NWU: The final Afrikaans-dominated university.

By Mpho Koka

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The Potchefstroom campus of the North-West University (NWU) is the last university or campus in South Africa with Afrikaans as the predominant or primary medium of instruction. At the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU, majority of the classes are given in Afrikaans. Students who do not understand Afrikaans or are not Afrikaans-preferable are given inefficient interpretation services to use. This is a system which uses Afrikaans as a tool to exclude students who do not understand Afrikaans. Majority of these students are black African.

In December 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that it is justified for the University of Free State (UFS) to implement English as its primary medium of instruction. The same court recently affirmed Stellenbosch University’s (SU) 2016 decision to implement a policy giving preference to English. This decision is meant to ensure equal access and integration. Similarly, earlier this year, the University of Pretoria (UP) took a decision to phase out the use of Afrikaans as the official medium of communication at all its campuses and residences. The NWU Potchefstroom campus is thus the last major Afrikaans-dominated campus in the country.

Lost in translation

According to statistics released at the NWU’s Framing The NWU Language Policy’ debate and engagement with the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Dan Kgwadi on 18 April 2018, it was shown that in the first semester of 2017, 518 modules were interpreted from Afrikaans into English. For the second semester of 2017, 473 modules were interpreted from Afrikaans into English. For the first semester of 2018, 456 modules were interpreted from Afrikaans into English. Then, the number of modules interpreted from English into Afrikaans for the first semester of 2017, second semester of 2017 and first semester of 2018, is 35, 34 and 52, respectively.


This illustrates that interpretation services are used to convert information from Afrikaans into English. Majority of the classes are given in Afrikaans and English-preferable students are subjected to these interpretation services. Thus, there is a system that uses Afrikaans as a tool to exclude students, black students in particular. 

Framing the NWU Language Debate

This year in April 2019, we brought to the attention of the Deputy Vice Chancellor of the aforementioned campus incidents of white lecturers who gave their classes in Afrikaans when the demographics in the lecture hall were majority black or English-preferable students. What these white lecturers did goes against sections 9.1.3 and 12.3 of the NWU Language policy. These sections state as follows: 9.1.3: The determination of language choice for internal and external communication must take the following factors into consideration:  the situation and context of communication; and 12.3 states that: Employees and students must be encouraged to broaden their multilingual skills in order to function effectively in different contexts. Taking this into consideration, these white lecturers violated the NWU language policy. Their choice of language does not match the situation they are in. Similarly, these lecturers show that they have not broadened their multilingual skills.

This language policy of predominantly having Afrikaans as the primary language of instruction and interpretation services (for those who do not understand Afrikaans) gives an unfair special recognition to Afrikaans and white Afrikaner students at the expense of black African students.

Moreover, the interpretation services system is a barrier to students’ (black African students in particular) academic progress. Students are provided with second-hand information and more importantly, just the utilisation of these services gives Afrikaans an unjust special recognition and privilege. 

Afrikaans denies black students access in the academic classroom and the hostels. It is used as an instrument that perpetuates white supremacy, black oppression, racial disharmony and a narrow cultural domination which is white Afrikaner hegemony. 

Afrikaans-speaking students, white Afrikaner speaking students in particular, always say that they have the right to study in the language of their choice which is Afrikaans in this case.

However, even if you have the constitutionally-protected right to study in Afrikaans, if your right to study in Afrikaans denies other students access and promotes racial supremacy then your right to study in Afrikaans should be taken away because you are enjoying that right of yours at the expense of other students. 

Yes, you have the right to study in Afrikaans but currently your right to study in Afrikaans denies black students access to this campus and it perpetuates white supremacy and an exclusive culture of white Afrikaner hegemony which is present in the classroom and hostel. It is therefore appropriately justified to remove Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. 

The following inputs are solutions to the language problem:

  • Discontinuing interpretation services
  • English-medium instruction
  • Rectify lecturer competence to lecture in English
  • All official and unofficial communication from the NWU Council, Senate, University Management Committee (UMC), Faculties, Student Representative Council (Student Campus Councils [SCCs included and their sub-bodies]) and Residence House Committees must be available in English.

Why English?

The advantage of having English as the primary medium of instruction is that English promotes access to all students who want to study at this campus irrespective of their race, sex, gender and ethnicity. What’s fundamentally unique about English is that all students did it at primary and high school level. English is the lingua franca (meaning it is a language that is adopted as the common language universally by people who speak different mother tongues). English is the language that is preferred in the global academic and workplace environment. 

Another advantage of having English as the primary medium of instruction of our campus is that English will positively influence the complete abolishment of the exclusive white Afrikaner culture in hostels. Currently, hostel meetings are predominantly in Afrikaans. White Afrikaner traditions and practices which were established before 1994 are still prevalent and are kept alive by white Afrikaans speaking students. Therefore, changing the language policy to have English as the primary medium of teaching and learning will affect the residence policy and lead to hostels meetings being conducted in English, a significant increase in the number of black students in hostels, and pre-1994 hostel traditions being abolished. The white Afrikaner hegemonic system will be dismantled in this regard. Consequently, removing Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and replacing it with English will lead to the greater emancipation of black students. 

Moreover, English will be of great benefit to the university and campus in such a way that black academics from other African universities will be able to apply for vacant positions in the space of academia without having to be subjected to the unjust rule that you must be able to speak Afrikaans in order for you to qualify for a particular academic or administrative position. 

Having English as the primary medium of instruction will do away with this unjust rule and the university’s academic space will be increased and equipped with additional knowledge from different schools of thought from across the rest of the African continent. This way, the NWU will be a truly, inclusive decolonised African university.  

What’s more, the North-West University Council must remember that the university’s LLB (Bachelor of Laws) programme had the potential of losing its accreditation status in 2017 after the Council of Higher Education (CHE) discovered that there is lack of substantive integration, in the programme as a whole as well as on the Potchefstroom Campus, between students of different racial groups, and a sense of alienation felt by students of particular groups. At Potchefstroom Campus, a group of mainly black students receiving tuition through the medium of interpreting from Afrikaans to English, felt “accommodated” rather than being fully accepted and integrated in the academic space. These were the findings by CHE. So, if the university does not want to have its academic programmes being at risk of losing their accreditation statuses, then its current language policy of having Afrikaans as the primary medium of instruction and subjecting black students to interpretation services on our campus, must be put to an end immediately. 

We need to move forward

This language policy perpetuates a system that uses Afrikaans as a tool to exclude black students. This has to stop. We cannot allow for a situation whereby we have a public South African university perpetuating remnants of racism and Apartheid in a democratic dispensation. 

The NWU Council must realise that the NWU Potchefstroom Campus is part of the larger South African and African educational landscape and as a public institution bound to the values and responsibilities of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, should be accessible to all who are eligible to enter. Moreover, as indicated by its name (North-West University), the North-West University (NWU) is situated within the North-West Province where the most prevalent language is Setswana. The majority of people living in the area surrounding Potchefstroom Campus are educated at school level, not in their mother tongue but in English. The Potchefstroom Campus, as the largest campus of the NWU, should cater to the immediate needs of those in its closest vicinity. This is both logistically and financially a sensible policy. Thus, it fulfils the mandate of universities to be socially conscious and responsive bodies. 

In conclusion, the only way the NWU Potchefstroom Campus will have a language policy that redresses the language imbalances of the past and the present, promotes access, integration, and a sense of belonging for all students, black students in particular, is by adopting English as the primary medium of instruction.

Mpho Koka is the Branch Chairperson of the EFFSC at the North-West University’s Potchefstroom campus, studying a BA Honours Communication (specialising in Journalism and Media Studies), having previously completed a BA Language and Literature Studies degree. 

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