South Africa | Stellenbosch University Vice-Chancellor denies English-only policy as SAHRC inquiry starts

Stellenbosch University Rector and Vice-Chancellor Wim de Villiers on Monday reiterated his denial that Afrikaans is banned on the campus, saying the institution’s approach to language means, "... students have more choices, broader access and a better future as a result".

De Villers addressed the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which has convened an inquiry into the allegations of prohibition of the use of Afrikaans.

The commission instituted the probe related to the alleged violations of a number of rights including the right to equality on the basis of language and race.

According to the university, it was investigating claims of an English-only policy that was allegedly used in certain residences.

This, after it received complaints that students were being prohibited from speaking Afrikaans in private spaces, including residences, bedrooms, WhatsApp, and even on park benches in front of students’ residences.

De Villiers denied that there was an English only policy, countering that it was an, "... inclusive, multilingual university.

"This is not easy; in fact, it is complicated and expensive. Yet we have deliberately chosen to go this route because we believe it is the right thing to do," he said.

"SU advances multilingualism to increase equitable access, to foster an inclusive campus culture and to support student success. We believe that through exposure to multilingualism and cultivating respect for one another's cultural heritage, our students become engaged citizens in a diverse society.

"For the sake of practicability, we chose to go with the three official languages of the province where we are situated, namely Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa."

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According to its policy, language must be used in a way that does not exclude anyone from taking part in formal activities.

He told the commission:

Somewhat overwhelmed by a brand-new setting, new students may not always understand the information and arrangements meant to help them settle in. For this reason, student leaders in residences mostly use English in formal settings during this period to ensure that everyone has access to crucial information.

"An effort to turn the challenges of communal living into opportunities for growth and a celebration of diversity is commendable. However, this should not be interpreted to mean that a language other than English is not welcome or should not be used. Our Language Policy promotes multilingualism."

Following complaints, the university instituted an independent probe into what it called the incorrect application of its language policy.

This has not yet been completed, he said, as investigators had difficulty in arranging interviews with some of the students involved.

University representatives previously told News24 that students should not be prohibited from speaking any language, but that student leaders in residences mostly used English in formal settings to ensure that crucial information was understood as, "... not everyone is multilingual, but everyone can at least understand English".

"In a complex environment such as a large university, we do not always get it right. If newcomer students were indeed instructed by student leaders to use only English in a social context, that would be wrong," De Villiers told the commission.

READ | LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Stellenbosch University language debate: Speak Afrikaans, study in English

"That is not our policy; it is not supposed to happen. So, when the allegations came to the fore, we expeditiously started looking into them. And we took action."

He said student leaders and students in residents were engaged to, "work towards a common understanding of the Language Policy and the implementation in the residence space.

"As far as we are aware, the issues were resolved satisfactorily."

The SAHRC is in the coming weeks expected to host sessions with complainants and interested parties.

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