The University of Pretoria, an esteemed South African university, announced last week that it will begin to phase out the Afrikaans language as a language of instruction.
While perhaps this policy change sounds trivial to you, it is an enormous success for the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #AfrikaansMustFall and other student-led movements to “decolonize education.”
Let’s break that down.
#RhodesMustFall is a movement initiated at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in March 2015. It specifically targeted a monument of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes who founded Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe and Zambia) and the Rhodes Scholarship. The idea is that the physical presence of the Rhodes statue on UCT’s campus represents white privilege and supremacy which lingers on South African university campuses since the fall of Apartheid. The movement was sparked by a UCT student, Chumani Maxwele. Maxwele brought a bucket of waste (literal human shit) to campus and threw it over the statue in protest. (In many of Cape Town’s poor townships, bucket toilets like this are the only option when nature calls. This is a very real example of Apartheid’s persistent legacy.) The statue was ultimately removed in April of 2015 after a series of violent protests.
#FeesMustFall is something of a sister movement to #RhodesMustFall that advocates against the continuous increase in university fees which makes education prohibitively expensive to South Africa’s economically disadvantaged (which thanks to Apartheid is essentially exclusively Black and Coloured citizens). The movement also pushes for increased government funding to education. The movement resulted in no fees increases for the 2016 year, though fees continued to increase in 2017.
Following suit, the idea of #AfrikaansMustFall is that institutions such as the University of Pretoria who still teach many classes in Afrikaans are effectively furthering the ideals and cultures of the National Party – the party of white minority-rule who championed Apartheid. Moreover, by teaching courses in a language only understood by a fraction of the population (a division which falls across racial lines) necessarily disadvantages students not raised in Afrikaans-speaking households (i.e. Black and Coloured South Africans).
South Africa has 11 national languages, though English is widely understood to be the language of government, media and commerce. Most major universities teach in Afrikaans and/or English. Students argue that conversion to a system of common language (English) will mitigate unfair treatment and inequality of access to education and thereby attempt to deconstruct this aspect of existing institutional racism.
Opponents to these movements present many arguments, one of which seems to echo discussions on race relations in the U.S.: removal of a statue and/or elimination of a language with historic roots in the country from education risks erasure of history. Does the Afrikaans language fall under the umbrella of “heritage not hate”? Is it a heritage of hate? Should “heritage” matter if it makes others feel unsafe or disrespected as a human being? Should one culture be emphasized more than others, especially in such a multicultural country as South Africa?
Thus far, neither the removal of the Rhodes statue from UCT campus nor the eradication of the Afrikaans language from other universities has led anyone to forget about colonization or apartheid. Perhaps the U.S. has a chance to learn from South Africa as we witness the implications of this policy change and the relevant movements unravel.
This article was written by Executive Editor Haley Skinner ’19.