Unisa’s main campus in Muckleneuk. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)
Unisa’s main campus in Muckleneuk. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

Constitutional Court judgment reserved in Unisa Afrikaans battle

By Zelda Venter Time of article published May 21, 2021

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Pretoria - Unisa’s language policy has once again come under the spotlight – this time before the Constitutional Court.

The highest court in the land will have to determine whether the revised language policy is unconstitutional.

Unisa wants to phase out courses taught in Afrikaans, while enhancing the status of indigenous African languages.

The Supreme Court of Appeal last year ruled that Unisa’s removal of Afrikaans as a language of instruction was unlawful and unconstitutional.

In 2016, the Unisa senate changed its English and Afrikaans dual-medium language policy to English only.

The Supreme Court ordered that Unisa had to make all modules that were still available in Afrikaans at the time of the adoption of the new policy, available in the language once more.

Unisa, however, said this would not be possible, but AfriForum argued that the majority of the material would not have aged rapidly.

The organisation said Unisa had not been able to prove the degree of revision and costs that would be required to update all material.

Unisa argued that the continued provision of Afrikaans language modules was not reasonably practical.

It said this was because the demand for courses in Afrikaans was very low.

It was further argued that there was a need for equity in language policy so that past imbalances could be redressed.

The court was told that English was accepted locally and internationally as a preferred medium of communication and teaching.

Unisa contended that there were substantial additional costs involved in accommodating a language in addition to English.

According to the university, the retention of Afrikaans would continue privileging students who speak the language, while denying this to those whose mother tongues were other African languages.

Unisa said that there would be practical difficulties of reinstating modules that had been discontinued for four years.

This, it argued, was especially so as there were no guarantees that a substantial number of students would register for those modules.

Reinstating these modules would be the same as introducing the models afresh in Afrikaans.

Unisa argued that equity would then require them to offer those modules in all nine official languages.

Unisa said if the Constitutional Court decided to uphold the Supreme Court decision, the university then requested that the order of invalidity be suspended until the beginning of the 2023 academic year to enable it to adapt its language policy accordingly.

In response to Unisa’s arguments against the Supreme Court ruling, AfriForum’s legal team made it clear that the university’s allegations about a decrease in students’ demand for Afrikaans tuition could not be proven with indisputable numbers.

It further argued that the university management also could not indicate how other languages would be, or have indeed been, promoted as a result of the abolition of Afrikaans tuition since the implementation of the policy in 2017.

According to AfriForum, the approval of the policy had been steam-rolled improperly, and the maintenance of Afrikaans education was not a racial issue.

Judgment was reserved.

Pretoria News

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