Pretoria – English has been declared the only official medium of instruction at the University of Pretoria by the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria.
Thursday’s ruling dashed the hopes of Afrikaans students who hoped they would next year be able to study in their chosen language.
Three judges turned down an application by lobby group AfriForum for an order to set aside the new all-English language policy adopted in June by Tuks. But this may still not be the end of the matter, as AfriForum may take the judgment on appeal. Its deputy head, Alana Bailey. said they would study the judgment and then consider their options.
Bailey described the outcome as a blow to South African language rights.
But the reality of the judgment is that UP will phase out Afrikaans as a medium of tuition from next year.
Judge Peter Mabuse, who wrote the judgment, said in his opening lines: “Language is considerably more than simply a means of communication; it has been recognised as central to human development and an inextricable part of the construction of human identity.”
History was replete with examples of how powerful elites were able to harness language as a tool of domination, subjugation and exclusion, he said.
It was earlier argued on behalf of AfriForum that until recently, Afrikaans was offered as a medium of instruction at UP and it was thus possible to continue with this.
But in June, the UP council adopted the new policy of English as the only language of instruction. Critics felt the removal of Afrikaans was not justifiable, as it remained reasonably practicable to offer it as a medium of instruction.
AfriForum said the Constitution granted people the right to be tutored in the language of their choice, in cases where it was reasonably practical to do so. The court heard that about 17 percent of students enrolled at the UP preferred Afrikaans as a language of tuition and this should have been considered by the council before it decided to change the policy.
But the court could neither find that the decision to adopt the English-only language policy was unconstitutional, nor discriminatory to Afrikaans students.
The judges said it was simply not practical to present classes in Afrikaans as well as in English any longer. It was also found that the UP senate thoroughly considered the issue before making a decision.
Judge Mabuse pointed out that over time the demographics of the students at UP and their language choice and preference had undergone changes. Prior to 1994, UP was essentially a white university with Afrikaans as the only medium of instruction.
Statistics showed that this year Afrikaans speaking students at UP made up 25 percent of students.
But in the past 20 years, there had been a radical transformation in the students of UP, as well as of their language of choice. Statistics showed that this year Afrikaans speaking students at UP made up 25 percent of students.
The judges commented that the idea of a society in transformation could on the one hand be positive and affirming, while at the same time unsettling and a source of much insecurity.
“These are but some of the formidable challenges we are required to navigate in translating the values of the Constitution into reality.
“The Constitution is neither vindictive nor vengeful in charting the path for our future. It contemplates a principled, value-based trajectory for the change that must herald the unfolding of a new constitutional order,” they said.
“The language policy choice made by the University of Pretoria is not only consistent and in accord with the provisions of the Constitution, it also signals a deep and sincere commitment to place the university at the forefront of being an agent in advancing social cohesion.
“It provides an important intellectual space where South Africans, in their diversity, can together reflect on issues and debates that a young and vibrant society such as ours must confront.”
UP, meanwhile, welcomed the decision to uphold the resolution to implement the new language policy. The university undertook to continue working with all stakeholders to ensure the new policy was implemented with the least possible disruption and in the interest of all students and members of the university.
Zelda Venter is a High Court Reporter at the Pretoria News.
This article appeared in iol.co.za on 16 December 2016