In March 2015 students at the University of Cape Town (UCT)  (Western Cape) launched a student movement, namely #Rhodes Must Fall which focused on the decolonization of education and tertiary institutions in South Africa. [1] This “Fallist” movement did not only give rise to the #FeesMustFall protests, that focused on decreasing tertiary education fees, but was also the start of the Open Stellenbosch movement. [2] The Open Stellenbosch protests were led by black students who argued that Afrikaans as an undergraduate language caused cultural isolation and inhibited academic achievements. [3] These protests gave rise to various debates about Afrikaans as a language of instruction at public universities and inclusivity of black students. To understand these debates and the changes in the Stellenbosch University’s language policy it is important to understand the historical development of Afrikaans as a creole and how the language was previously painted white by the National Party to oppress black South Africans during Apartheid. This article will not only discuss the multilingual background of Afrikaans and the racist past of the language but will also give an insider perspective of how students and lecturers experience the changes to the University’s language policy.   

In 1652 Jan Van Riebeeck established a refreshment post at the Cape for sailors of the Dutch East India Trading Company (DEIC). [4] By 1657 the first free burghers, who became known as the Dutch settlers, were allowed by the DEIC to start farming at the Cape  to provide agricultural produce to passing ships. [5] This was the start of the colonization process. In 1658 the first slaves were imported on the Amersfoort ship to address labour shortages. [6] At this time of the importation of slaves, the Dutch settlers also came into contact with the Khoi. Many of the Khoi became employed by these Dutch settlers as they would carry water and cut wood. [7] As the Dutch settlers, who spoke a simplified and informal form of Dutch came into contact with slaves, who originated from various countries, such as Indonesia, India and Angola, and the Khoi who spoke their own language, the inhabitants at the Cape had to find a way to effectively communicate. It was under these circumstances that Afrikaans started to develop as a pidgin and was later standardized as a Creole. A pidgin refers to a simplified language that contains the vocabulary and grammatical rules of two or more languages and is used in a contact situation where speakers do not share a common language. [8] A Creole, on the other hand, refers to the process when a pidgin has developed to the extent that it is acknowledged as these speakers’ mother tongue. [9] In this historical context Afrikaans emerged as a mixture of the Dutch and Khoi languages with the languages that the imported slaves spoke, which included Malaysian and Portuguese  Creole [10] Afrikaans also originated from contact with French and German speakers. Afrikaans became the mother tongue of the slaves and Khoi employees as it enabled them to effectively communicate with the Dutch settlers. As a result, the Afrikaans language cannot be perceived as a “White man’s language”, as it was promoted during the Apartheid’s regime. Rather, it still preserves grammatical rules and vocabulary of the Khoi language and reflects a part of the slave culture then present at the Cape.

This multilingual and multicultural background of the development of Afrikaans was “painted white” during the mid-twentieth century. At the end of the South African War in the nineteenth century Dutch and English were still recognized as the two official languages of South Africa. [11] However, shortly afterwards a Kultuur campaign was launched to promote the Afrikaans language as Afrikaners who fought against the British in the South African War wanted to distance themselves from the English. [12] This Kultuur campaign strove to uplift the low morale amongst Afrikaners who lost the Anglo-Boer War by publishing Afrikaans work as they associated their identity with their language. [13] As a result various writers, Eugene Marais being one, wrote Afrikaans poetry and in 1916 magazines such as Die Huisgenoot were published for the first time. [14] By 1925 Afrikaans replaced Dutch as an  official South African language and enjoyed equal rights to English. [15] During this timeframe Afrikaans was spoken by various people from different cultural and racial backgrounds. [16] However, Afrikaans became a political tool after the National Party came into power in the 1948 elections when white Afrikaners were given preference in the employment and business sector. [17] By 1976 the National Party’s promotion of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in schools alongside their apartheid policies officially painted Afrikaans as an oppressive “white man’s language”. [18] As a result Afrikaans became associated with the National Party’s Apartheid ideologies as well as racism and oppression. [19] This led to the Soweto Uprisings where banners were displayed stating “To hell with Afrikaans”. [20]  These protests led by black students aimed to undermine White Afrikaner hegemony. [21]

Similarly, students involved in the #AfrikaansMustFall movement in 2015 and 2016 aimed to underscore the White Afrikaner hegemony and stated that the language needed to be decolonized. [22] In particular, the Stellenbosch Open movement protested against the University of Stellenbosch’s 2014 language policy, which stated that Afrikaans and English be given equal status and privileges. [23] This resulted in a change in the University’s language policy in 2016, which stated that the University would primarily use English as the language of instruction, but would still summarize important information in Afrikaans. [24] According to this policy there would be limited parallel teaching in the classrooms. [25] These changes peaked debates around the preservation of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in tertiary institutions as various Afrikaans speakers felt that the new policy deprived them from mother tongue education. [26] Many of these mother tongue Afrikaans speakers agreed that the language needed to be decolonized, by accepting and acknowledging the different varieties of the language, such as Kaapse Afrikaans and Khoi-Afrikaans. [27] However, they also argued that the black students weren’t protesting against white Afrikaner hegemony, as Afrikaans is a “rainbow language” that is the third most spoken language in the country with 3,4 million coloured speakers, 2,7 million white speakers and thousands of black speakers. [28] In this case activists promoting Afrikaans as a language of tertiary instruction focused on the varieties of Afrikaans and how it developed as a Creole that encompasses various languages and cultures. As a result, these speakers have removed the “white paint” from the language and focused on its multiracial origins. In an interview with Kanja van der Merwe, a Masters student at the University of Stellenbosch in the Afrikaans and Dutch department, she stated that: “A language does not have the ability to oppress but can be used as a tool of oppression.” She acknowledged that many black students felt a need to fight against Afrikaans as a language of instruction, as there is a racist past to how the language was utilized. Van der Merwe’s portrayal of Afrikaans as a pawn used to oppress South Africans during Apartheid is substantiated by the late Afrikaans professor, Christo van Rensburg. In 1989 he stated that a language could not be held responsible for the actions of its speakers. [29] According to Marlene van Niekerk, a lecturer in the Afrikaans and Dutch Department at Stellenbosch University, South Africans should use Afrikaans to correct the mistakes of the past. She asks: “Why would we ever again want to punish the tongue that has already once been partly cut off?” [30] She states that South Africans should “retake the cultural project of Afrikaans, but on a politically progressive, ethical and inclusive basis.” [31] The cultural activist, Willa Boezak, who studied at the University of Cape Town and the Free University of Amsterdam, also reacted to the new language policy of Stellenbosch University. He stated that it would not be white Afrikaans speakers suffering under the new language policy, but rather the impoverished Coloured communities who would not receive tertiary education in their mother tongue. [32] He also warned against the effect of abolishing Afrikaans as a language of tertiary instruction, by stating that Coloured communities will lose their language as parents would stop sending their children to Afrikaans schools if they could not receive tertiary education in Afrikaans. [33] He warns that this language policy will force Coloured students, who are not proficient in English to continue their studies in a language in which they cannot study or express themselves. [34] This links to Marlene van Niekerk’s argument that Afrikaans as a language of instruction should now be used in a new democratic South Africa to uplift these Coloured communities of whom some will be first generation students wanting to study in their home language at Stellenbosch University. [35] 

These Afrikaans speakers debates also shift from focusing on academic achievement and mother tongue education to cultural diversity. They argue that after the end of Apartheid the African National Congress (ANC) accepted a multilingual language policy that recognized eleven official languages. [36] This language policy was accepted as a tool to further nation-building in a democratic South Africa by promoting cultural diversity alongside mother tongue education. [37] They argue that language is not only used for effective communication, but also carries the speakers cultural values and identity. [38] This links to a previous statement of Mamphele Ramphele, a former anti-apartheid activist who stated: “If language is not only a medium of communication, but also a means of cultural heritage transmission between generations, how are our children to know who they are and what heritage they bring to South Africa’s diversity?” [39] Within the context of the historical development of Afrikaans, the remnants of the Khoi identity and culture is preserved as well as slave culture and Dutch settler society. This multicultural and multiracial language is argued to be an essential tool for nation-building as diverse racial groups in South Africa identify as Afrikaans speakers and acknowledge the role they played in the formation of the language. It is also the roots of Afrikaans as a Creole that creates the strong need to decolonize Standard Afrikaans and acknowledge the different varieties of Afrikaans. This will essentially cause a move away from the “white Afrikaner hegemony” and truly make Afrikaans a language of the people for the people.

On the other hand, English speaking black students felt that the previous policy disadvantaged their academic achievements as they did not have sufficient knowledge of Afrikaans to receive tertiary education in this language. [40] In an interview with Thoko Mahlangu, a Masters student at Stellenbosch University in the Political Sciences department, she stated that Afrikaans was an extremely privileged language as it had been uplifted and supported by the Apartheid regime. In comparison, African languages have not yet been developed to the same extent and many African students are forced to study in their second language at tertiary institutions. Mahlangu commented that the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at universities should not be detrimental to other individuals or inhibit their academic success because of language barriers. She stated that as Stellenbosch is a public university funded by the government, the main language of instruction should be English as the university has to be a tertiary institution for all South Africans. She also states that even though the ANC’s language policy recognises eleven official languages, the African languages have not had the time nor the resources to develop like Afrikaans. As the ANC also have to uplift poverty and address rising crime rates, resources are rather allocated towards solving these socio-political issues than focusing on the development of African languages. The ability to also provide tertiary education in all eleven official languages is also idealistic. She refers to her childhood when she attended a school which offered five different African home languages. Unfortunately, she indicated that these students were only taught their African home language as a first language module, but was restricted to English explanations in other classes. This occurred as the school could not employ five teachers per subject who gave class in a different African language. Even though cultural diversity is important and these students enjoy encountering different cultures through different African languages, they still face the reality that uplifting all eleven languages is an idealistic time consuming and expensive notion.

Further, Mahlangu situates Stellenbosch University in a global context, by stating that the university should aim to produce students whose research can be internationally acclaimed. She emphasizes the importance of producing research that is not only limited to a small group of Afrikaans academics. She states that tertiary institutions need to focus on the impact of the research and work they are producing. Afrikaans as a main language of instruction inhibits the impact of future scholars as only a limited amount of readers will comprehend the content. In this context Afrikaans struggles to compete with the English hegemony, as scholars are tempted to study in a language that provides international opportunities. She agrees that Afrikaans should be preserved as an indigenous South African language but indicates that students need to understand the opportunity cost to study in a language only understood within South Africa and Namibia. However, it is not only black students who sided on using English as the main form of education at Stellenbosch. Many students, regardless of their race and cultural experiences, agree with Mahlangu statement that English is a global language and offers global opportunities. Other Afrikaans speaking students have also noted that their textbooks are in English and have decided to rather continue their studies in their second language than translating the work which requires time and effort.

 During the Open Stellenbosch Movement black students also stated that they felt culturally excluded on  a campus that was promoting Afrikaner culture and struggled to adjust. [41] In  the same interview with Thoko Mahlangu she recalled an experience on campus in Harmonie Residence, where Black African students had to sing their House Song in Afrikaans without understanding the words. In the following weeks in 2016 the residence did address these language issues and tried to find a solution to make the House Song and meetings more inclusive. She stated that it was these practices that excluded African students from cultural meetings and that solutions, such as including English and Xhosa translations or only singing the House Song in English, were necessary.

It is in the context of these debates that black students protested against the use of Afrikaans in universities which resulted in AfriForum who protested for Afrikaans mother tongue education. [42] AfriForum is an organization that strives to protect the rights of minority groups, in particular Afrikaans speakers. [43] As a result of the Open Stellenbosch protests AfriForum also protested for their right to home language education. [44] In 2016 AfriForum also took Stellenbosch University to court to force the institution to keep Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. [45] Due to these protests and division the Constitutional Court had to determine whether the new language policy of Stellenbosch University, which uses Afrikaans, as a parallel medium of instruction, was constitutionally justified. On 10 October 2019 the Court ruled that it was. This ruling is viewed as a cultural loss for Afrikaans communities, as even though the ruling aims to preserve Afrikaans at Stellenbosch University, it limits mother tongue education and cultural diversity. Afrikaans struggles to compete with the English hegemony and as a result of African languages not being effectively developed as official South African languages; Afrikaans is still branded as a privileged language of the Apartheid regime. These language policy debates ultimately centre around two student groups. The one group strives for equal opportunities, the ability to compete globally in an international language and cultural inclusivity. The other strives for cultural diversity and heritage as a part of nation-building in a democratic South Africa and mother tongue instruction. Stellenbosch currently aims to adhere to both groups demands through a compromising language policy that does not acknowledge Afrikaans as a main language of instruction but does not completely expel the language from the classrooms.

End Notes

[1] Lloyd Hill, “Afrikaans and the university language debate: Exploring the Constitutional Court judgements”, Daily Maverick, (Uploaded: 19 Novemeber 2019), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-11-19-afrikaans-and-the-university-language-debate-exploring-the-constitutional-court-judgments/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] N. Worden, “Introduction” in Worden, N. (eds) Cape Town: Between East and West: Social Identities in a Dutch Colonial Town, viii.

[5] J. Fourie, “Slaves as capital investment in the Dutch Cape Colony, 1652 – 1795”, in E. Hillbom and P. Svensson, eds., Agricultural transformation in a global history perspective, 139.

[6] N. Worden, Slavery in Dutch South Africa, 6.

[7] P. Fritz. “Die Oorsprong van Afrikaans”, Internet Archive, (Uploaded: 14 May 2009), (Accessed: 12 March 2020), Available at: https://archive.org/details/rosettaproject_afr_detail-6/page/n3/mode/2up

[8] Tulloch, S. Readers Digest Complete Word Finder, 1149.

[9] Ibid, 338.

[10]P. Fritz. “Die Oorsprong van Afrikaans”, Internet Archive, (Uploaded: 14 May 2009), (Accessed: 12 March 2020), Available at: https://archive.org/details/rosettaproject_afr_detail-6/page/n3/mode/2up

[11] Author Unknown, “Afrikaans becomes the official language of the Union of South Africa”, South African History Online, (Uploaded: 16 March 2011), (Accessed: 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/afrikaans-becomes-official-language-union-south-africa

[12] Author Unknown, “Afrikaans History and Development: The Unique Language of South Africa”, Touch Africa Safari’s, (Accessed: 12 March 2020) Available at: http://www.safariafrica.co.za/tourist-information/afrikaans.htm

[13] Author Unknown, “Afrikaner”, South African History Online, (Available 24 March 2014), (Accessed 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/afrikaner

[14] Ibid.  

[15]Author Unknown, “Afrikaans becomes the official language of the Union of South Africa”, South African History Online, (Uploaded: 16 March 2011), (Accessed: 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/afrikaans-becomes-official-language-union-south-africa

[16] Author Unknown, “Afrikaner”, South African History Online, (Available 24 March 2014), (Accessed 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/afrikaner

[17] Author Unknown, “Afrikaans History and Development: The Unique Language of South Africa”, Touch Africa Safari’s, (Accessed: 12 March 2020) Available at: http://www.safariafrica.co.za/tourist-information/afrikaans.htm

[18] Author Unknown, “Afrikaner”, South African History Online, (Available 24 March 2014), (Accessed 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/afrikaner

[19] Author Unknown, “Afrikaans: the Language of Black and Coloured Dissent”, South African History Online, (Uploaded: 20 September 2017), (Accessed: 12 March 2020) Available at: https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/afrikaans-language-black-and-coloured-dissent

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Lloyd Hill, “Afrikaans and the university language debate: Exploring the Constitutional Court judgements”, Daily Maverick, (Uploaded: 19 Novemeber 2019), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-11-19-afrikaans-and-the-university-language-debate-exploring-the-constitutional-court-judgments/

[24]Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26]Ibid.

[27] Jean Oosthuizen, “Afrikaans as ’n reenboogtaal”, LitNET, (Uploaded: 23 August 2020), (Accessed: 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.litnet.co.za/afrikaans-is-n-reenboogtaal/

[28] Ibid.

[29] Author Unknown, “Moedertaalonderrig bevorder leerderprestasie en kulturele diversiteit”, LitNET, (Uploaded: 18 January 2011), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.litnet.co.za/moedertaalonderrig-bevorder-leerderprestasie-en-kulturele-diversiteit/

[30] Marlene van Niekerk, “Marlene van Niekerk on the Stellenbosch University language debate”, LitNET (Uploaded: 20 July 2016), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.litnet.co.za/marlene-van-niekerk-stellenbosch-university-language-debate/

[31] Ibid.

[32] Jean Oosthuizen, “Afrikaans as ’n reenboogtaal”, LitNET, (Uploaded: 23 August 2020), (Accessed: 12 March 2020), Available at: https://www.litnet.co.za/afrikaans-is-n-reenboogtaal/

[33] Ibid.

[34]Ibid.

[35] Marlene van Niekerk, “Marlene van Niekerk on the Stellenbosch University language debate”, LitNET (Uploaded: 20 July 2016), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.litnet.co.za/marlene-van-niekerk-stellenbosch-university-language-debate/

[36] Author Unknown, “Moedertaalonderrig bevorder leerderprestasie en kulturele diversiteit”, LitNET, (Uploaded: 18 January 2011), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.litnet.co.za/moedertaalonderrig-bevorder-leerderprestasie-en-kulturele-diversiteit/

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Lloyd Hill, “Afrikaans and the university language debate: Exploring the Constitutional Court judgements”, Daily Maverick, (Uploaded: 19 Novemeber 2019), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-11-19-afrikaans-and-the-university-language-debate-exploring-the-constitutional-court-judgments/

[41] Lloyd Hill, “Afrikaans and the university language debate: Exploring the Constitutional Court judgements”, Daily Maverick, (Uploaded: 19 November 2019), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-11-19-afrikaans-and-the-university-language-debate-exploring-the-constitutional-court-judgments/

[42] Lloyd Hill, “Afrikaans and the university language debate: Exploring the Constitutional Court judgements”, Daily Maverick, (Uploaded: 19 Novemeber 2019), (Accessed: 13 March 2020), Available at: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-11-19-afrikaans-and-the-university-language-debate-exploring-the-constitutional-court-judgments/

[43] Pieter Du Toit, “9 Things You Most Likely Didn’t Know About AfriForum”, Huffpost, (Uploaded: 2 February 2017), (Accessed: 27 March 2020), Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2017/02/02/9-things-you-most-likely-didnt-know-about-afriforum_a_21705488/?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9zZWFyY2gueWFob28uY29tLw&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAK-H_1t21nWH6AA74awgeQ6CFSjWKAspHWvp7Q9E10pi0uGNqOhVAKm9q7pjrEyqtoDP1MdAiSwqqPL1S2upsR-y-bNwJiaBbYRN41FMJp6scwmir9kVCUahyKBx7RCZS13NMfev5shlgiBoii_Ule4bdT1wUzyIMqsT62FDpw14

[44] Ibid.

[45] Rahima Essop, “AfriForum youth taking Maties to court over Language Policy”, Eyewitness News, (Uploaded: Month Unknown, 2016), (Accessed: 27 March 2020), Available at: https://ewn.co.za/2016/03/11/Afriforum-Youth-taking-Maties-to-court-over-language-policy

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