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Marlene van Niekerk on the Stellenbosch University language debate

Friday 22 July 2016

Marlene van Niekerk
University Seminar

Dear Robert

Thank you for your contribution to the university debate – dis ’n riem onder die hart, as we say in Afrikaans. I remember your interesting pieces in the arts pages from my time in Jo’burg.

Currently I am teaching in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at Stellenbosch University and I find it especially supportive to hear English professionals and writers speak up in the media about the position of Afrikaans. Your letter made me think back on my days of teaching at Wits when law students were still required to take Afrikaans in their first year. We, the staff, could mostly, through all manner of enticing and dramatic teaching methods, succeed in convincing them that Afrikaans was, in fact, a super cool language to study. We could even persuade some of them to continue their Afrikaans studies. From the 400 first-years we mostly harvested a class of 30 second-years, 15 third-years and seven honours students. After the first month of classes they would come to our offices out of sheer curiosity, telling us, “We really didn’t know there were rocks like you” (meaning “rock spiders”). It made us look at ourselves differently, weird insects on weird rocks, and it encouraged us even more to convey the cadences, the radical imagination and the intriguing vocabularies of certain contemporary Afrikaans works of poetry and prose. We especially tried to impress on them that Afrikaans, like all languages, can make the reader suspect certain unheard of dimensions of reality. We tried to cultivate a taste for the effects of alterity in certain writerly (scriptible) texts and to show that even in this language a writer could undermine identity, totality and closure, could subvert state power, could demolish stereotypes and could address the reasons for oppression and suffering in the world. Many of the law students who lived in a seamless, unshakeable and self-satisfied English-speaking world without much literary background learned from us that one could write critical or alienating stuff not only in English but also in Afrikaans and many of them became acquainted, for the very first time in their lives, with certain continental literary traditions.

Could I imagine that any student from #AfrikaansMustFall at Stellenbosch would have come to the Afrikaans Department and told us, “We did not know there were settler professors like you”? It is quite unthinkable. In any event, they would not have found me, because during the entire attack on Afrikaans I simply took to my heels, ran home and hid underneath the desk in my study, surfacing only to read the news on the internet, the tweets, and the Facebook page of #OpenStellenbosch.

Quite a number of like-minded people also chose to remain silent during the student rebellion in 2015/16, avoiding the probability of being misunderstood or wilfully misconstrued. Like other campuses ours was and still is, teeming with damning labels that, once applied by opportunistic operators across the spectrum, are difficult if not impossible to remove. At the time I felt unable to face this situation and risk being called names; I simply did not have the wherewithal for it, or maybe I am just getting old. Attacks on writers, artists and journalists are not exceptional in this country and I have naturally had my share. The reasons for the attacks invariably cover a broad range. South Africans may react to art on the basis of party political loyalty, religious piety, frustrated personal ambitions and thwarted political or artistic aspirations. Among them one may find well-heeled white right-wingers (Dainfern), small-town Boland Bible thumpers, self-appointed aesthetic police from the Frankfurt School at Stellenbosch, and the national government itself. Three years ago the spokesperson of the Department of Basic Education, David Hlabane, had a go at me for a poem I had written about the state of basic education and school infrastructure in the Eastern Cape and stuck a label of “arrogant colonialist writer” on me. It takes a lot of courage for even mildly experimental or oppositional writers to remain steadfast in a country where racist nationalist regimes seem to succeed each other ad infinitum and where everything from free-wheeling exploration to engaged literature to political critique elicits contestation by some or other offended party. No wonder so many artists and writers have already left the country. Zakes Mda, who lives in America, once gave me a bear hug, diagnosing my problem as that of being “too patriotic”. Why don’t I just leave and stop worrying, he asked.

I have not stopped worrying – not yet – but the more I worry the less I have the guts to take part in public debates. Never before as during the current mayhem regarding Afrikaans have I felt so strongly that it is dangerous to say anything in straight functional language, let alone write a poem or an essay about the student uprising, the state’s role or the stance of the university management. I often had to remind myself during the past year that I had been able to have quite rigorous and probing conversations about all manner of controversial social, political and literary issues, not only with Mda and other South African artists like David Goldblatt and Ivan Vladislavić, but also with progressive non-South African readers of my work, like Marina Warner, Toni Morrison and Anthony Appiah, and with younger South African students, colleagues and authors like Willem Anker, Fanie Naudé and James Whyle, without ever being written off as a doubtful white Afrikaans charlatan that should best shut up and just go away.

When I quoted the philosopher Samantha Vice to literary people and readers in Sweden and the Netherlands on how whites should preferably conduct themselves in South Africa they were completely taken aback. But you are a democracy now, they said, you have civil rights. We are not a democracy, I responded, absolutely not. The majority of the people are too poor and too poorly educated; one cannot easily uphold a democracy with a mainly poor populace – those in power can always feed them any kind of shit, which they willingly believe because of the money and goods offered as bribes in exchange for their votes. But is it really all shit that people are told by the government? I am often asked.

These types of conversations often continue along predictable patterns: as it is currently a black government that abuses the people and creates a mess, the only way in which they can retain a grip on the populace is by stimulating the idea of historical revenge and unleashing its energy on the most obvious scapegoat – and so all dead and living whites, regardless of their actions or beliefs, are currently branded as criminals and thieves, and they are the ones who, since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck, had caused all the harm.

Many progressive whites concur, I explain, for white intellectuals understand that they currently operate under the conditions of saturation following from the terrestrial globalisation that started with European colonialist expansion. Apart from the technical, psychosocial and systemic saturations of the globe there is a moral saturation within which the only convincing ethical behaviour for whites is to allow themselves to be tamed by those who were once conquered. (Peter Sloterdijk, The World Interior of Capitalism, pp 13–4). This notion has worldwide traction: in the Netherlands recently a black emeritus professor from the University of Utrecht, Gloria Wekker, published a book bearing the title White Innocence? And so the offspring of the historically disadvantaged and aggrieved are currently circulating the moral bill around the planet along the routes where formerly the colonial ships had sailed during the initiation of the economic world system. As recently formulated by the Dutch author Arnon Grunberg, the question remains: If all whites are guilty, what then is their punishment?

In my opinion, South Africans generally, including myself, have no idea of how fucked up we really are as a result of the centuries of power abuse and the skewed thinking and the often crude, polarised public exchange of opinions that resulted from it. Partly as a result of this anything vaguely resembling a fresh pragmatic start in South Africa seems precluded, even if it is only a strategic start on the basis of a merely administrative consensus about the need for jobs, good schools and hospitals. Because of historical rifts and economic inequality it seems impossible here even to hope for any moral or political common ground.

I felt that this entire already existing situation was ratcheted up a hundred notches during the student protests and that reactions across the board were often bordering on hysteria. One saw many white university staff members in managerial positions succumbing to the rationale of the mob, bending over backwards or getting down on their knees in attitudes of guilty supplication, or moving, as at UCT, with unseemly haste and declarations of hypocritical gobbledygook to motivate for the removal or covering up of so-called “offensive” works of art.

Many academics were unable to come to terms with, on the one hand, the extreme contradiction between the protesters’ message of their own fully homogenous historically created victimhood and, on the other hand, the aggressive tones and belligerent gestures in which this message was often couched. Very vital, very vocal, very loud, very self-dramatising, extremely energetic victims some of these were. But how often are stories of victimhood not heard during political power drives? How vigorously did Afrikaner nationalism itself not sprout from the trampled victim story re their suffering during the “Anglo-Boer War”? What good use did Hitler not make of the humiliation of the Germans after the Treaty of Versailles? The aggrieved on their way to victory often try to soften up their perceived enemy with a self-righteous victim story before pushing them over. According to some analysts this victim story is a propaganda of pretended powerlessness. The power, they say, has already been won to a degree. Achille Mbembe rightly reminded everybody that this is indeed, in spite of the poverty, inequality and political immaturity of many, basically a democratic country and that black people are in the majority. They could use that majority to shape exactly the type of country, the type of public culture and public morality that they want and four million whites are not their enemy.

But where, I ask, is something like a Progressive Student Party of South Africa? Why has something like that not been founded? If everybody between 18 and 35 were to vote for such a party, they might be able to lead this country to some form of repair by imposing extreme wealth taxes and giving absolute priority to intensive remedial education and appropriate teacher training at all levels. If education levels could be maximised the people of this country would be able to start shaping their lives according to an informed critical interpretation of their situation in the current world system.

And let me dream: why couldn’t it be an education that would include reading Manfred Max-Neef on economics, Chomsky’s work on information and politics, Alexander Chayanov’s ideas on agriculture, André Voisin’s ideas on intensive rotational grazing, Fritz Schumacher’s little book Keep it small, the writings of Sub-Commandante Marcos of the Zapatistas and that delightful little manifesto titled The coming insurrection? It could be an education, I fantasise, that promotes a new South African personhood on every level of self-reliance and resilience, including the five-year-old hero next to his own tomato plant that he has planted, watered and cared for and from which he eats with the relish and gratitude that belong to those who have produced something from a few seeds. But this won’t work in an atmosphere where the model of success is a youngster that wears expensive clothes and carries a briefcase to a glass office.

The stupendous intellectual backwardness of some of the attitudes, slogans and statements I heard and read across the board, from pro as well as contra camps, during the rise of the #AfrikaansMustFall movement, as well as the opaque and politically inept messages of university management and the university council, hurled me into reams of writing that I shall never publish. As is the case with this letter, these writings contain many of the general points that have already been made and that are constantly being made in debates around the matter, yet now that the council here has succumbed to student demands (and whose demands are they in the final analysis?) I feel that I need to air my specific version of these well-trodden arguments or otherwise go stark raving mad. Not that that in itself would be any loss, or that I believe in the exceptionality of my voice – I just need to get it out in the open. I think that the anecdote of your visit to Van Wyk Louw on the recommendation of your father was the final encouragement I needed finally to nail my flag to the banana tree. Unlike Louw, however, I do not have one single Afrikaner nationalist hair on my head (I refer to Kropotkin’s version of anarcho-syndicalism if asked about my armchair political sentiments), yet my heart is completely broken about this business of pushing Afrikaans out of the universities. What kind of a poet’s heart wouldn’t be?

Within the local lobby that is busy manoeuvring Afrikaans out of the institutions of academia there are a number of very highly educated people from Afrikaans backgrounds who have always positioned themselves more or less in the left-liberal or centre-left camp (if that still means anything today, maybe they currently see themselves as ANC orthodoxists, as apologists for #Fallism or as representatives of World-English-ism, or perhaps as servants of the new global economic and administrative riot-policed Empire that Michael Hardt writes about). It seems to me that they were entirely prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In this case they have lost their baby-recognising faculty. Or worse still, they think they actually know everything there is to know about the baby, and on that basis deem her negligible; they think that losing her would be of no consequence.

They have, in a word, adiaphorised the entire phenomenon of academic Afrikaans, plus all her variants and all her millions of speakers as well as every single one of her small treasure of interesting literary and philosophical achievements – to use a term referred to by Zygmunt Bauman in his book (with Leonard Donski) Moral blindness. Adiaphoron (plural: adiaphora, from the Greek ἀδιάφορα, “indifferent things”) is a concept of Stoic philosophy that indicates things outside of moral law – that is, actions that morality neither mandates nor forbids.

The question is, of course, whether the minimisers of academic Afrikaans have actually put in its place something that could be said to be the opposite of Afrikaans medium instruction, that is if the latter is taken as an “indifferent”, or more precisely as a “dispreferred indifferent”, in other words, whether they have substituted, with their choice for the default of English-medium instruction, a language regime opposite to what the Stoics would have listed as “dispreferred indifferents” – death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, low repute, and ignoble birth. To put it differently: Does the installation of English-medium instruction as the default option represent a positive virtue in the academic context? Does it show up, in our context, not as indifferent, or as vice, but as an outcome concomitant with positive virtues like wisdom, justice, courage and moderation? Wisdom, according to the Stoics, is subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion and resourcefulness. Justice is subdivided into piety, honesty, equity and fair dealing. Courage is subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness. Moderation is subdivided into good discipline, seemliness, modesty and self-control. It might be a good exercise for a philosophy student to dissect the wisdom, justice, courage and moderation of the latest language policy at Stellenbosch University in Stoic terms.

According to Bauman, people in the era of advanced financial capitalism have become indifferent to morally relevant detail, also within their own psychological household. The learned staff members who have helped to write and push through the new language policy at Stellenbosch might also be indifferent to their own lack of knowledge (they do not care to find out more from their constituency and from other countries with comparable language situations). They might be blind to their own hidden corners of intellectual inadequacy (they might think they are already and finally and fully explicated as intellectuals). They might also deem themselves “progressive” in every sense by pushing Afrikaans out as a medium of instruction. They might, on the contrary, have demonstrated a shocking lack of intellectual depth and acuity, a bluntness, a dumbness and a hurriedness that prevented them from recognising the full implications of their actions. They might also be much more conservative and conformist than they think.

In all their so-called pragmatic rationality, and ability to rationalise in terms of political correctness, these champions of English monolingualism in South Africa lack something that we call in old Afrikaans “fynsinnigheid”, “vindingrykheid”, “geesrykheid” (culturedness, resourcefulness, spiritedness). They lack a certain opulent, silky, saline, genuinely civil, well-watered soulfulness. One could also call it “grace”. I imagine this quality as a spiritual membrane that ought to line one’s heart on the inside and that ought to become pleasantly distended when one finds oneself in the presence of someone who is able, consciously and expertly, to express him- or herself in his or her home language, someone who has the facility of using words with a gentle but also adventurously probing explorative care, a speaker who is expecting to be totally surprised by what can emerge from the tongue if purposefully and playfully left to its own devices. And yes, all of that closely resembles erotic activity.

The withering of this membrane of warm, inquisitive courteousness towards anything like a mother tongue, any mother tongue, the language, even, of the chin spot batis, oh yes, that superbly melancholic descending minor scale vibrating in the pittosporum, has belonged for centuries to the cultural landscape in this country. My most recent experience of it occurred when my nephew, while eating waterblommetjie-bredie at my table, declared Afrikaans to be “a language of bottom-feeders”. But I don’t try anymore to correct him, he is lost already, like so many youngsters who have made Globish their language and who, when one reads them a poem by Manley Hopkins, apart from not recognising the language as English, show no sign of either curiosity or pleasure, excitable as they are only by the phraseology of advertising and the jargon of information technology and internet games, having succumbed fully to the homogenisation of consciousness effected by contemporary consumer society.

To a large degree, and for decades now, Afrikaans-medium instruction has been sliding down a slippery slope and university institutions have done little to nurture and protect this asset. Both words have been relegated to the politically incorrect. Many Afrikaans people are already alienated from their language also through getting the general drift in the media that it is on its way out and merely tolerated at universities and schools.

Am I wrong to have abandoned attempts to influence my nephew? Did I act irresponsibly when I ducked out of sight during the #AfrikaansMustFall protests? I am now sorry and ashamed that I did not make a huge noise right from the start. Not that it would have changed one single thing, but it might have helped me to retain my self-respect as a writer – or it might have helped me play at retaining it, sure as I am that in another hundred years no one will be able to read one word of what my writing peers and I have written in Afrikaans. Not that such a fate would be exceptional – it has befallen many Khoi and San languages in our country and they could be swept away more easily because of their orality. (Venda and Xhosa and other indigenous languages might also be lost if young black linguists who scoff at the missionaries’ grammars do not make haste to restandardise the African languages by integrating contemporary vernaculars into updated written forms.)

Can the cultural damage wrought by European colonialism, which is still being wrought by English today, be repaired before the next coloniser arrives from China, Russia or India? I wonder how many protesting students who are engaged in backward-looking politics even care about this intensifying interest of the other BRICS countries in Africa. I ask myself whether anybody in the #OpenStellenbosch ranks has even noticed that the planet itself is succumbing to the effects of parasitic colonisation by human animals who will fight to the last gasp over water, air and soil.

In the midst of my reaction to the very visible expressions of stupidity and destructiveness that sometimes (not always) accompanied the protests, I was also genuinely feeling sympathy for tens of thousands of dismally poor students who were giving it their all trying to crack the ceiling in order to get into the system. I often felt torn between sympathy and fury. I do now, in hindsight, have a better understanding of the context of the upheaval. I include in this context especially the South African class dynamic at this juncture, with many trying to claw their way into the middle classes, sensing, no doubt, that the trough from which the government has been slurping is nearly empty. Apart from this there is the steadily deteriorating economic outlook, the massively rising unemployment figures, the pressure of the coming election, which for the most part revolves around access to resources and has very little to do with ideas, the disintegration of a morally and politically rudderless ANC, the likely presence of political provocateurs, and the utterly deplorable and scandalous state of basic education delivering ill-prepared students to universities; and then there is also the inappropriate range and structure of South African educational and training institutions, the criminally high cost of university education and the vast underfunding by the state of the universities over the past decades while enrolment numbers were increasing. I was able to form this context by reading all the comments and analyses by people like Jeff Rudin, Adam Habib, Belinda Bozzoli, Pierre de Vos, Achille Mbembe, Cheryl de la Rey and many others, and I have kept up with comments from the students on their web pages. I understand the entire phenomenon as mainly a symptom of the brutal expulsion of waste people, waste air, waste soil and waste water from the vampire machine of advanced capitalism which, in a semi-peripheral country like South Africa, has certain very specific local qualities (cf Saskia Sassen).

Understanding this much does not, however, exempt one from registering the exact measure of and pressure on one’s comfortable life as a white academic in a sea of suffering. Should this situation inhibit one’s critical thinking, though? Should one rather, in order to avoid being relegated to the popular stereotypical projection of monolithic, haughty, selfish, superior whiteness, act as passively, as ashamedly, as obediently, as stupidly and as eagerly guilty as one possibly can, all in an attempt to find favour and soften the judgement? That would be foolhardy, I think, as many who chose that option have discovered in the meantime, for some academics have floundered tragically and others have abruptly vacated their posts, unable to withstand the onslaught or underestimating the effect that their involvement would have on their work.

One thing that is clear to me is that the campus surroundings, its lanes and buildings, trees and quads and statues, its ceremonies and routines, provided the most perfect theatrical backdrop and framing device for the protests. It is becoming very clear that the drama was well choreographed from the start, and that the strategists behind the scenes seem to have taken more than one leaf from Gene Sharp’s outline for mass action and other similar material available on the internet. Throughout the protests the architecturally conspicuous institutional contours of the campus figured prominently as a multiple, well-lit, well-documented stage for direct action as advised in these manuals.

This is at least part of the context within which one must assess the real outcomes of the Fallist movement. One can by now list its contradictory list of achievements: a promise of substantial monetary support from a failing and jittery neo-colonialist state, most of which money still has to be paid and which certainly cannot be sustained over any length of time, more than R500 million rand’s worth of damage to university infrastructure, irreparable damage to institutions and the integrity of systems of promotion and appointment and graduation, no discernible sign of stable national leadership among the students, no acknowledgement or accountability for what has been destroyed, no emerging code of conduct, set of shared principles, strategies or tactics, nothing except a loud demand for free education and mostly free everything, crass “interruption” of classes, meetings and audiences, well-planned forays of arson and shit-throwing, and in some cases extremely polarising, racist behaviour plus a vague and under-theorised desire for “decolonisation”, all of it pinned on to an often non-student avant garde wearing T-shirts reading “fuck whites” and “kill all whites”. This explosive mode of operation and love of spectacle with its clear millennial undertones seems to be uniquely South African. Similarities with student action recently in Amsterdam and mass uprisings elsewhere have been pointed out.

During the mayhem I heard a lot of English quips and signs imported from America and saw many mobile phones, iPads, expensive cosmopolitan hairstyles and Levi jeans. I saw people with no apparent alternative normative horizon to the one that rules a lifestyle of Western-type consumerism. I certainly saw or heard no sign of a political link-up with the international non-statist libertarian socialist left. I never heard students considering, for instance, the agricultural ideas of Amilcar Cabral or embarking on cooperative community initiatives. Most were obviously not plotting for more than themselves, although many venting in front of the cameras understood that it was a proper revolutionary sentiment to express concern for future generations. How deep did that sentiment run? Still today I keep asking why these young people have not erected one single radiant African public sculpture or tried trending the idea of blooming guerrilla gardens, or given rise to any new cultural form like tropicalismo in Brazil in the place of what they had so spectacularly made to fall. Is it because they lacked the depth of education, missed a sense of self to initiate such things? Or would these types of initiatives have been regarded as too “constructive” in the heat of the moment and therefore too “white”? By what internal group mechanisms do some of these students seem to maintain their crippling anti-intellectualism?

What they did have a go at was the burning of art works and libraries and publicly expressing their admiration for Hitler’s ability to unite the German people. #OpenStellenbosch was quick to state their support for the Hitler-praising Mcebo Dlamini, a decisive moment for me.

Why would anyone support such a position, such arguments? One cannot help but wonder what books some of these students might want to burn once they start reading. Zižek is right when, with reference to Hardt and Negri, he comments on current worldwide styles of rebellion, saying that the multitudes are very effective at wiping clean the slate of the status quo, but that they mostly do not have a plan for how to proceed on the morning after. I am absolutely convinced that capitalism is wrecking the planet and demolishing people, but I never got the impression that the students would be interested in listening to any socialist or anarchist ideas that a white person could offer on these matters. I even witnessed them scoffing at Professor Sarah Nuttall, the wife of Achille Mbembe, in his very presence and after he had delivered one of the most brilliant, rousing and inspiring lectures on the Africanisation of the university that I have ever heard. Had that particular audience of students really understood what he was on about? I believe that a crowd around Mngxitama has labelled even Mbembe a sell-out and a servant to colonial masters. On the internet almost a year later I saw a gang of rowdy students disrupting a panel in which two beacons of progressive thought, Premesh Lalu and Judith Butler, took part at UWC. As reasons for their behaviour the students offered, like many of them did throughout 2015 and 2016, that they did not want to listen to “whites”, to “settler professors”, to “elitist academics”. I ask once again, why would one take these positions seriously? Why would one not read the call for Afrikaans to “fall” in the full context of all these daft statements and behaviours before giving in to demands?

Like many others, I think that the student movement was completely off target in not aiming its protest clearly at the current government right from the start and in reverting instead to attacking the easy and obvious historical targets of white privilege. At the same time I see the opposition to Afrikaans during the past 18 months as a belated and expediently recouped reaction to and political exploitation of the bloody-minded way in which the white Nats exalted their “Algemeen-Beskaafde Afrikaans”, not only forcing it down the throats of black school pupils in the seventies, but also excising and alienating, in the name of all kinds of ridiculous purisms, half their own tongue, ie the wider Western, Southern and Northern Cape Afrikaans variants, during apartheid. In this respect I fully agree with the verdict that the then ruling white gang had acted out of immeasurable ignorance, selfishness and moral blindness caused mainly by their racial and cultural Herrenvolk superiority complex. They succeeded in fragmenting and weakening in its entirety the language which should have been elevated as an inclusive South African cultural commons, Afrikaans-plus-her-variants, while appropriating and elevating the standard version as whites-only property – all ultimately, one should add, in Moeletsi Mbeki’s analysis, in the service of British mining interests. How surreal is that? And how obvious that the Afrikaners dropped all of their nationalist claptrap the moment they became more affluent?

The proto-fascist bureaucrats of apartheid completely lacked, among other things, the silky membrane on the inside of the heart that I referred to above. They never felt it swelling when they heard their tongue spoken in the singularly vital and spirited modes of the Cape Flats, further south in the Overberg and up north in the Richtersveld. And maybe that is why entire “coloured” communities are not now shouting in front of the rector’s office in Stellenbosch, and not helping to infect some verskimmelde and verpoepte (untranslatable – maybe “lily-livered” and “own-fart-revering”) intellectuals (like myself) with the courage to act more forcefully, to insist more audibly on a more imaginative and linguistically informed solution to the multilingual reality of our region. But would it change anything?

You suggest, Robert, that a public movement should resist the course in which things have started to run. What form do you think such a movement could take? After reading your letter I, for one, wondered where one would be able to find examples of progressive ways in which to nurture and cultivate a minor language and its variants as a precious cultural commons. I asked myself how one could find irresistible and radiant ways to do this, for there seems to be a certain gap in the range of pro-Afrikaans pressure groups, a gap that is currently neither noted nor named, a certain type of sensibility or sound, for instance the voice of a community of those who have no community, of a group of radically conscientised and experimental artists/writers/intellectuals who provisionally confer around a focus, a hearth that has been neglected and that has gone quite cold, the hearth of opposition to the global Empire that has changed citizens into zombie consumers. The question is how to keep such a conference of pro-Afrikaans artists very humorous and supple in their relationship to certain seriously unreconstructed identities. I find it extremely unfortunate, for example, that currently some pro-Afrikaans groups are once again clamouring for a Christian Afrikaans university at Stellenbosch. This is just not okay. They must go and build their own university somewhere else. Many of the people in the Western Cape who speak Afrikaans are Muslim or agnostic. Public universities are secular institutions and should remain so. That does not mean that religion as a phenomenon of social cohesion cannot be studied and discussed in anthropological or sociological or philosophical academic contexts.

I also find the Afrikaner nationalist overtones of some of the advocacy groups extremely offensive. Racist Afrikaner nationalism was the biggest misunderstanding one could be suffering from in this specific country. For their own sake these people should take the aspect of “nation” out of the equation; many Afrikaans-speaking people are neither capitalists nor nationalists. All sloganeering and foot-stomping of exclusivist groups in this country seem to reveal the same remarkable poverty of ideas. Chauvinism and atavism would, however, not be part of what one could wistfully call “the people to come”. This “coming people” could fill at a little stretch the “leftist mensch gap” in the ranks of those who are fighting for the retention of academic Afrikaans, nested as it should be in the fight for the full unfolding of a many-faceted minority language and the stress on the development of the other indigenous languages. They could distinguish themselves through, among other things, a range of surprising styles of enterprising and imaginative political action. Nothing in their interventions should even vaguely remind one of the intellectually dull, populist protests of the Fallists.

There are two examples of intervention that I find attractive, both pertaining to specific concrete cultural practices. I am referring to certain practices of the Basque populations in Spain and France, and of the Maori in New Zealand. Both sets of practices are taking place in ethnically mobilised contexts, which I suppose is understandable in those particular local historical and political circumstances. Amidst our own politically and socially fragmented and heterogeneous populations, however, one would have to exclude nationalist ethnic motivations in favour of diligently composing, together with all relevant and interested parties, unique ways of nurturing a free, diverse, culturally heady and politically critical-radical non-nationalist minority Afrikaans sphere. In its self-understanding it must be as close as one can get to an “inoperative community” (Jean-Luc Nancy), a community that unmakes itself in order to prevent myths of origin, narcissistic Führers and ambitious thought police from gaining a foothold. Whether the spirit of such a thing can become “all the rage” and “magnetic” in our dear fatherland is doubtful, to say the least. There is a good chance that South Africans might merely scoff at such undertakings or walk right over them, incapable of recognising something of that cut. More likely, nothing even vaguely like this will ever spontaneously emerge or be “called forth” here, probably because of a simple lack of sufficiently cohesive cultural energy and radical cultural will on any meaningful scale. But at least it would have been noted as a dreamed-of possibility, even if the dream emanates, as in this case, belatedly from underneath a writing desk, which in itself is symptomatic of a typical South African conditioned helplessness.

Let us look outwards for a moment.

Take, for instance, the phenomenon of berstolari from the Basque province – also look at the second part – and this article. This practice involves a highly demanding kind of poetry improvisation to which tens of thousands of Basques come to listen, sitting together for hours in utterly rapt silence. It is no spectacle, but rather a form of critical meditative ritual. Could this type of thing be added to the energising hip hop battles on the Flats one day? The other example is of communities of Maori people who apply the technique of total language immersion to teach their children their mother tongue, a language which one could possibly look for in the list of UNESCO’s project around the so-called intangible heritages of the world. Also watch the following video’s:

Could one possibly start influencing the language cultures of our country in anarchistic ways through small self-organising groups which are at the same time start-ups for new cooperative economic enterprises? Could one form collective language practices on the pattern of extreme sport? Well, in that case, we’d also have to jive. As Emma Goldman famously said: If I can’t dance I do not want to be part of your revolution. Imagine, therefore, inoculating the Northern Cape rieldans with an anti-capitalist subversive spirit like that of the European Situationists.

Imagine a culture in which the figures of Kairos, Orpheus, Kyle Shepherd, Dirk Ligter and Margaret Buckley, otherwise known as Dr James Barry, would be combined. Imagine Stellenbosch University creating an opening, a platform, for the improvisation of a truly indigenous theory around the makeable, excessively vibrating, disciplined dancing bodies of Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers. In that respect the work of the ATKV to help organise these vernacular forms must not be underappreciated. Compare the following:

and this article on LitNet.

The question I want to put to the people who conceived of the current language policy at SU is this: Why would one purposefully close off the avenue for the creative correction of past crimes in our language and culture? Why would one ever again want to punish the tongue that has already once been partly cut off? Why not create, right in the heart of the place where the apartheid masters cooked up their exclusivist racist agenda, a specific space for the exact opposite agenda, for the chance to retake the cultural project of Afrikaans, but this time on an entirely new politically progressive, ethical and inclusive basis? Why not believe that this is at least a moral and aesthetic and academic possibility and that one bloody well owes it to this country in which the Dutch tongue was sown, mixed with local and other foreign influences and first mouthed by slaves and later also spangled with English? If this space is closed off, what sense would it make to learn to read and write Afrikaans at school? Learning and cultivating Afrikaans does not have to be to the detriment of English, as we know. Afrikaans mother-tongue speakers of my Stellenbosch student generation who were taught in the medium of Afrikaans as young people have quite successfully escaped the suffocating, Christian-Nationalist bell jar of monolingual Stellenbosch and now all speak, among other languages, reasonably functional English, translate their own work, write academic articles and make decent public speeches in English. Why would one want to deny this same type of conceptual and discursive development to Afrikaans-speaking people from previously disadvantaged communities who can now enter the university for the first time?

So Robert, you have inspired me to be forthright. For what it’s worth, my message to the university management and the university council is this: Go to the Basques in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium, the Frisians in the Netherlands; have a look at the remaining Celtic areas, Wales, Ireland, Brittany; go to the Isle of Man and learn something about how minor and minority languages are dealt with as valuable and irreplaceable cultural assets in a multilingual context. If that is too far out for your liking, read Neville Alexander, as local as you can get. Make it your task to explain Alexander’s ideas to the bummers in government and organise proper, rigorous public debates about the issue with the public and the students. Expose them to a comparative insight into multilingualism as it exists in the wider world; install a permanent YouTube educational venue on campus where lectures on language policies from the entire world can be listened to. Conduct funky public quizzes with immense cash prizes on the topic of “The Tongues of the World” in Stellenbosch and other Western Cape towns. Offer free sandwiches and spiked milk if you must. I think the plot has been completely lost, and with it the spirit of imaginative transformation. You have not understood yet that there is a very modern, pedagogically sound and intellectually progressive basis for promoting mother-tongue education and linguistic diversity and for developing and protecting minority languages. Yes, they have to be protected and nurtured as far as their higher-function ranges and their literary potential and their neglected variants are concerned. And yes, a progressive university can be the place to do it. Any progressive linguist will help you to understand the basis for this (cf. for example the work of Anthony Pym).

Muting the use of Afrikaans in academia is not the same as containing an invasive plant species. Cutting it down, pushing it away and fragmenting it will be like cutting down, pushing back and deracinating the fynbos on Kogelberg – not that I can imagine that such a disaster would even bother some people in the slightest – ecologically insensitive humans are usually ignorant of a whole range of holistic perspectives regarding different scales and dimensions of life’s diversity. So all I am saying is: this decision of yours demonstrates that as an academic institution you are running way behind contemporary insights on offer in the world about these matters.

Moreover, now that you have done the politically correct thing, you still have to solve the near insurmountable problem of the completely inadequate academic English of many black students, students for whom English is their third or fourth language. It seems you have missed entirely the opportunity to instil, purposefully, on the basis of proper academic research, a new and original multilingual ethos and sensibility for our campus, something akin to the soft communicative universalism that Anil Bhatti writes about so eloquently and that surely permeated much of the early hybrid or creole culture of the Cape.

In conclusion, it cannot remain unsaid, with respect to the university management: I will not listen to philosophers who are prepared, quite shockingly and quite incredibly, to forget and rubbish their entire philosophical training in one sentence when they declare that a language is but a neutral medium for the transfer of knowledge. They still miss the point entirely when they retract and say they know it is “more” than a neutral medium. These type of formulations are complete and utter nonsense, Wilhelm von Humboldt will tell you as much, and if that is too far in the past, Hannah Arendt is well worth reading on these and related matters.

Mikhail Bakhtin, too, is still well worth studying on this topic, especially in our context in South Africa. A language, he says, is the living result of all kinds of pressures and social stratifications and it exists in a living tension between its speakers, it is redolent with the contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life and overpopulated with everybody’s intentions: “For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world” (Routledge Language and Culture Reader, p 278).

In these terms one could suggest that if Afrikaans speakers could be consciously given a social laboratory space to perform their language in certain of its conspicuous articulations around, eg, race, class and gender, but under close mutual and linguistic observation, say at the University of Stellenbosch, its various speakers could begin to take stock of one another’s intentions and conceptions of the world as imbricated in speech. Together they might discover and revive the full historical heteroglossia of Afrikaans and forge new understandings of what it would mean to survive in this province, in this world, on this planet. Imagine thus creating a new tradition of sharing language revelations in a free and provisional communion. Imagine the laughter accompanying such semi-confessional exchanges if they are carefully set up and conducted in this novel kind of language laboratory, an improvisatory testing ground where people can observe and challenge the naming, calling and cursing behaviour of themselves and others. Let me dream: such a meta-reflexive activity in and around Afrikaans in, say, its intimately shared articulations of “othering” or of talking about sex, food and god(s), would not only serve to heal a language community but could also give a new, entirely original local content to the regulative idea of domination-free communication. Is this not the type of experiment, the type of practical philosophical exploration, the type of opening that one would expect from a real university, a university committed to a locally informed and hope-giving paideia? Imagine, we could go and visit the Basques or the Maori with these new-fangled practices of mapping experiences through finely calibrated, revelatory language games and share with them our inventions for strengthening minor and minority languages in the world.

That being my parting shot, I suppose I can now only add a full stop. Robert, you probably never thought you would unchain such a flush, but thank you for the prompt to wash down, at long last, the steaming deposit.

Met vriendelike groete

Marlene van Niekerk

Post scriptum: I quote from the Constitution, Bill of rights, paragraph 29. Point (c) below can be interpreted as the need specifically for speakers of the standard variety of Afrikaans to collaborate in the redress of racially and linguistically discriminatory laws and practices of the past. It would seem the logical thing to do systematically and specifically at Stellenbosch, seeing that the Afrikaans leaders who cooked up apartheid, who created a separate Afrikaans church for the *coloured* people and demeaned their variant of Afrikaans, had all cut their political teeth here.

Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account– equity; practicability; and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.

Hierdie artikel is deel van LitNet Akademies (Opvoedkunde) se universiteitseminaar. Klik op die “University Seminar 2016”-banier hierbo om alle essays wat deel vorm van die gesprek, te lees.

This article forms part of the ongoing university seminar, with new essays continually being added. Please click on the “University Seminar 2016” banner above to follow the ongoing conversation and to read more essays on education, access, transformation, language and the Constitution.

See online: Marlene van Niekerk on the Stellenbosch University language debate