The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) today confirmed that Stellenbosch University (SU) violated the human rights of Afrikaans-speaking students when it implemented an English-only policy in certain residences during the 2021 welcoming period. These violations were repeated again during the 2023 welcoming period.
The DA lodged the original complaint with the SAHRC on 17 March 2021 after receiving reports from numerous newcomer students that they were prohibited from speaking any language other than English in their residences, in public spaces and even on park benches.
The DA’s complaint came after DA leader John Steenhuisen and DA constituency head for Stellenbosch, Dr Leon Schreiber, met with Afrikaans students who had approached the party for help after being threatened with disciplinary action if they dared to speak their mother tongue in university residences.
“This report marks the first time in our democratic history that a constitutional institution has drawn a line in the sand against the subversion of Afrikaans language rights. Through this victory, the DA sends a clear message not only to SU management, but also to Afrikaans-haters like Panyaza Lesufi: this far, and no further,” Dr Schreiber said in a statement.
In its findings, the SAHRC finds that SU “unfairly violated the human rights” of Afrikaans students to “freedom of expression, language and culture, equality and to not be discriminated against on the basis of language, and human dignity.”
The SAHRC investigation confirmed:
- During the welcoming period of 2021, university residences “implemented a policy that sought to regulate what language students were allowed to speak under certain circumstances during this period. Students were required…to speak English for the purpose of inclusivity,” with Afrikaans “identified as the language most in need of avoidance, for both demographic as well as historical reasons;”
- In some cases, residences “clearly and exclusively [singled] out Afrikaans as a language that must not be spoken during the welcoming period, even if newcomers and their parents chose to speak in Afrikaans;” and
- Despite SU’s desperate claims to the contrary, the English-only policy “unequivocally placed a requirement on students to comply,” amid threats of disciplinary action and social ostracization towards students who dared to speak any other language.
Through these human rights violations, the Commission concluded that SU’s ban on Afrikaans sought to “control what language every students should speak in multiple contexts” which led to “absurd and disturbing outcomes.”
The SAHRC has directed Rector Wim de Villiers to:
- issue a written public apology that recognises that the human rights of Afrikaans students were violated and undertakes to ensure that no residence implements policies in future that would prevent any student from speaking a particular language;
- personally write to all residence leaders expressly directing them to not implement English-only or similar language policies;
- SU must further provide training to residence leadership on this matter;
Dr Schreiber said: “Finally, the DA is delighted that the Commission has heeded our call for an amendment to the university’s language policy in order to prohibit any similar bans on Afrikaans in the future.”
He said the report also rejects the way in which SU has often employed the concept of “inclusivity” as an excuse to undermine the rights of Afrikaans students.
In the words of the Commission: “Inclusivity at all costs led to exclusion in a manner that resulted in unfair discrimination and other human rights violations.”
“The DA welcomes this SAHRC report as a powerful new precedent that can finally start to turn the tide against pervasive linguistic discrimination at the institution and as a complete vindication of our ongoing work to protect language rights as enshrined in the Constitution. We thank all the brave students and civil society organisations who testified before the Commission, as well as Commissioners and staff of the HRC who took this matter seriously, and we will continue to work tirelessly to agitate for the implementation of the report’s findings – including the amendment to the language policy to protect Afrikaans students,” said Dr Schreiber.
“The SAHRC report makes it clear that SU management is responsible for the implementation of the discriminatory ban on Afrikaans. Despite repeated appeals by the DA, by student organisations as well as by individual students for De Villiers to acknowledge and take a stand against the assault on Afrikaans, he repeatedly chose to turn a blind eye and deny that the ban ever existed. In fact, the DA was forced to turn to the SAHRC precisely because De Villiers entirely failed to even acknowledge the ban on Afrikaans when it first arose. This wilful denialism predictably led to a repeat of the ban on Afrikaans in 2023.”
Dr Leon Schreiber, who is a member of the SU council, has announced that he will, at the next council meeting, table an urgent motion for the removal of De Villiers following his “serious misconduct exhibited through his failure to address or even acknowledge these violations”.