Afrikaans Goes to Court

South Africa's supreme court will decide if Afrikaans can be phased out by universities

The University of South Africa—locally known as UNISA—the largest university system in the nation, has been working on phasing out Afrikaans as a language of instruction since 2016, a move that has been met with protest from some of the nation’s Afrikaans speakers. Now, the highest court in the country will determine the constitutionality of the university’s language policy.

Another major university in South Africa—the University of Pretoria—adopted a similar policy also in 2016, with proponents of the policy arguing that it would make the university more accessible to Black citizens, many of whom speak languages native to South Africa or English (Afrikaans is a descendant of Dutch, which evolved from the dialect spoken by Dutch colonists in the region). By privileging Afrikaans over other languages spoken in the country, the university was seen by some as privileging White students over native African students.

In UNISA’s case, not only was Afrikaans a potential barrier for many of the nation’s Black students but there was also relatively low demand for Afrikaans courses to begin with—the university claims that it would be costly and impractical for it to reintroduce Afrikaans as a language of instruction and that it also would be illogical to offer courses in Afrikaans and English but not in South Africa’s eight other official languages, like isiXhosa and isiZulu, both of which have larger populations of native speakers than Afrikaans does.

After the Supreme Court ruled the move unconstitutional, UNISA is taking its legal battle to the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest legal court. The Supreme Court initially ruled that the university must reverse its decision and begin offering classes in Afrikaans once again to accommodate students who had already been enrolled in Afrikaans courses prior to the decision.

Many opponents of UNISA’s language policy argue not only that it negatively impacts Afrikaner students but that the decision was extremely rushed and not well handled.

However, the university claims that it is unable to reinstate the language immediately, and if the Constitutional Court rules against UNISA, it would need until at least 2023 to begin offering Afrikaans as a language of instruction again. Andrew Warner

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