By Mark John Burke

Three years ago, I sat around a dinner table as one of 10 national finalists for five very prestigious scholarships to Oxford. Across from me sat a professor who insisted: “We need to do away with Afrikaans completely. It is the language of the oppressor. We need to start with universities.” I remember all this vividly. One of the 11 judges of our highest court, Justice Edwin Cameron, was sitting next to me. Him and I, in spite of our English names, share Afrikaans as our mother tongue. We spoke English throughout the evening as a courtesy to others in attendance. We were able to. I’ve replayed the moment over in my head a million times. Should I just have kept quiet in response to the professor’s outburst? Should I have bit my tongue in order to land a lifelong achievement?

More recently, a documentary entitled Luister exposing racial abuse and discrimination in the town of Stellenbosch went viral. Professor Jonathan Jansen weighed in on the discussion: “Afrikaans students in this part of the world have not yet been confronted with their crude, unvarnished racism.” A few years ago he wrote of Afrikaans institutions of learning as dangerous, finishing his article on an ominous note describing an Afrikaans radical who tried to blow up the country’s leaders as a result of graduating from such an institution. When pressed on the subject, he could not provide an example of such an extreme act or, for that matter, any link whatsoever between first language education and extremism.

The ongoing “decolonisation” of South African universities has been largely focused on former white universities. The problem with all the vitriol surrounding the debate on higher education transformation is that most arguments, similar to Jansen’s hypotheticals, work under deeply flawed assumptions about the individuals, ideas and systems which influence the severely strained higher education space.

The first assumption is the laughably simple one that we have enough institutions of higher learning, we just need to rebalance the scales to provide access to the marginalised. This is fundamentally flawed. While three new universities are currently being developed, South Africa could quadruple its current capacity and it still would not be sufficient.

The second of these assumptions is that there is a model of successful transformation and university leaders just seem to lack the will or, worse even, the desire to implement the necessary changes. This could not be further from the truth. Whatever outcome would constitute sufficient redress and allow universal access to education is still the topic of intense debate – the University of KwaZulu-Natal is an example of the colossal failure associated with ill-conceived attempts at simply making a university more representative of the national demographic. The University of Johannesburg (formerly the Rand Afrikaans University) is still considered a work in progress and the outcome is anything but guaranteed.

On the other hand, liberal English institutions, like the University of Cape Town (UCT), have long suffered under the illusion that they were on the right track. Recent events have illustrated this not to be the case. A student movement campaigning for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes recently succeeded. This did not stop angry students who still felt marginalised from vandalising the continent’s top-rated campus. Over the same time period, white students from the same institution have been involved in a series of events that are generally considered to be racially motivated, including urinating on and beating up black individuals without provocation. I myself faced intense prejudice as one of only two Afrikaners joining the rowing team while studying at UCT.

While internal discussions at these English institutions have been ongoing, the debate on Afrikaans in higher education rages and is far too often flamed by the minister of higher education and the leader of the South African Communist Party, Bonginkosi Emmanuel “Blade” Nzimande. Nzimande, when not abroad in Western countries enjoying western luxuries, tends to make the third common assumption. This fatal assumption rests on the idea that doing away with Afrikaans in universities will automatically rid tertiary institutions of the scourge of racism, which is so heart-wrenchingly laid bare by the students who told their stories in the now viral documentary. This is of course not only an unfair and discriminatory assumption, but also a completely ungrounded one.

Apart from the fact that there is ample evidence indicating that black and white (both English and Afrikaans) race relations in South Africa are deteriorating rapidly, Afrikaans has for too long been made to carry the brunt for a number of social ills. These ills are a symptom of a larger disease of racism and bigotry not limited to the Afrikaner population. Recent events, such as the actions by white English students at UCT, indicate that white feelings of tribal exceptionality still reign supreme. This is not tied to language or cultural identity, but derives from an oppressive way of thinking supported by the practice of entrenching Eurocentric notions in almost all whites from childhood.

To be sure, English South Africans were complicit in perpetuating a system of political and economic injustice known to the world as apartheid. While white English liberals scolded the Afrikaner national government in public, they thanked God for it in private. Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson rode out in the streets in Cape Town and were disgusted that blacks were allowed to walk on the pavement with “civilised company”. Ian Smith’s racially segregated Rhodesia waged a bush war instead of submitting to a multi-racial election. These were not Afrikaners.

Even if one could put the moral implications of scapegoating Afrikaans aside, it is so extremely unfair to ignore all the efforts at inclusivity made by leading Afrikaans universities such as Potchefstroom and Stellenbosch. These include, amongst others, scholarships, residence integration schemes and international award-winning lecture translation services put in place to open doors of opportunity to the previously disadvantaged.

Perhaps crucially though is what the current discourse and its outcome will mean for the average student, lecturer and researcher at former Afrikaans universities. I did not bite my tongue on that fateful December evening in 2012. I told the professor that I would not want to steal the joy of teaching from anyone. I told her that certain experts only know how to transfer their knowledge in the language in which they learnt it. I told her I would not want to miss out on a first-class education for the communist ideal of one abysmally sub-par standard for all. I told the table about the real struggles I had seen of friends with subject matter jargon, paging through dictionaries and supplemental guides on end to make sense of a topic that could have been so simply conveyed in their mother tongue. Eventually, exasperated by her relentless grilling, I said that I would not enrol at a university in Berlin and expect to speak Mandarin. I did not go to Oxford.

Of course the crude, unvarnished response to all this would have been to assume that she did what she did because she was a black African. That would deny all the beautiful things I see happening within the community I am living in on a daily basis (Hillbrow, if you must know). That would be to offend the people who have taken me in and who have treated me as if I was their family.

I extended the professor the courtesy of trying to understand her pain, her anger and her defensiveness. If only all those who would equate Afrikaans to racism would have the same integrity in their analysis of the things tearing our society apart.

Mark John Burke was a 2012 Mandela Rhodes Scholar and holds a master of philosophy from the University of Cambridge.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members...

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