Remarks made by Prof Jonathan Jansen - Rector of the University of the Free State - in the Percy Baneshik Memorial Lecture to the English Academy of South Africa on 18 September, have caused a furore in Afrikaans cultural and educational circles. They have been widely interpreted as a call for English-only education and as a claim that "Afrikaans-exclusive or even Afrikaans-dominant white schools and universities represent a serious threat to race relations in South Africa".
Jansen said that "one major solution to the long-term resolution of the crisis in education" would be to "instruct every teacher and every child in English from the first day of school rather than add to the burden of poor instruction in the mother-tongue in the foundation years to the trauma of transition to English later on".
Jansen has since then insisted that "his careful argument on language in education has been distorted to create a media hype".
Nevertheless, it may be helpful to remind participants in the debate about what the Constitution actually says regarding language and education.
Section 6(1) of the Founding Provisions of the Constitution enshrines English - along with 10 other languages - as one of the official languages of the Republic. No one disputes that it would be unconstitutional for any school (or other academic institution) to implement exclusivity on the basis of race, and, similarly, if it was unfair, on the basis of language. Neither does anyone really dispute the idea that English is the lingua franca and thus, as Jansen proposes, should be the language of reconciliation.
However, Prof Jansen's apparent proposal that a long-term solution to the education crisis would be exclusive English education - from the foundation phase - cannot be reconciled with the Constitution’s provision for multilingualism and for the space that it clearly provides for education in any of our official languages - also in single-medium education institutions.
It can also not be reconciled with UFS’s own language policy - which is based on recognition of the language provisions in the Constitution. Section 29(2) of the Bill of Rights states that everyone has the right to receive education in public educational institutions (schools and tertiary institutions) in the official language or languages of their choice, where that education is reasonably practicable. Consequently, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account equity, practicality and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.
Section 29(3)(a) of the Bill of Rights is clear: everyone has the right to establish and maintain, at their own expense, independent educational institutions, as long as they do not discriminate on the basis of race.
The South African Schools Act of 1996 - which applies to all school education in the Republic - defines in clear terms [section 6(2)] that the governing bodies of public schools determine the language policy of such schools, subject to the Constitution, the Schools Act and any other applicable provincial legislation. The caveat on school governing bodies' prerogative to determine such language policy can be found in section 6(3), which determines that no form of racial discrimination may be practiced when a language policy is established according to this article (of the Act).
Where a governing body thus fulfills its duties and powers in legal manner concerning the determination of a language policy, and the policy is consistent with the Constitution, it can hardly be said that unfair discrimination will follow.
Poor mother-tongue education is indeed a problem (but this is very seldom the case in Afrikaans schools). It has also been shown - fairly conclusively - that mother-tongue education during the first six to seven years of schooling achieves far better educational outcomes than education in a second language - even with regard to learning the second language (English) for use in high school.
The poor state of mother-tongue teaching could also be addressed by carrying out the provisions of Section 6(2) of the Constitution, which "because of the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people" requires the state to "take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages". Mother-tongue education in these languages, and the development of much- needed infrastructure in this regard could be viewed as a form of practical and positive measures to increase the status and use of those languages.
Also, the root of the educational crisis is not primarily the language of education but the failure of policy. If we hypothesise that only English were to be used in the South African education system as the medium of education, it still would not help with the current education crisis in the long-term. Particularly if learners are without textbooks halfway through the academic year, without computers or electricity, without basic sanitation, without proper classrooms - and with teachers who do not have basic reading or writing skills - whether in English or any other language.
In this regard Prof Jansen is correct: a race and class-based system of exclusion is detrimental to poor, black students. This (and other problems within the South African education system as mentioned above) touch on the failure of education policy and have nothing to do with language in a constitutional order in which all South Africans enjoy equal language rights.
We cannot accept that it was Prof Jansen’s intention to express views that are so much at variance with the Constitution, his own university’s policy and with his own laudable record in promoting reconciliation and positive relations between our communities. Surely, in the light of the tragic experience of 1976, he did not mean that South African schoolchildren should once again be forced to study in a language that they do not regard as their own? We accordingly must accept his explanation that "he was misquoted" and that "media hype" is to blame.
By Adv Jacques du Preez, FW de Klerk Foundation