It has been another tumultuous week in South Africa where movements like the Open Stellenbosch and Rhodes Must Fall movements have made a compelling case for needed change in the language policy of certain universities in South Africa. The particular focus of these movements is the way that Afrikaans tuition in some universities creates division and unfair treatment of the general student populace.

In this time, many voices from all over the political landscape have spoken out for and against the use of any language other than English in classes. In any of the places where this is the case, there often has to be translation services for students who are not able to understand the language. However, apart from the practical and financial implications of providing classes in multiple languages there is also another more insidious factor that some people have alluded to in their writings. A shadowy ghost that is present in every conversation on this topic, something that ought to be focused on as I hope to do.

So instead of regurgitating so many of the opinions we heard, I thought I would focus on a few articles and letters on the topic that left an impression on me. And when that is done, I will invite you to climb a mountain with me…

Early in the week I was struck by the Ruan Bruwer article in News24 titled, ‘Afrikaanse sangers maak my bang.’ (Afrikaans singers scare me). He referred to a statement made by Chris Voster, lecturer at the University of Free State, when he said, (translated) “There are five faces of Afrikaans, the Afrikaans teacher that wants to ensure at almost any cost, that the language survives but in the process stifles growth and causes a backlash with her actions. There is the grumpy old Afrikaans ‘oom’ that refuse to speak English even when nobody understands him. There is the snobbish academic that wants to insinuate that Afrikaans belongs to only an informed and educated few like Afrikaans poets. There is, of course, the right wing politician that insists that the language only belongs to the white ‘volk.’ And then lastly you get the Afrikaans singers that act like their opinion weighs more than the general public and that makes statements on behalf of Afrikaans speaking people that is not warranted.

Then there was the disturbing article in the Daily Vox by Pontsho Pilane titled, “Black students don’t matter at NWU-Pukke.” The article described the experience of a student Masego Legodi, and how she struggled to complete her studies because most of the classes were only instructed in Afrikaans. It also shed light on the intimidating behavior of white Afrikaans students toward other races at the North West University Potchefstroom Campus. She described how she felt when she was threatened in an alley on her way home The fear and the anger was palpable as she left us with this disturbing if not gut-wrenching summary of how she feels: “Being a student at Pukke is insulting to my blackness and my humanity.”

There was the article by Malini Mohana on Women24 titled, “Luister: South Africa has mastered the art of silencing.” She focused her piece on the denial and discontent that bubbled to the surface after Open Stellenbosch showed some of the mistreatment that non-Afrikaans speaking students suffered at the University of Stellenbosch. Her words smacked of despair as she said, “Much like apologists in sexual assault cases, people only have to silence victims to nullify statistical truths and painful incidents.

In fact, silencing in South Africa is a national pastime.

We’ve gotten so good at the art of silencing that we do it with exceptional linguistic stealth, while genuinely believing it’s somehow altruistic.”

She showed us the toxic nature of denial and backlash like the “Where is The Love” reactionary social movement where mostly white Afrikaners attempted to draw the attention away from the abuse and toward a somewhat shallow representation of what a cool and ‘lekker’ (nice) place the University of Stellenbosch really is. The whole movement secretes an odor of white privilege that is trying to cover up any discontent with an almost Orwellian happiness.

But it was the article, “My thoughts on complexity and the intersectionality of change at Stellenbosch University” by Lovelyn Chidinma Nwadeyi on Litnet that spoke right to the heart of the problem. She is a  young Nigerian woman who describes how she embraced the Afrikaans nature of the university and taught herself to speak Afrikaans. Now completely fluent in it, she easily demonstrated her mastery of the language with one beautiful Afrikaans sentence after another while she skillfully revealed the absolute depravity of the exclusivity of Afrikanerhood with words like this:

For my undergrad years I facilitated workshops, debates and seminars on race, diversity and multiculturalism. I would sit on university leadership panels that aimed to transform campus by making it an inclusive space for all students, in whatever way possible. I was in and out of the former Rector’s office, with other black and coloured students. We would talk to Prof Botman and some of his management team about our experiences. Being called kaffirs in Stellenbosch, being told by lecturers we don’t belong here because we made the mistake of asking for a word or two to be translated in a class, not being allowed to share rooms with white girls/guys in residences because white and black don’t mix, being told that we don’t deserve to be at Stellenbosch because we just fill part of the Equity quotas necessary for our courses and residences – not because many of us were A students right through high school till Matric finals.

It was the paralyzing realization that this wonderful human being had done everything this specific society had demanded of her. She studied hard, got A’s, learned Afrikaans, tried to create space where racial reconciliation could take place, reported abuses to the authorities and yet… it is almost like the game was rigged from the start. Perhaps because it was just a game not a real set of criteria…

So with all these thoughts and emotions in mind, I want to invite you to climb a mountain with me. It is the mountain of Afrikanerhood, as seen by Afrikaners – that group of people of European descent that came to Africa since 1652, under the auspices of creating a halfway house for travelers but who proceeded to colonize much of the southern part of the continent.

The base of the mountain is filled with ordinary people, the types Chris Voster pointed out and so many shades in between. Different generations like the stoic older guard. Many of them started life on farms and lived close to nature. They are acutely aware of their heritage and revere their so-called sacred history (a history that paints the picture of a protagonist who made very little mistakes and always had the best of intentions). They are devout Calvinists and believe God has elected the Afrikaner ‘volk’ as the group that has to carry the gospel into Africa. As such they believe in a special protective blessing and guiding hand that will lead “their people” – meaning their ethnic group – to a great destiny. Some might even believe in the words of Siener van Rensburg, a self-appointed prophet of the people.

There is the newer generation that grew up during Apartheid and saw the transition to a democratic South Africa. They are in the throes of raising children and getting them through college. They worry about money, safety and opportunity, not just for themselves, but also for their children. They resent the current situation because they did not invent Apartheid but get to reap the whole bitter harvest of hundreds of years of hegemony. They do not understand history (sacred or real) that well but insist on trying to find a silver lining in the dark cloud of being an Afrikaner, often insisting that “not everything about Apartheid was that bad,” and triumphantly point out failings in the current government policies as proof that the old folk were perhaps right…

There are the young people who just want to live their life and feel like pawns in a grand political game. They inherited some of the generational racists tendencies but knows little about history and do not cling to the ‘volk’ ideology at all. They want everybody to be treated on merit and, therefore, they often resent affirmative action and feel it is unfair discrimination.

Higher up on the mountain you will find the Afrikaner politicians spread throughout the political spectrum from the right wing hardliners with their anachronistic ideas to the perceived centrists that attempt to carve out a future for themselves… a future that looks a lot like sustained white privilege.

Part 2 to follow: