The University of Pretoria’s (UP) new language policy does not pass constitutional muster and leaves the university open to legal challenges.
In terms of the Higher Education Act, section 27(2), a university has the right and responsibility to determine its language policy, subject to the national policy of the Minister of Higher Education. In this regard, the national policy describes Afrikaans as medium of instruction as a “national asset”. The Ministry “acknowledges that Afrikaans as a language of scholarship and science is a national resource...(and) fully supports the retention of Afrikaans as a medium of academic expression and communication in higher education, and is committed to ensuring that the capacity of Afrikaans to function as such a medium is not eroded” (par 15.4). There are therefore no legal impediments from government’s side on the UP accepting Afrikaans (and any other language) as a language of instruction.
The right to choose a language of education in terms of section 29(2) of the Constitution vests with all present and potential students of the UP. It includes, but is not limited to, Afrikaans-speaking students. Those students who choose to be taught in English also exercise this right. In determining a new language policy, the UP should have ensured that its policy can withstand the test of constitutionality, as prescribed in section 6 and section 29(2).
The only condition for the constitutional right in section 29(2) is that it must be reasonably practicable. In the case of the UP, it has been shown to be reasonably practicable to offer Afrikaans and English at least since the dawn of democracy in 1994. The fact that there are now political and ideological reasons aired to change the language to English, does not render the use of Afrikaans as unreasonable or reasonably impracticable. Neither does the fact (as the Vice-Chancellor points out in her letter to staff) that the proportion of students expressing a preference for Afrikaans has “declined sharply” to 18%. Even if this number is taken at face value, it still represents thousands of students who prefer to be taught in Afrikaans.
In deciding whether Afrikaans instruction is reasonably practicable, financial implications may play a role. This is, however, not used as an argument by the University. Furthermore, the question must be asked when did this change, and for what reason.
It is clear that the UP has not taken the constitutional imperatives and the ministerial language policy seriously enough in determining the new policy. It is apparent that other reasons weighed more heavily, such as pressure by political groups. In this regard, the ideological narrative that English must be the sole language of administration and instruction, with only transitional arrangements for students who choose Afrikaans, presupposes that Afrikaans as an official language has a finite (and short) life at the UP and in South Africa. This is clearly contrary to the provisions of both section 6 and section 29(2) of the Constitution.
We deem the implementation of the rights of those who choose a specific language as their constitutional right, to still be “reasonably practicable” at the UP. If the University’s overall budget is taken into account, the amount that it would spend on multilingualism would be less than the international norm of 3% ‐ 5%. Multilingualism should be seen as an asset and should therefore warrant adequate resources.
Against this background, it is hard to understand the pious undertaking of Council to “maintain Afrikaans as language of scholarship”. If Afrikaans is not used as medium of instruction and assessment anymore, how will it be able to remain a language of scholarship?
Issued by Dr Theuns Eloff, Chairman
On behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation