Language policies have become a contentious issue at universities across the country. On 22 June the Council of the University of Pretoria (UP) approved a new language policy making English the primary language of tuition and assessment at the university, while Afrikaans will be gradually phased out. UP is not the only university which has recently had a shift in language policy. Stellenbosch University (SU), the University of the Free State (UFS), and the University of South Africa (Unisa) have also undergone changes in their policies.


In April 2016 the Council of Unisa decided that English would be the only language of instruction at Unisa from 2017. According to Unisa’s revised language policy released on 28 April, the language of learning and instruction for all undergraduate courses will be English, along with “scaffolding in other official languages”. According to the policy, “All formal study material, formative and summative assessment, as well as other formal tuition activities will be in English only, whereas learner support activities may be in the language of the student.” According to the policy, the responsibility of the implementation of the policy falls under “a special language unit to be established in the university, with oversight by the Senate Language Committee and ultimately the Senate of the university.”

The use of Afrikaans as an academic language was discussed during a Unisa debate in March. In an article released by Unisa, Mpho Morolane, a member of the panel of students debating president of the EFF student command, said, “We are not saying we hate Afrikaans; we are not saying Afrikaners must go back to the sea. What we are saying is we want to see the development of African people.” Morolane, who is a Unisa student, added, “We understand languages must be developed. It takes time. We must start by bringing Afrikaans down so it becomes equal to other languages.”

Afriforum, a non-governmental organisation that is described as acting in the interest of protecting minority rights, has stated that they are instituting legal action against Unisa. According to a statement released by Afriforum, a letter was sent by Afriforum’s legal representative to Unisa saying that “the Council Chairman and senior management of Unisa are asked to provide an unequivocal undertaking to Afriforum’s legal team before or on 6 July 2016 that the implementation of the new language policy will be suspended, pending finalisation of a review application to set aside the Council’s decision.”

University of the Free State (UFS)

UFS has also made an attempt to change in language policy after the Council of the university unanimously voted in favour of English as the main language of instruction from the beginning of 2017. However, it allowed students currently studying in Afrikaans o complete their studies in Afrikaans. Speaking to eNCA, Afriforum deputy CEO Alana Bailey said that they were “very concerned about the decision. [as they] feel that not only does it undermine the language rights of Afrikaans speaking students who want to be tutored in Afrikaans, but it is also a problem because Sesotho as a main language of the people of the Free State is still a developing language.”

Speaking to News24, UFS SRC president Lindokuhle Ntuli said, “This is the kind of change we have been advocating. We have witnessed division and racial debacles under the parallel medium.” He also said the change inspired unity among students of different races.

Afriforum, along with trade union Solidarity, approached the Bloemfontein High Court on 20 June for an interdict against UFS following the change in language policy, claiming that the change in policy was a violation of the Constitution. On 21 July the High Court in Bloemfontein overturned the decision of the UFS Council, granting an interdict setting aside the Council’s decision.

Stellenbosch University (SU)

SU currently uses a dual-medium language policy, where a lecture is conducted in equal halves of English and Afrikaans. A new language policy adopted by the Council of the university in June grants English and Afrikaans equal status at the university, and changes the use of language in undergraduate modules where Afrikaans and English are used, with all information conveyed in English, followed by a summary in Afrikaans. The development of isiXhosa as an academic language also forms part of the new policy.

Afriforum Youth was opposed to the change in policy and said that the change disregarded almost half of the residents of the Western Cape’s residents, who are Afrikaans-speaking. In March an urgent application was made at the Western Cape High Court which claimed that Afrikaans students had been disadvantaged in faculties where lectures were now English. The application was unopposed by SU.

The new policy was well received by the SRC of the university as well as Open Stellenbosch, a movement at the university which previously challenged the language policy of the university, calling it “discriminatory”. In a statement released by SU, Council chair George Steyn said of the decision, “It gives effect to the Constitution of South Africa in relation to language usage in the academic, administrative, professional and social contexts of the university, and also advances the institution’s own vision of being inclusive, innovative, and future-focused”.

Image: Fezekile Msimang

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