“We are confident that Stellenbosch University students have more choices, broader access and a better future as a result of our approach to language."
This is according to Prof Wim de Villiers, SU Rector and Vice-Chancellor in addressing commissioners of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in Stellenbosch today (Monday, 10 May 2021).
The SAHRC convened an inquiry into allegations of a prohibition on the use of Afrikaans at SU. The hearing was held at STIAS in Stellenbosch.
“Let me say straight away that the suggestion that students across campus, as a matter of University policy, have at any time been prohibited from communicating in Afrikaans is false. There is no ban on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University – not in lecture halls, in residences, or anywhere else on campus. That is not our policy," Prof De Villiers stated.
“To the contrary, our Language Policy advances multilingualism, taking into account the diversity of our society and the intellectual wealth inherent in that diversity.
“There is no English-only policy in residences. And students should not be prohibited from speaking Afrikaans or any other language. The University cannot condone that, as it would be incongruous with our vision, our values as well as our Language Policy."
Prof De Villiers said Stellenbosch is an “inclusive, multilingual university, one of very few higher education institutions in our multilingual country following this approach. This is not easy; in fact, it is complicated and expensive. Yet we have deliberately chosen to go this route because we believe it is the right thing to do."
“SU advances multilingualism to increase equitable access, to foster an inclusive campus culture and to support student success. We believe that through exposure to multilingualism and cultivating respect for one another's cultural heritage, our students become engaged citizens in a diverse society.
“For the sake of practicability, we chose to go with the three official languages of the province where we are situated, namely Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.
“Our Language Policy states that 'in residences and other living environments, language is used in such a way that, where reasonably practicable, no stakeholder is excluded from participating in any formal activities in these environments.'
“Somewhat overwhelmed by a brand-new setting, new students may not always understand the information and arrangements meant to help them settle in. For this reason, student leaders in residences mostly use English in formal settings during this period to ensure that everyone has access to crucial information. An effort to turn the challenges of communal living into opportunities for growth and a celebration of diversity is commendable. However, this should not be interpreted to mean that a language other than English is not welcome or should not be used. Our Language Policy promotes multilingualism.
Issues resolved satisfactorily
“In a complex environment such as a large university, we do not always get it right. If newcomer students were indeed instructed by student leaders to use only English in a social context, that would be wrong. That is not our policy; it is not supposed to happen. So, when the allegations came to the fore, we expeditiously started looking into them. And we took action. Through our Division of Student Affairs, we engaged with student leaders and students in residences to work towards a common understanding of the Language Policy and the implementation in the residence space. And as far as we are aware, the issues were resolved satisfactorily.
“This was done in accordance with our Language Policy, which provides clear guidance. The emphasis of our Language Policy is not on punishment, but on resolving matters to the satisfaction of all those directly involved. And to the best of our knowledge, that is what indeed happened in the cases concerned.
“Still, as management, we felt we needed an independent investigation, and so we commissioned our auditors, an external firm, to conduct one."
The University undertook to share the findings of the investigation with the SAHRC when it is done, which should be soon.
Prof De Villiers concluded by saying that Stellenbosch University is an asset to the country and all its people. “We are proud of our contribution to human development, and consider our policy of multilingualism, which is aimed at inclusivity and academic excellence, a cornerstone of our unique differentiating value proposition as a leading higher education institution."
At the start of the hearing, Prof De Villiers said the University respected the Constitution and the democratic oversight role performed by its institutions, including those provided for in chapter 9, such as the SAHRC. “So, we welcome this opportunity."
At the end of the hearing, SAHRC Chairperson Chris Nissen said: “Thank you for the interaction. It was informative. The hearing was part our ongoing inquiry into allegations and complaints. We found it this engagement with the management of the University useful.
“We will await the additional information that we requested during this meeting. And we also respect the fact that the independent investigation that the University commissioned is not complete yet; we will also await that report.
“There will be further engagements from our side with other stakeholders and interested parties. And then we will make our assessment as a Commission."