ignoring all that is European will definitely lead a general ignorance of the world. I suppose Dr (divinity) Motshegha will teach his own version of African culture who said that “everything was invented by Africans and the whites only stole it”. You can call me an incorrigible racist,but this will not change the truth of who invented and developed what, but will only created a false, contrived and falsely idealized world which has nothing to do with a “university”. I would never let my child be educated in such a distorted and falsified environment masquerading as a “university”. Besides, by the turn of the next century, there will be no more whites left in SA, bence you would have created an insular culture artificially constructed by African nationalists and their sycophants and will definitely not be able to compete economically and scientifically with the rest of the world.

    • david7

      The development of school curricula in all languages for all subjects up to at least grade 10 is an important educational challenge which probably requires extensive inputs from Universities and other tertiary educational institutions.
      Maybe some courses at tertiary education institutions could be given in the language preferred by that institution and the students who enroll there for their given language preference in first and second year courses, but, with the exception of the particular language courses or courses for teaching subjects in local languages, third year courses should be in English… or, in the future, Mandarin.
      The value of Afrikaans universities to Afrikaans people cannot be overstated. Wherever tertiary institutions can operate effectively in the mother-tongue of students that should be pursued, but this would be extremely costly and will take time.
      I re-iterate my belief that quality mother-tongue education in all subjects at schools is key to quality education and cannot be achieved without a significant investment in teacher-colleges dedicated to that purpose.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Afrikaans was not able to be used for education, originally, either. It took a startling 3 years for the government to come up with a curriculum and all new words to make it a reality. Languages are dynamic.

      Competing internationally has nothing to do with the English language. Concepts have nothing to do with language. If language was a necessity to be competitive in an industry, we would learn engineering in German and robotics in Japanese.