Why Afrikaans still has the power to inflame deadly passions in SA

By the time the protesters outside Hoërskool Overvaal lobbed a petrol bomb at the police, it was clear that something as simple as a school’s language policy could still inflame deadly passions 41 years after the Soweto Uprising against Afrikaans in black schools.

I could not help thinking: what is it about Afrikaans that brings out the worst in us?

The technical merits of the case are simple enough. Apparently 55 black English-speaking pupils had been turned away from the school because it was full.

In addition, the language policy of the school is Afrikaans, as decided by the school governing body.

The solution, in the meantime, is straightforward. There are English-medium schools in the surrounding areas and so it would be easy for these children to be accommodated outside of Overvaal.

Judge Prinsloo, hearing the case, ruled that an instruction by one of the district directors that the school admit these pupils regardless of its language policy “offends against the principle of legality”.

The political merits of the case are more complex. In a scathing attack on the judgment in one of the Sunday papers, the MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, called the language policy of this Vereeniging school racist and exclusionary.

His language was inflammatory: “The total suppression of one language in favour of another is inconsistent with and detrimental to a non-racial society.” (Only 5% of South African schools are in fact single-medium Afrikaans).

One of his directors was even more extreme, speaking of Afrikaans as once being “a tool of segregation and discrimination ... whose legacy is sorrows and tears to the majority”.

So extreme in fact that the judge suggested one of her peers “consider investigating her conduct”.

So who is right in this case?

It depends which newspaper you read. The main Afrikaans Sunday paper, of course, took the side of the school arguing that this was a storm in a teacup and that only eight out of the 55 pupils wanted to be at Overvaal in the first place.

This was simply a capacity problem, not a race issue.

For the English Sunday papers, Overvaal is against transformation and if only they would do what other Afrikaans schools do – allow for dual-medium English and Afrikaans classes – then everyone would get along just fine.

The truth is that when language rights go head-to-head with the right of access to education, access wins every time. This is due to political memory. This country has a long history of using language to exclude and humiliate people.

The Soweto uprising of 1976 and the immense suffering that followed remains seared into the consciousness of black South Africans – and that is why the Afrikaans language policy of a school, regardless of its supposedly legal merits, will always be perceived as an instrument of racial exclusion.

And that explains the violent reaction of the protesters.

The real and enduring damage to Afrikaans, I say again, was done by white nationalists in the 1970s.

By the way, there is something else that is less obvious when Afrikaans is pitted against access in South African schools. The controversy always erupts in rural or working-class white schools. By virtue of their class status, these schools are the most vulnerable to black nationalist revolt against their language policies; they also have the most to lose as the poorer white cousins.

Not once have these protests centred on the prestigious big-city schools which are solidly Afrikaans and unapologetically white like Affies (the collective name for the large Afrikaans Boys and Afrikaans Girls high schools) in Pretoria or Jan van Riebeeck (no, really) high school in Cape Town.

I’ve little doubt that a higher court, responding to an appeal, will eventually rule in favour of the provincial Department of Education on grounds that no child should be denied access to education.

Overvaal will, over time, become a dual-medium school (at best) or more likely an all-black English medium school if the white parents withdraw their children and place them in the upper middle-class schools which remain untouched by anti-Afrikaans protests. I have seen such patterns of desegregation before in working- class white Afrikaans schools of Gauteng.

The tragedy is that we will get to that point through a spectacular failure of leadership on the part of the politically ambitious MEC for education in Gauteng. Instead of lowering the temperatures around the school and bringing the parties together for a solution, he inflames passions on the streets with incendiary language.

He could have kept working-class Afrikaans schools within the project of nation-building where black and white could learn together, but the path chosen by this intemperate leader has closed down space for the achievement of two equally important goals – justice and reconciliation.

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