Picture: Jonisayi Maromo/ANA
Imagine yourself as a black learner and living in a world where language is used as a tool to exclude you from accessing quality education.

A world where Afrikaans is a medium of instruction in schools. A world where all schools have to teach half of their subjects in Afrikaans despite the fact that black teachers aren't fluent in it. A world where, as a black pupil, Afrikaans is your third or fourth language.

While this happened in 1976 and led to a march that later turned violent, not much has changed 42 years later when it comes to Afrikaans.

The language is still a tool used to exclude some black learners from accessing education in areas which they live, forcing them to look outside their neighbourhoods for school.

In January, Hoërskool Overvaal in Vereeniging declined to enrol 55 Grade 8 learners because they would have to be taught in English and not Afrikaans. The school, which is an Afrikaans-medium school, stood its ground against accepting the pupils, some of whom stayed less than a kilometre from the school.

The 55 had been placed at the school by the Gauteng Education Department, but the Overvaal school governing body (SGB) dragged the department to the North Gauteng High Court and won.

With 100% of its teachers being Afrikaans-speaking whites, the SGB argued the school had no capacity to admit learners requiring to be taught in English.

Ruling in the SGB's favour, Judge Bill Prinsloo said: “I find that, on the probabilities, the school has no capacity to receive the 55 English learners, let alone to do so on such short notice and to convert to a double-medium school.”

There were numerous protests at the schools, which the EFF also joined, but when the dust settled, nothing had been achieved and the black pupils had no choice but to go to schools some 16km away from their homes.

Of Overvaal’s 662 pupils, only 16 are black African and seven are coloured. A whopping 639 (96%) are white.

Tlhoriso Mofokeng, one of the parents fighting for admission of black learners at Overvaal, said the 55 pupils - aged 14 and 15 - had been forced to travel to schools several kilometres away from home.

“They are scattered,” said Mofokeng. “Some are in General Smuts High School, some 12km away from their homes.

"On a basis that Smuts was full, we were forced to take others to Three Rivers - which is about 16km to 20km from their homes," he said.

“There are those staying less than a kilometre from the Overvaal school. They could just walk to it, but now they have to travel,” Mofokeng said.

He said the exclusion of non Afrikaans-speaking pupils at Overvaal had similarities to the apartheid government's education policies that eventually drove Soweto learners to protests in 1976.

“The difference might be that in 1976 this thing was happening in all schools. Today we're talking about only one school that is not accessible. For you to access that school, you're subjected and forced to study in Afrikaans - irrespective of your race.”

The community surrounding Overvaal has become multiracial and not just exclusively Afrikaans over the years. Black parents felt the school's language policy needed to reflect this.

“It's better for a school to be multilingual so that it is accessible to all cultures,” Mofokeng said. "Our argument to Overvaal was very clear: we don't want you to do away with Afrikaans, because it's your mother tongue, but can you accommodate our children who are studying in English?

“This is the only request we made. Nothing more, nothing less,” Mofokeng said.

“The community itself is multiracial, and it would not be correct to have one race dominating.

“But on top of that, when we took over in 1994, we said we want to build a multiracial society. That should say that whatever I do, I should do it in a way that accommodates my neighbour. I think that's what as a country we're trying to achieve.”

The Overvaal matter is now headed for the Constitutional Court. The department has petitioned the highest court in the land to set aside the high court ruling that favoured the school's SGB.

Overvaal is not the first Afrikaans-medium school to see protestation and court battles over its language policy.

Black learners were finally placed at Hoërskool Montana and Hoërskool Overkruin in Pretoria in January 2017 following protests and legal wrangles. A court ruled against the schools' attempts to exclude pupils who were not Afrikaans speaking.

Data from the Basic Education Department shows that single Afrikaans-medium schools are declining.

During a parliamentary reply to questions about this issue, Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga said the changing racial dynamics in communities was the reason behind the decline of Afrikaans-medium schools

In papers filed at the Constitutional Court, the head of the Gauteng Department of Education, Edward Mosuwe, demands that Overvaal accept non-Afrikaans-speaking pupils.

“The area is now dominated by non-Afrikaans-speaking people. For several years there has been a demand from the community that the school open up to English learners and adopt a parallel medium of instruction.”