Residents fleeing from police.Soweto 1976

    It’s been 40 years since the Soweto Uprising, when school students fought – and died – for the right to be educated in their mother tongue. With recent protests by university students against the language policies at predominantly Afrikaans-speaking campuses, we can’t help but draw a parallel between Then, and Now, and ask the question: with 11 official languages recognised by our Constitution, can one take precedence over another?

    On 16 June 1976, hundreds of students gathered in Soweto to march against the apartheid government’s imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools. Among the first to be killed on that day, 13-year-old Hector Pieterson became a tragic symbol of the resistance when an iconic news photograph by Sam Nzima – featuring the dying boy – was published worldwide. What began as a student march quickly turned into a national revolution.

    Four decades later, and the Afrikaans language has again fuelled protests. Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape came under fire for allegations of racism when Luister (Listen), a documentary highlighting inequality at the university, went viral in August 2015. Produced by Contraband Cape Town, the film’s purpose was “to give a voice to a group that is being stripped of that voice.”

    Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

    In the documentary, 32 students and one lecturer present reports of their experiences at Stellenbosch University, all of which put into stark focus the language barrier that they face at the predominantly Afrikaans-speaking institution. As many classes at the university are taught in Afrikaans only, students who do not speak the language say they are being denied their constitutional right of access to learning.

    Speaking to Radio 702, Professor Jonathan Jansen, University of the Free State Vice Chancellor said, “It's a singular failure of the leadership [at Stellenbosch University]. Not understanding that you cannot use language as a barrier to black students at the universities, or treat black students as second class citizens.”

    Soon after, other predominantly Afrikaans-speaking campuses in South Africa, such as the University of the Free State and University of Pretoria, saw their share of violent clashes, which instead of aiding linguistic diversity, reduced the issue to a baseline rhetoric of black versus white.

    Raimund Nel, 23, a student at the University of Pretoria (Tuks) witnessed violent clashes which erupted on February 22, which has become known as “Black Monday.” Nel explained how, following lecture disruptions by members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and others, he joined a group of students walking to the Hatfield magistrate’s court to lend support to the 21 students who had been arrested by police the previous week.

    However, the hearing had been postponed, and the group returned to the public amphitheatre on campus to discuss what action could be taken. “When we arrived, members of AfriForum Youth (a pro-Afrikaans civil rights group) had formed a human wall to prevent us from accessing the amphitheatre,” says Nel, adding that AfriForum members “cursed and provoked the predominantly black students with hate speech and racial slurs.

    “I was called a traitor and a moffie for standing with students who I believed were doing the right thing,” he says. 

    Nel explains how a fight then broke out, and how, fearing for his life, he fled. “These movements do have meaning,” he states, but adds that awareness around the issue should focus on how South Africa’s economic system prevents the majority of its citizens from receiving basic service delivery, and not on political agenda.

    But is this racial hangover realistically avoidable, when institutions such as Stellenbosch still maintain a reputation for being bastions of white Afrikaner culture? The university is among four in the country that are considered “Afrikaans,” a notion that the ministry of education says “runs counter to the end goal of a transformed higher education system.”

    The ministry’s national plan for higher education includes the creation of higher education institutions “whose identity and cultural orientation is neither black nor white, English or Afrikaans-speaking, but unabashedly and unashamedly South African.”

    Nel suggests that substantive equality should be the goal, rather than formal equality. “Substantive equality puts people on the same level, where some will require more support than others to achieve the same standard.” He explains that the problem with formal equality (which aims to treat everyone equally) is that “it disregards history and the reasons why one might be at a lower level than another.”

    Stellenbosch University uses both English and Afrikaans as the mediums of instruction at undergraduate level, while postgraduate courses are all conducted in English. It’s clear though, by comments made in the documentary, that this multilingual approach is not always effective. Ahead of the release of Luister, student activist group Open Stellenbosch issued a memorandum in May 2015 outlining their requests to redress the language policy at Stellenbosch University.

    Monica Blignaut, an honours student at the University of Pretoria, says there can be no quick fix to this problem as language plays a large role in people’s identities. “But if we could move away from emotive language and instead focus on the financial benefits for universities to teach in [one] language, then I believe the heart of the problem could be addressed.”

    Open Stellenbosch suggested that the university teach all its classes in English from January 2016, a move that both the National Council of the Afrikanerbond and the Afrikaans Alumni Society described as “irrational.”

    Jacques du Preez, spokesperson for the Afrikaans Alumni Society quoted Section 64 of the bill of rights when he told the SABC that all the official languages must be treated equally. “As much as we understand the question of English as an academic language [so] we also function in a place where there are certain constitutional rights attached to all the official languages in South Africa… we cannot understand why Afrikaans as a protected official language is constantly being etched away," he says.

    There’s a need to critically examine the role of English and linguistic diversity in education in South Africa, where history and language are intertwined in racial discourse. During apartheid, Afrikaans was seen as the language of the oppressor, and inevitably used as a means to subvert African people. However, it should also be noted that language – as a subversive tool – was being employed in South Africa long before the dark days of Vorster.

    In a 1982 essay for the academic journal Cultural Survival, author Marjorie Lilly explained that Afrikaners did not win the right to be taught in Afrikaans until 1925. “The Afrikaners' language is the primary symbol of their sense of cultural distinctness.”

    In March this year, AfriForum Youth applied for court action to ensure that the language policy at Stellenbosch University places English and Afrikaans on an equal footing. The High Court granted the application and demanded that the university implement the plan by the end of March 2016. Open Stellenbosch declared the university’s failure to oppose the application as a move that continues to put black students at a disadvantage. At the time of going to print, Open Stellenbosch had submitted a counter-application to repeal the court order.

    The 1976 Soweto Uprising heightened political awareness and saw the emergence of new leaders, changed the course of South African history and laid the foundation for a new democratic South Africa. What will transformative education look like in the future?