Battle for return of Afrikaans as medium of instruction rages on at Unisa

Unisa reviewed its language policy in 2016, doing away with Afrikaans as a language of instruction. Only English was retained.

Unisa reviewed its language policy in 2016, doing away with Afrikaans as a language of instruction. Only English was retained.

Published Apr 29, 2021


Johannesburg - The return of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at Unisa would mean privileging the language in ways that include retrenching lecturers not proficient in teaching and assessing it to make way for others.

Unisa will make this argument and others at the Constitutional Court next month, as it fights to appeal against a ruling that declared its new language policy to be unconstitutional and unlawful.

Unisa reviewed its language policy in 2016, doing away with Afrikaans as a language of instruction. Only English was retained.

Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) Judge President Mandisa Maya set Unisa’s language policy aside to the extent that it removed Afrikaans.

Ruling in favour of lobby group AfriForum last year, Judge Maya said she was not convinced Unisa had proved that retaining Afrikaans as a dual language of instruction along with English undermined equity, inclusivity and the access of other students.

She added Unisa had not proved maintaining Afrikaans was unaffordable.

Judge Maya also nailed Unisa on what she maintained was its senate’s failure to follow its own rules before reviewing the language policy.

Unisa’s council and senate went to the Constitutional Court to argue that Judge Maya’s findings were wrong on several fronts.

“In the first instance, it submits that the SCA judgment was wrong on the merits and that the high court was correct to dismiss AfriForum’s application on the merits,” said Unisa’s affidavit.

The Pretoria High Court found against AfriForum on the matter in 2018. Judge Raylene Keightley found in favour of Unisa’s argument that the language review was also the result of a natural decline in the demand for Afrikaans tuition.

“To turn the clock back would have obvious practical, resource and cost implications for Unisa for the benefit of an ever-diminishing small number of students,” said Judge Keightley.

Unisa wanted the Concourt to take this “natural attrition” into serious consideration. It stated that 5.3% of students had opted to study in Afrikaans in 2015.

To illustrate the decline, Unisa made an example of its Department of Life and Consumer Sciences.

Unisa said before the language review, the department requested that it be allowed to provide 49 of its modules only in English on the grounds that it barely had students wishing to study in Afrikaans. The request was rejected at the time.

“So, the department had to continue to devote resources to providing these 49 modules in Afrikaans despite the absence of any meaningful demand for Afrikaans language learning in these modules,” said Unisa’s papers.

“By way of illustration, if the SCA judgment is not overturned, Unisa will be obliged to have lecturers able to teach and assess in Afrikaans every one of the 49 Life Science modules for which there has been practically no demand since 2013.

“If no such Afrikaans-proficient lecturers are currently employed in the Department of Life Sciences, Unisa will have to go out and recruit some, either increasing its staff complement in the process or having to retrench existing Life Science lecturers to make way for new Life Science lecturers who are capable of teaching and assessing in Afrikaans.”

AfriForum will dispute Unisa’s submissions that the demand for Afrikaans at the university was insignificant. It said Unisa’s statistics did not appear to be plausible or correct.

“In 2016, there were approximately 24000 students who had chosen Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and examination in approximately 100 000 modules,” said AfriForum’s reply papers.

“To place this into perspective, the major residential universities in South Africa have approximately 25000 to 30000 students.”

AfriForum will also challenge the submission that reinstating Afrikaans would cause retrenchments.

“There is no evidence in the record of the retrenchment of staff … ”

The Star

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