Victory: Human Rights Commission ruling on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University

FF Plus

Victory: Human Rights Commission ruling on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University
Victory: Human Rights Commission ruling on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University

The ruling by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) on the complaint that the FF Plus lodged, as first complainant, about the ban on speaking Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2021 is a great victory for Afrikaans in general.

In the HRC’s report, which was released today, SU is instructed, among other things, to apologise in writing for the whole debacle.

First-year students had been prohibited from speaking Afrikaans at the University, even in personal conversations.

The Afrikaans issue at SU flared up again earlier this year. It raised the question of why the HRC was dragging its feet with the report seeing as it was allowing a toxic environment to develop at the institution.

The blame for the 2021 (and ensuing) events is squarely placed on the shoulders of SU management.

The University has now been instructed to apologise to all affected students through the Office of the Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Wim de Villiers.

In its findings, the HRC clearly recognises the importance of personal identity in community identity, as well as the rights of all languages in addition to English.

In its ruling, the HRC used a Canadian court ruling as precedent, which determines that language is more than a mere medium for conveying information and ideas: It is the expression of one’s culture on the whole.

So, expecting newcomers to be welcomed only in English, regardless of their mother tongue, and to speak only English denies that right.

While the HRC views inclusion or inclusivity as an honourable ideal, it is neither a legal nor a constitutional requirement, according to the HRC report, for each institution and social situation to include or accommodate everyone.

This ruling brings South Africa closer to the international norm where the human rights culture is guided by the recognition that personal identity is rooted in group identity.

A comprehensive summary of the ruling, comprising 41 pages, follows below:

The HRC’s findings following the FF Plus’s complaint about the ban on Afrikaans at SU in 2021 contains many watershed guidelines about language.

(Summary of HRC ruling on Afrikaans at SU)

The ruling by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) on the complaint that the FF Plus lodged last year about the ban on Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University (SU) is a watershed victory for Afrikaans and human rights in general.

During the welcoming period of 2021, SU students were instructed to speak only English, especially in Stellenbosch campus residences, and even in private conversations.

According to Afrikaans-speaking students, a feeling that Afrikaans was not welcome anywhere prevailed.

Prof. Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU, is sharply criticised in the HRC report for the University’s conduct in this regard.

He is instructed to, among other things, apologise to the relevant Afrikaans-speaking students in writing through the Office of the Rector and Vice-Chancellor.

In the letter, SU must take full responsibility for the actions and policies of its residences, and for the human rights violations that occurred due to its failure to act.

The University must also undertake to ensure that these events will not repeat themselves in the future. Other recommendations include:

• Quarterly reports must be submitted to the HRC on, among other things, language-related complaints and discrimination, and what the University is doing about it.

• Residences must be instructed in writing to never again implement an English-only policy.

• An amount of R5 million must be earmarked for a compulsory programme on the diversity of and sensitivity towards all students and staff at the University.

• A module on human rights – which focuses on human dignity, equality, and freedom of expression, language and culture – must be created for first-year students. It must commence in 2024 already.

• The module and programme must be presented in Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa, and the HRC must approve it.

According to the report, Prof. De Villiers stated that what transpired was not university policy. He did, however, admit that he was aware of the instruction to ban Afrikaans during the welcoming period.

According to the HRC, the policy implemented by residences cannot be separated from university policy. Thus, SU cannot distance itself from what happened in its residences with its knowledge.

If the 2016 SU Language Policy was violated, it was SU itself that violated it through the actions of its residences.

The HRC, furthermore, adds that it is concerned that SU views language as a mere medium of communication or an instrument used to exclude others.

That is not true. Language is at the core of a person’s freedom of expression.

One’s use of a language is not a malicious gesture, but an expression of one’s culture, feelings and human dignity.

So, to deny someone their language is denying them their right to freedom of expression as well.

Section 30 of the Constitution clearly states that everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice.

Language and culture are in a symbiotic relationship, and discrimination against someone’s language implies discrimination against their culture.

There is no constitutional right, particularly in a social context, to demand the language of your choice or that you are able to understand.

There is also no constitutional right to demand inclusivity of your choice at all times. Inclusivity is honourable as long as it does not infringe upon another’s rights.

The Constitution aims to create a society free from discrimination, not one that guarantees absolute inclusivity for all at all times.

What happened at SU, therefore, violated Afrikaans-speaking students’ human dignity, self-image and cultural ties.

The FF Plus welcomes this finding. It finally lays down clear guidelines for how forced inclusivity infringes upon the basic human rights of minorities.

The recent attempts to change the name of the Afrikaans Taal Monument and the sheer disregard for Afrikaans in education are but a few examples.

South Africa is a country with many languages, cultures and religions. This diversity ought to be embraced to create a sense of unity.

But, like the HRC says, it will not happen as long as one group lays claim to rights that deny the rights of another.

Read the original article in Afrikaans by Heloïse Denner on FF Plus