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Universities must join hands to enhance multilingualism
Author: Naude van der Merwe
Published: 05/10/2021

In a first colloquium on the way forward with the new Language Policy Framework for Higher Education Institutions hosted on 28 and 29 September 2021, higher education representatives agreed that collaboration would be key. The event was initiated by the Universities South Africa (USAf) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) and hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU).

The two-day online colloquium – the first in a series on the new Language Policy Framework – attracted nearly 200 participants. Delegates from across the higher education sector, including over 30 speakers from South African universities and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), tackled issues of multilingualism and how to implement the DHET's new framework. The framework, published in October 2020, specifically aims to “promote and strengthen the use of all official languages across all functional domains of public higher education".

During the eight plenary sessions – all with a focus on multilingualism as a mechanism to create space for the further development of African languages – key themes emerged. These included a continued awareness of collaboration and co-creation, social justice, implementation strategies, concerns around resources and funding, the role of the Department of Basic Education, the possibility of a national institutional audit of all universities' multilingualism activities, and the status of Afrikaans as an indigenous language.

Prof Wim de Villiers, SU's Rector and Vice-Chancellor, also touched on the importance of collaboration in his welcoming remarks. “Collaboration is key," he said. “Our honest conversations can lead to solutions. And through actions like these, we can come to a deeper understanding of the value of multilingualism."

He elaborated on SU's activities to promote isiXhosa, and also stressed SU's view that Afrikaans should be included in the DHET's list of indigenous languages. The new Language Policy Framework currently excludes Afrikaans from its definition of indigenous languages, namely “languages that have their heritage roots in Africa … and that belong to the Southern Bantu language family, where 'Bantu' is used purely as a linguistic term".

Dr Thandi Lewin, deputy director-general from DHET, said her department recognised the issue of Afrikaans having been excluded from the definition as something that required legal advice and clarity. She said weaknesses in the policy framework should be addressed in another forum.

During his address, former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs placed the Language Policy Framework within the context of the South African Constitution and recalled the tensions at the time when the language clauses in the Constitution were drafted back in the 1990s. “In South Africa, the minority behaved like a majority, and the majority were treated like the minority in terms of language, access to franchise, access to land, and access to all the things that mattered. It inverted the normal minority/majority relationship," he said. “And now we're in a South Africa where the majority are passing the laws, and the minority is hugely privileged because of the racism of the past. The question is how do we reconcile those two themes." He added that there should be a concerted effort, as there was with Afrikaans in the early 20th century, to promote South Africa's other indigenous languages.

Prof Deresh Ramjugernath, SU's Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching, in turn, highlighted the human resources and funding challenges relating to the framework's implementation. “The Language Policy Framework must be achieved within the current resource constraints," he explained. “In the majority of cases, it is in competition with priorities that are viewed as more significant, and which are possibly seen as greater contributors to the academic standing and financial sustainability of institutions." The DHET did indicate that implementation resources would be allocated, and undertook to elaborate on the specifics in due course.

In his address, Prof Mbulungeni Madiba, dean of Education at SU, said “multilingual universities are very often understood from a more colonial perspective", and argued for change in this regard. He said the tension between English and other African languages over the past 27 years had caused these other languages to be marginalised.

Dr Antoinette van der Merwe, SU's senior director of Learning and Teaching Enhancement, joined Prof Langa Khumalo, CoPAL chair and associated with North-West University, in a call for an audit of all multilingualism implementation initiatives at universities nationwide. “The only way we would be able to pool resources at a national level is if we collaborate, otherwise each institution will go their own way, while, ultimately, there is much more value in synergy," Dr Van der Merwe said.