English the language of Unisa – for now

Pretoria - First-year students enrolling at Unisa for 2017 will have to make peace with the fact that they will study in English – for now.

The Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, on Wednesday turned down an application by AfriForum to suspend the implementation of the English-only language policy.

File picture: Independent Media. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

But while the lobby group lost round one, it is set on fighting the policy further in court and will later this year ask the court to review and set it aside.

AfriForum wanted to provisionally interdict Unisa from implementing the new language policy until the court had the last word. But Judge Roland Sutherland concluded that first-year and other Afrikaans students would not suffer irreparable harm if English remained the only medium for now.

He said if on review a court overturned the English language policy later, Unisa could simply revert to providing tuition in Afrikaans.

According to the judge, there could be no expectation on the part of Afrikaans-speaking first-year students enrolling up to October 21 for next year, as they know that Unisa had an English-only policy.

AfriForum lawyer Werner Human encouraged Afrikaans-speaking students to continue enrolling for next year, as the fight was not over. “We hope to turn to court this year to take the language policy on review.”

Human said it was not clear whether students who were already taking some modules in Afrikaans would be able to continue doing so next year.

He said that while it was difficult to determine how many Afrikaans-speaking students wanted to enrol for next year, between 20 000 and 30 000 were taking some modules in the language.

In future fewer students might opt for the Afrikaans route as a medium of tuition and the language might fade out.

However, the fight was on for now as some students wanted to undertake their studies in Afrikaans, and this choice had been taken away from them.

In July AfriForum lost its first round on a technical point to provisionally interdict Unisa from implementing its new language policy when the court struck the matter from the roll, saying it was found not to be urgent.

The group earlier argued that the decision made by the Unisa senate declaring the university an English-only institution was procedurally flawed.

But Judge Sutherland said a debate about the role of Afrikaans at Unisa as a language of learning and tuition had been ongoing since 2013.

He said it was also not in dispute that Unisa, as a public education institution, had the lawful authority to make policy about the language of tuition.

Unisa vice-chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya issued a circular in June announcing that the new policy for the 2017 academic year was that learning was now only in English.

Judge Sutherland said it was notable that provision was made in the circular for a phasing out of the use of Afrikaans, allowing existing students who had already begun study in modules using that language to complete them in the subsequent three years.

The judge said he understood the law to be that due care must be taken not to disrupt the services which statutory bodies render by interdicting their functions unless there were sound reasons to risk a disruption, if any would indeed eventuate.

He said Afrikaans first-year students who had no choice but to face up to an English environment at Unisa next year did not differ from other potential students whose mother tongue was neither English nor Afrikaans, and who constituted the overwhelming majority.

“Of course there shall be disappointments and inconvenience at being unable to choose Afrikaans in any undergraduate course. But that is already an occupational hazard of any student at Unisa who prefers Afrikaans because only 300 of the 2 300 possible modules to choose from are offered in Afrikaans,” the judge concluded.