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English ruled to be official language at university

Publish date: 08 January 2018
Issue Number: 756
Diary: IBA Legalbrief Africa
Category: South Africa

The University of the Free State’s sole language of instruction is now officially English after the Constitutional Court refused AfriForum leave to appeal a judgment of the Supreme Court of Appeal that upheld the university's appeal against a High Court order which said the policy decision was unlawful. A BusinessLIVE report notes AfriForum and Solidarity had appealed to the Constitutional Court, after the SCA overturned the judgment of the Free State High Court (Bloemfontein), which reviewed and set aside the language policy adopted by the university senate in 2016. The court held that AfriForum had standing to bring the matter, but that Solidarity did not. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng read out the judgment on the highly contentious issue of the use of Afrikaans at the university. Afrikaans and English were used for some time as equal languages of instruction at the university, initially an Afrikaans-only institution. Mogoeng said the university essentially said that late President Nelson Mandela’s nightmares had come true, as the use of Afrikaans had unintentionally led to segregation, as it had created racial and cultural division at the university. There was a dissenting judgment on the matter penned by Justice Coenraad Froneman, who said, among other things, that the Constitutional Court should have heard oral arguments on the case and not have made a decision on the papers. No order on costs was made.

AfriForum and Another v University of the Free State [2017] ZACC 48

Full BusinessLIVE report (subscription needed)

The ruling was not a victory against Afrikaans as a language, according to a UFS statement. ‘The UFS will continue to develop Afrikaans as an academic language‚’ the university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Francis Petersen, said, notes a TimesLIVE report. ‘A key feature of the UFS language policy is flexibility and the commitment to strive for a truly multilingual environment.’ The university committed itself to helping students ‘to ensure their success as well as greater levels of academic literacy – especially in English.’ AfriForum however said it regarded the ruling ‘as indicative of the fact that during the negotiations leading up to the election of 1994‚ minorities had been misled into believing that their language rights would be protected’. Deputy CEO Alana Bailey said students had to be sensitised to treat one another with respect and to recognise one another’s rights‚ including language rights. This cannot be achieved by depriving anyone of their language rights and even less so by elevating English to be the only official language of tuition. With English monolingualism‚ only a tiny group of English-speaking students will be privileged‚ while the rest will have very little hope left that any indigenous language will develop further in future.’

Full TimesLIVE report