Stellenbosch University Language Policy changes for the Afrikaans Language

27 minutes to read
Nastassja Wessels

Over the years the Stellenbosch University (SU) Language Policy (LP) has been a bone of contention in South Africa (SA). As a result, the University became the National Higher Education Language Policy’s caveat for "setting back the transformation agendas of institutions" (pp. 12), fearing that the safeguarding of Afrikaans may result in a repeat of South Africa’s tragic 1976 Soweto Uprising

Although the SU LP was changed to exact multilingualism and omitted the 'safeguarding' of Afrikaans in 2016, the issue is still in no way simple or perfect. It would seem that not all language attitudes were taken into account. With a variety of language attitudes and complexities within the South African context in mind, this paper seeks to critically evaluate the circumstances surrounding the LP change process at SU, using the Open Stellenbosch (OS) movement's memorandum as Language Policy and Planning (LPP) 'from below'. 


Democratic language planning ‘from below’ has to be built into any radical social transformation” (Alexander, 2004: p. 117).

Language Policy theory and study has evolved over many years. In South Africa, LP became synonymous with colonialism, Apartheid and, thus, governments through the ages. Kamwangamalu summarized these political contexts as social changes in SA’s language history, assuming the political role language played since the first settlers arrived. From 1652 to 1795 there was Dutchification; 1795 to 1948 the British Anglicization; 1948 to 1994 was Afrikanerization (Apartheid); and from 1994 to present day, there is Democratization with 11 official languages valorized (Kwamwangamalu, 2003). This history should be an important component of any investigation into SA LP problems.

A key aspect of LP is “that there is no overarching theory of LP” (Ricento, 2006: p. 10). For this reason an interdisciplinary approach to LP is widely used in order to dispel assumptions about a society’s language use and attitudes. In this way Ricento’s assertion that “Language-policy debates are always about more than language” (2006: p. 8) is well suited to the Stellenbosch University LP case, which is the focus of this paper. The SU policy problem is rooted in Apartheid’s linguistic nationalism legacy. The university’s historically monolingual LP was flourishing in post-Apartheid South Africa’s newly democratic Higher Education landscape, where democracy changed the student and staff demographics of formerly White institutions, both racially and linguistically. This monolingual LP, which had broad transformation aspirations, became a proxy for racism and cultural exclusion. To put the SU language problem into the context of racism, see the video "Luister" (Afrikaans for 'Listen'). As the title suggests, the students and staff will only be heard if they speak Afrikaans.


Essentially, SU became a microcosm for the problems that the broader SA context continued to confront: Inequity despite constitutionally enforced transformative reparation. A paper by C.S. van der Waal (2012) called Creolization and Purity: Afrikaans Language Politics in Post-Apartheid South Africa, can provide a wealth of information on the SU LP background.

To date democratic ethnolinguistic LPs have yet to break ground and fulfill the SA Constitution’s promise[i] of language equality in most domains. It is with this in mind that this paper’s central thesis focuses on the democratic value of diverse and representative samples of qualitative research in informing LP change from below. Using the inputs of various contributors this paper thus seeks to analyze the SU LP problem. The case befits Ricento’s theory that LP is “interested in addressing social problems which often involve language ... and in proposing realistic remedies” (2006: p. 11). In SA social problems are closely linked to political problems resulting from the birthing stages of infant democratic processes. Within the context of this paper, these processes are framed around ‘democracy’ as implied by the SA Constitution (1996), which is “[governance] based on the will of the people and [where] every citizen is equally protected by law” (Preamble) and “democratic values [that include] human dignity, equality and freedom” (article 7.1). 

Furthermore, the SA Constitution, National LP framework and Higher Education LP are grounded in ethnolinguistic human rights – an attempt at redressing Apartheid’s obstinate consequences. SU had close ties to the Apartheid government as a formerly ‘Whites only’ university and as the key actor in the corpus and status planning of the Afrikaans language through macro level (government), top down LPP activities. Corpus planning is defined by the codification and standardization of a language, or “activities related to the manipulation of the forms of a language,” and status planning by “how [the university] could best allocate functions and/ or uses for particular languages” (Johnson, 2013: p. 27), such as Afrikaans in this case. Thus, through SU’s help, Afrikaans was the racist regime’s weapon of oppression, and today social change at the university is closely tied to SU’s LP status planning efforts to redress these past atrocities. As a point of departure, the paper will analyze a memorandum from the Open Stellenbosch (OS) movement, which appears to lack a fully representative, and thus equal, account of language attitudes from the staff and student population. It therefore asks: does the memorandum represent democratic LPP ‘from below’

Analysis of the Open Stellenbosch Memorandum of Demands

... proposals about policy content or about how to change policy should be grounded in understanding the real world in which policy is made ... (Hill, 2005: p. 6)

This paper questions whether or not a democratic process was followed during the LP change process at SU. On the one hand, this paper assumes the SA Constitution’s broadly implied definition of ‘democracy’ as entailing equality, freedom and the will of the people. In the case of the memorandum democracy would be illustrated through representative input from all constituents at the university. On the other hand, this paper also acknowledges that the role of democracy in a post-Apartheid South Africa is more complex, since it is underscored by the role of transformation, which results from the social inequities of Colonialism and Apartheid. As Alexander put it, “... the redistributive imperatives of the democratic movement will redound to the benefit of many more of the oppressed” (2013: p. 166). This may therefore exclude the White demographic, which complicates the notion of ‘equality’ in the interest of transformative reparation and justice. This analysis thus treads the fine line between unique notions of democracy in South Africa as a sociopolitical system geared at fighting oppression, and acknowledging transformation as a tool for democracy.

Language policy and culture

The OS memorandum represents a bottom-up LP activity, which is defined as “pressures to secure linguistic diversity and the implementation of language rights” (Ricento citing Phillipson, 2006: p. 346). A group of predominantly Black Stellenbosch staff and students started the movement in 2015 after being disillusioned by the progress of transformation at the university. They describe the movement as “A collective of students and staff working to purge the oppressive remnants of Apartheid in pursuit of a truly African university” (Facebook, ‘About’ section). Their top priority out of three listed in an Op-ED for The Daily Maverick is that “No student should be forced to learn or communicate in Afrikaans and all classes must be available in English” (2015, par. 4). At this early stage of the movement’s existence, it was unclear whether any research took place to support the privilege of English over the nine other official languages, alongside the resisted Afrikaans. However, the assumption is conceivable given the de facto approach to English within high status domains such as Media, Government, and, with the exception of a few universities, Higher Education in SA.

The bottom-up effect succeeded in this case. The policy was changed and the updated LP, effective 1 January 2017, promised that SU would “commit [themselves] to multilingualism by using the province’s three official languages, namely Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa” (SU LP, 2016: p. 2) under ‘The essence of the policy’. Previously, this section stated: "The University is committed to the use, safeguarding and sustained development of Afrikaans as an academic language in a multilingual context, while increasing the teaching offering in English to enable optimal learning and teaching for all South Africans at this university" (SU LP, 2014: p. 2). OS’s memorandum thus took issue with the above ‘safeguarding’ statement, hence the memo responds with, “The Language Policy of SU functions to position Afrikaans language and culture as vulnerable and as under attack” (OS Memo, 2015: p. 1). This follows after the opening paragraph states: "Stellenbosch can no longer claim to be committed to transformation, while at the same time viewing itself publicly as the protector of White Afrikaans culture, whether through language or institutional cultural practices" (OS Memo, 2015: p. 1). From OS’s responses we can see that language and culture seized to be mutually exclusive concepts within the scope of LP change, which is an essentialist approach. This means that OS’s foremost goal to “[create] a university that is open, transformed and African” overshadowed the Afrikaans language dispute, which may require a degree of isolation or separation from Afrikaner culture, since it is not only ‘Afrikaners’ who speak the language, as previously discussed. However, if we consider De Kadt’s assertion that “language is never neutral” and “... one of the urgent tasks of future language policy is to clarify power relationships which are underpinned by language and in this way open these up for change” (1991: p. 184), a completely isolated approach may be detrimental.

A group of predominantly Black Stellenbosch staff and students started the movement in 2015 after being disillusioned by the progress of transformation at the university.

However, Wiley, (cited in Ricento, 2006) citing Muslow (2000), cautions against “the characteristic feature of historical explanation and the historical imagination” (2006, p. 137), which he says is ‘abductive’. The historic and symbolic power that resistive discourses perpetually hold over the Afrikaans language must confront the transcultural[i] (Rogers, 2006) effects that history has had on the Afrikaans language. Birthed from creole origins, the language itself has always taken an evolutionary nature within South African culture, giving rise to multiple identities and language attitudes within diverse groups, from Kaaps (Coloured slang) and Tsotsi taal or Bantu creole – Black township slang (Eastman, 1990: p. 10), to the dialects of the Namaqualand and the standard variety now used in academic arenas. As de Kadt stated, “it is standard Afrikaans which has power” (1991: p. 186), however, in the new democracy the implied Afrikaner nationalism power (1973) no longer has a place in a society where minority groups are reclaiming the Afrikaans language and have adopted the academic standard freely in post-Apartheid SA. 

Artists such as HemelBesem, a Coloured South African hip hop artist and writer, have become one of the major voices speaking up against the language's essentialist associations with Apartheid. Here he can be seen discussing his book, "God praat Afrikaans" (God speaks Afrikaans), where he tackles the idea that language is so deeply entrenched in the speaker that the experience is spiritual. Thus, stripping people of their linguistic rights can have dire consequences on an individual's right to live. In some ways, advocates of Afrikaans such as HemelBesem may very well contribute to a change in resistive Afrikaans LP changes by breeching racial divides in the media domain. They also challenge the idea of Afrikaner culture as inherently White, calling for a reconstruction of Afrikaans culture in post-Apartheid South Africa.


The Memorandum’s approach to language policy change

The reason why we could perceive the overlapping of language and culture as a detrimental error in OS’s memorandum can be located in the democratic intentions of the memo and in the nostalgic “Struggle” tone conveyed throughout. OS used the former policy’s words against itself (i.e. the safeguarding of Afrikaans), yet somehow proved why ‘safeguarding’ could be a conceivable reaction since the memorandum uses the language’s associations with Apartheid as the central theme for the argument. They did this by stating,

"It is therefore the duty of the policy [2014] to protect this language, not only as a means of communication, but also as a site of cultural production. It is for this reason that we ought to interrogate the rhetoric of the Language Policy in order to trace it in the Apartheid nostalgia that undergirds its very existence." (OS Memo, 2015: p. 1)

The pointed assumption that the Afrikaans language is solely traced to the Apartheid regime, is implausible in the face of census (2011) data that states that 75.8% of Afrikaans mother tongue speakers are Coloured (Black) South Africans. Further to this, most of these speakers are located in the vicinity of the university, i.e. Northern and Western Capes. Of the total SA population 13.5% are Afrikaans mother tongue speakers, while 53.8% of the Northern Cape and 49.7% of the Western Cape are Afrikaans mother tongue speakers. Juxtaposed with the dispute that the Afrikaans language’s roots are deeply entrenched in the history of Coloured people at the Cape, the idea that the Afrikaans language is solely connected to the atrocities of the Bantu Education Act’s Afrikaans Language Decree of 1974 becomes more nuanced than any South African would like to admit.

These questions must then be asked: If the majority of Afrikaans mother tongue speakers are, in fact, Coloured South Africans, i.e. a minority group, does Afrikaans qualify for minority language status? How will LP regard the Afrikaans language and how will LP be affected should this be addressed openly and officially? The questions are controversial considering how racially stratified the notion of ‘privilege’ and ‘previously disadvantaged’ really is in post-Apartheid South Africa. Historically, Coloured people enjoyed a degree of privilege during the late eighties when the Apartheid government introduced the tricameral government. Coloured and Indian people were given a restricted seat at parliament while Black people were denied from government activities entirely. This meant that Coloured people had their own version of parliament but had no say in macro level governmental matters. This restricted historical privilege ensured Coloured people previously disadvantaged status in post-Apartheid South Africa, as complex as the matter may be. However, this historical intermediate status (Adhikari, 2006; 2008) is most likely why the Coloured people are often blanketly grouped with White South Africans where Afrikaans is concerned; or completely zeroed out of the narrative.

These questions must then be asked: If the majority of Afrikaans mother tongue speakers are, in fact, Coloured South Africans, i.e. a minority group, does Afrikaans qualify for minority language status?

While transformation and affirmative action is necessary to reconstruct the South African nation, these systems assumed to aggressively challenge the Mandela rhetoric that solidified SA as the ‘rainbow nation’ with 11 official languages and a plethora of cultures that would be afforded equal status under the constitution (section 29). It is with this in mind that the naysayers of the OS LP changes would oppose the tone presented by the memorandum that imposes the judgment on White South Africans as, for example, “[considering] the slate as having been wiped [clean] by the new dispensation and political reforms that have come into place in post-Apartheid context” (OS Memo, 2015: p. 2). It is for this reason that responses to the LP changes were met with comments such as the following from ‘Adrian’, taken from the SU website’s announcement about the LP changes:

"This is no more than repeat of 1976. Forcing English this time onto non-english speakers. All languages in the constitution are equal. Open Stellenbosch is just a different form of Far Right. No tollerance [sic] for any one else. As liberal and tolerant Afrikaner I believed we would all allow each other a place to live and strive in. SA. Unfortunatly [sic] racist and neo-rightwing groups like OS dont [sic] want that."

Resistive tactics in a LP situation that is underscored by a democratic constitution that foregrounds equality, freedom and human dignity require integrated sociolinguistic support in a highly political sociolinguistic context. Ricento (2006) suggested that LP depends on the definitional concepts assumed about the nature of language and, as a result, how it is approached. In post-Apartheid South Africa the meaning of ‘language’ must seize to imply past ideologies if a functional multilingual South Africa is to be realized. For this reason LP change cannot be approached from the imagined associations to past atrocities (Wiley in Ricento, 2006: p. 137), but should rather be approached from present day realities. Do its speakers, its origins, or positions of power define a language? Because, if so, Coloured people are the speakers of Afrikaans in terms of number, they can dispute the origin of the language and their power in society is often zeroed by their awkward social status (Adhikari, 2006; 2008). These questions must be addressed in any LP change situation, and unfortunately, bias prevailed in the case of the memorandum and did not take into account: who speaks Afrikaans, to whom they speak, why they speak Afrikaans and what their language attitudes are.

Stellenbosch University and the Afrikaans language policy cycle in South Africa’s history of language policy

As discussed, SU was instrumental in the LP Planning cycle of the Afrikaans language since even before the inception of the Apartheid regime. Haugen’s policy cycle (cited by Johnson, 2013: p. 28) can delineate the SU Afrikaans LPP process in four steps:

  1. Selection of a norm, for a particular context, i.e. the Afrikaans language was selected because its Coloured creolized[ii] (from Dutch) variety was considered a debased form of the language, but when it spread under White people in SA, it had potential for standardization and, ultimately, ethnolinguistic nationalism (van der Waal, 2012).
  2. Codification – the development of an explicit codified, usually written form took place under the auspices of the former government at SU.
  3. Implementation – an attempt was made to spread the language form under the Bantu Education Act’s language decree in 1974, but ultimately lead to the 1976 uprising.
  4. Elaboration – we can consider their efforts to continue updating of the Afrikaans to ‘meet the needs of the modern world’ by Afrikaans’s current status as an academic language, as well as the language of media and other high status domains, alongside English, in South Africa.

(Cassels Johnson, citing Haugen, 1983; 2013: pp. 28)

The first three steps in the above cycle took place in SA’s undemocratic context and were within itself an undemocratic LPP activity. For this reason the medium of instruction at SU was based on a ‘segregation’ model as a monolingual LP was instituted. However, after the introduction of the Democratization and SA’s new constitution, slowly but surely diverse groups could attend SU and second language medium of instruction became a necessity. Unfortunately, this meant English proliferated and not yet any of the African languages. However, the model could eventually be described as limited ‘assimilation’ since fragmented bilingual medium of instruction was introduced, as the student population became more diverse (SU LP, 2014). It would now seem that the new LP (2016) at SU has introduced a transitional model, with the OS Memo’s call for all classes to be available in English and the LP satisfying that call to a degree, by introducing a trilingual language policy.

Language policy and democratic imperatives

By making a concerted effort to change the fabric of the SU culture through LP, the OS movement has contributed to the Policy Cycle to the point of the eighth step, i.e. ‘termination’ (Kroon, 2017) of the former policy. The LP target group, i.e. staff and students, was no longer satisfied with the assimilation phase of the previous LP’s medium of instruction. However, Alexander's (2004) statement that radical social change is achievable through democratic bottom-up LPP cautions policy actors from below to focus on democratic processes. It’s been mentioned before that the process may have taken a biased approach. Reading through the memorandum’s appendix, the question arose as to how democratic exactly the process of putting together the memorandum was.

"This document has been compiled following three weeks of extensive engagement with students and discussions of their shared experiences with the culture of exclusion at Stellenbosch. These engagements and discussions have taken place in open spaces, where students have felt comfortable to air their grievances." (OS Memorandum, 2015: p. 4)

Of course, in order to establish a full set of grievances one must go to those who do not speak Afrikaans and who share the same grievances. But does that constitute an equal, free and dignified democratic process, or just a one-sided means to an end? While radical movements for radical change cannot play by the same rules as other activists, a parastatal organization requires fair processes to exact meaningful social change. This is especially true for post-colonial (and a post-Apartheid) society marred with racial tension. For this reason, the document would come across as anti-Afrikaans language and culture, rather than pro-multilingualism, language equality, freedom and dignity.

Stellenbosch University’s Language Policy has evaded democratic processes since inception by virtue of their position of power under colonialism and Apartheid.

The appendices thus lacked perspectives from a more balanced sample of students that represent the demographics and language communities of the complete student compliment. It is precisely because of a groups-rights-based or consociational approach to LPP that Stellenbosch has overtly infringed on the rights of the marginalized in a changing society for as long as they have. The policy actors were first and foremost Afrikaners at SU and they were significant contributors to the Afrikaans language corpus. However, in aid of the Coloured group, Alexander, talking about the marginalization of the “Afrikaans-oriented middle-class” asked the following important question: “Are the people who are driving this policy [i.e. anti-Afrikaans] aware of its anti-democratic and class exploitative implications?” (2004: p. 122). It seems short-sited to use a platform for policy change to pit English against Afrikaans within such an immensely diverse context. The fight for English, without the support of meaningful, unbiased, representative research on language attitudes thus bares a strong resemblance to the Taalstryd under Apartheid. The only difference is that a bottom-up process may be shaping this particular struggle.

As discussed, while OS kicked off their memorandum by denying anti-Afrikaans sentiment within their objectives, the tone of their message spoke to the contrary, and the lack of sufficient ethnographical research into the needs and language attitudes of the broader student community supports this claim.  If we consider that the OS LPP memorandum led to violent demonstrations at the University in 2015, we must consider Alexander’s caveat further:

While it is understood that the state, because of its access to resources, will necessarily play a central role in any language planning strategy, it is equally clearly understood that unless speakers of the languages concerned are consulted adequately and unless NGOs and CBOs are involved at grassroots level, any language planning will be oppressive and will – necessarily – lead to resistance.” (Alexander, 2004: p. 117)

Hill (2005) addresses this idea that careful evaluative research is required in the policy process by attempting to distinguish between ‘analysis for’ and ‘analysis of’ policy. Stellenbosch University’s Language Policy has evaded democratic processes since inception by virtue of their position of power under colonialism and Apartheid. Yet, in this instance OS may have hampered the idea of a non-racial or non-classist approach (as per the constitution’s democratic objectives) to language policy changes at Stellenbosch University, based on past regressions. Hill described evaluation studies, also known as impact studies, as “concerned with analysing the impact policies have on the population” and “may either be prescriptive or descriptive” (2005: p. 5). The forces of government rule may have prescribed Stellenbosch University’s monolingual language policy since inception, but a descriptive evaluation is needed to address its ongoing marginalization of other languages. If more than one group of people have been excluded from the target group the policy is intended for, how can demands be met sufficiently? Once these demands are met, if funding and resources allow, another group may follow suit and a continuous cycle of resistance to LPP may ensue until all eleven languages of the country are accounted for, no matter how impractical or detrimental to pedagogical progress it may be.

The Memorandum as language policy planning

The memorandum inadvertently serves as a type of LPP since it contributes to the LP cycle’s evaluation – albeit grossly incomplete – and monitoring phase. But it also conveys the policy actors’ (from below) language status planning objectives, through selection and implementation. The former is what Baldauf and Kaplan described as "[involving] the choice of a language(s) by/ for a society through its political leaders ... [which] should ideally [...] result in the smallest possible disruption to the social structure, yet at the same time the decision should not isolate the polity from the outside world" (1997: pp. 30; 31). The latter “focuses on the adoption and spread of the language form that has been selected and codified” (1997: p. 36). Both English and Afrikaans have established themselves as selected and codified languages in the Education domain. Therefore the memorandum does not address the issue, other than in terms of the progress of the isiXhosa development and elevation in status. However, the issue of isiXhosa within the memorandum’s transformative justice context is suspiciously minimized in comparison to the explicit promulgation of the English language (see demands). Understandably so, it is significant that issues of transformation are addressed in terms of a colonial language’s influence on the social mobility of Black South Africans.

English hegemony

"... will South Africa’s middle class and its intellectuals find the courage, have they got the imagination, to commit class suicide by moving away decisively from the current English-mainly and often English-only language policy, with all its negative consequences for democratic polity?" (Alexander, 2013: p. 111)

While the new (2016) LP implementation process remains to be seen, having only begun on 1 January this year (2017), the memorandum’s demands regarding the implementation based on some students’ experiences of the bilingual classroom approach can provide some much-needed insight. As per the 2014 policy, lecturers were conducting lessons in both English and Afrikaans in some classes, while other classes included the use of electronic devices to aid translation through interpreters present in the classroom, and a small number had either an English or Afrikaans classroom option for the students to choose from. However, these options had their drawbacks, hence the memorandum’s demands to ensure that English is available at all times without the use of interpreters or devices.

The 2016 policy now simply states, “Afrikaans and English are SU’s languages of learning and teaching” (LPSU 7.1.1, 2016: p. 4). It also indicates in its policy principles “For undergraduate modules where it is reasonably practicable and pedagogically sound to have more than one class group”, “There are separate lectures in Afrikaans and English” (2016, 7.1.3, p. 4). The policy does not, however, indicate which parameters will be set to measure what is reasonable or sound. Additionally, it would seem that the OS memorandum’s demands were not met in article 7.1.4 where the parallel medium of instruction still applies under the blanket term “facilitated learning opportunities” (2016, p. 5).

The selection of English as the ‘chosen’ language, depending on how you look at it, is a concern for various reasons.

The selection of English as the ‘chosen’ language, depending on how you look at it, is a concern for various reasons. According to SU’s Language Policy (2016) “The Language Policy implementation adapts to the changing language demographics and language preferences of students and staff” (article 6.9: p. 4). At SU the changes in demographics have been significant. Between 2012 and 2016 the number of Black, Coloured and Indian/ Asian students have increased by approximately 3%, 2% and 1% respectively, while the number of White students decreased by approximately 5%.  In terms of language, Afrikaans mother tongue speakers decreased by approximately 17% between 2007 and 2016, while the number of English mother tongue speakers increased by approximately 11%, isiXhosa by approximately 2%, ‘other SA’ by 3% and  ‘other’ by nearly 2% ( Although widely known as an Afrikaans University, the university prides itself on excellence and provides some of the best courses in South Africa, which is an attractive prospect for the previously disadvantaged. In post-Apartheid South Africa, education is considered the highest form of social mobility and the gateway to redressing the Bantu Education Act under Apartheid South Africa.

Alexander (2004) addresses the idea that Language Policy is not a simple matter, and cannot be decontextualized, as we can see in the Stellenbosch University case. He uses Lo Bianco’s theory to support this claim, "[The] historical settings of culture, legal and political environment, ethnic relations, socio-legal parameters of policy-making and memory influence not only what is possible in any specific setting but also serve to shape its form and content" (2004, p. 114). Despite what we would expect, the strong case for English is not surprising and is in all likelihood more realistic given the proliferation of the English language in South Africa; a feat achieved by the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

In South Africa it is apparent that English is dominant in high status domains, such as media and the private sector, while education and class status is an indicator of prestige.

Choosing English fits Baldauf and Kaplan’s list of proposed selection criteria: “political neutrality, dominance, prestige, a great tradition and areal affinity” (1997, p. 31), while Kamwangamalu focuses on the inferiority complex that language oppression systemically imprinted on the African language mother tongue speakers:

"... the Soweto Uprisings reinforced Black people’s hatred towards Afrikaans; boosted the status of an already powerful language, English, over both Afrikaans and African languages in Black schools and Black communities at large; and led the Black South Africans to equate education in their own languages with inferior education." (Kamwangamalu, 2003: p. 230)

It was thus agreed that English would be the de facto language of Parliament, although other languages are not strictly prohibited. In South Africa it is apparent that English is dominant in high status domains, such as media and the private sector, while education and class status is an indicator of prestige.

Yet, LP “focuses on the differential allocation of languages and language varieties in a community speech economy context” (Eastman, 1990: p. 10), which is not in line with the objective implied by the OS memorandum. The memorandum demanded that English be made ‘available’ of English in relation to Afrikaans, omitting the rest of the languages, except for mere mention of isiXhosa.  Additionally, changes in policy without the representation of all language groups means that Alexander’s (2013) inference regarding English hegemony in South Africa was correct: “The policy has not worked for all languages; only English has benefited” (2013, p. 231).

With the hegemony of the English language based on anti-Apartheid sentiment and social mobility aspirations, the Coloured group has largely remained steadfast in their attachment to Afrikaans, as opposed to shifting to English

Alexander (2004) also expressed concern over the attack on democracy that English hegemony instigates on LPP in South Africa. He attributes the status of English in South Africa to “elite closure” saying “this deep-rooted disposition has not prevented the situation from arising in which English is treated by most South Africans as the first among equals” (2004, p. 118). Kamwangamalu attributes this status to the Soweto Uprising specifically, "The aftermath of the Soweto Uprisings saw Afrikaans emerge, in the minds of Black South Africans, as the language of oppression, and English as the language of advancement and of liberation against Apartheid"  (2003, p. 230). Today this is even truer of the social mobility, international prospects and career mobility implications attached to the English language in South Africa. Afrikaans is still a competitor, however, while spoken by the majority of South Africans in the Western and Northern Capes. However, as previously mentioned, the majority of these speakers are in fact Coloured.

Interestingly enough, with the hegemony of the English language based on anti-Apartheid sentiment and social mobility aspirations, the Coloured group has largely remained steadfast in their attachment to Afrikaans, as opposed to shifting to English, even in high status domains such as Education. However, more research would be required to ascertain just how solid that attachment is. If Universities are unable to offer Afrikaans medium instruction based on ‘reasonability’ and ‘practicability’, as per SU’s new LP, perhaps the shift will increase gradually. This would mean that the universities in South Africa would have to constantly monitor and evaluate the language situation on their campuses in the long-term, as Eastman suggests, "...the term Language Planning generally refers to efforts in a sociopolitical context to solve language problems, preferably on a long-term basis, by studying the process of language change" (1990: p. 10). While English hegemony may be reaching dire levels, there are still pockets of marginalized communities and previously marginalized languages that require democratic processes to aid their development and mobility in high status domains. Further to this, South Africa’s high status domains are still largely divided territorially with Johannesburg being a hub for Commerce and Cape Town being a hub for Media, for example.

Unfortunately, the OS memorandum took place in a vacuum.

With Afrikaans medium of instruction comes the prospect of finding employment in certain Afrikaans-oriented areas such as Stellenbosch, Paarl, Worcester, and predominantly in the broader Northern and Western Capes. Some leading companies such as Media24 or Naspers also maintain a fluid, yet hegemonic Afrikaans environment. Therefore, although the belief that “people do not necessarily want to be educated in their first language if that language has no cachet in the broader political/ economic context” (Eastman, 1990: p. 17) is conceivable, it is also true that South Africa’s territorial distribution of languages lends itself to the prospect of fully functional multilingual education without the consequence of unemployment.

Unfortunately, the OS memorandum took place in a vacuum. Politics led to the changes in this LP and for this reason the memorandum came across as anti-Afrikaans language and culture, when sociolinguistics was required to inform the most effective changes democratically. It is for this reason that “... language policy decisions should be made in the context of available research in linguistically oriented social sciences” as Eastman (1990, p. 11) asserts. The language policy was changed, and rightfully so in light of the oppressive conditions the former policy protected, but it has become clear that a democratic bottom-up LPP process did not ensue in the case of the OS memorandum.


The memorandum reveals a number of flies in the ointment that could lead to future LP difficulties, unless remedied and these are mostly tied to the lack of democratic input from below. While it can be understood that South Africa’s democracy is uniquely centered on transformative justice, the SU LP’s bottom-up processes, such as OS’s initiatives – memorandum and violent protests – arguably required more democratic activities. This means that empirical research from a variety of disciplines such as ethnography and sociolinguistics, among others, could have provided a more holistic view of the language needs of the broader SU student and staff population that did not only include English language advocates who are either mother tongue speakers or second language speakers and can be described as undertaking ‘diglossia’ language functions.

This is thus a call for SU to do better research into the needs of their student population.

There is a possibility that such research could highlight the plight of the Coloured group who are less inclined to shift to English. Unlike many language groups in South Africa, the Coloured group may find themselves attracted to high status domains that still afford Afrikaans a degree of privilege, which in South Africa are still manifold. This is not to say that the OS movement’s efforts were for naught. This step in SU’s historical LP cycle was crucial to improving the unequal and overt cultural and social exclusionary spirit that unquestionably proliferated in SU academic and administrative spaces under the historic monolingual and post-Apartheid LPs. However, SU’s place in the new democracy must be reconstructed to suit the spirit of the constitution’s fortification of the 11 official languages. In order to do so, what Alexander says must be done, “... it is of utmost importance that not group rights but rather solidarity rights that straddle all groups be the strategic objective” (2013: p. 124) in all LP matters. This is thus a call for SU to do better research into the needs of their student population, budget accordingly and act to represent all languages in a way that is realistically possible, and supported by democratic processes.


[i] Rogers (2006) theorized transculturation as one of four categories of Cultural Appropriation that challenges essentialist notions of culture as bounded. This means that cultural appropriation cannot only be located in exploitation of minority culture, and transculturation “points to culture as a relational phenomenon that itself is constituted by acts of appropriation” (2006: 475). Within the paper’s context, acts of appropriation over the years have led to the view that Afrikaans is more than just the language of the oppressor.

[ii] While it was Dutch words that the Afrikaans language appropriated into the Coloured Afrikaans variety, it was this form of the Afrikaans language that the ‘Afrikaners’ appropriated, standardized and turned into a nationalist ideology, as Van der Waal (2012) and others have inferred.

[i] South African Constitution, Chapter 1, Section 6 (4): “The national government and provincial governments, by legislative and other measures, must regulate and monitor their use of official languages. Without detracting from the provisions of subsection (2), all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably.


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