After a 2021 complaint against Stellenbosch University, it emerged that newcomer students ‘were prohibited from speaking any language other than English in their residences, public spaces and even on park benches’.
Image: Stellenbosch University
Stellenbosch University violated the rights of Afrikaans-speaking students when it said they could only speak English in certain residences during their welcoming period in 2021.
This was the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) finding after a complaint by DA leader John Steenhuisen and the party’s constituency head for Stellenbosch, Leon Schreiber.
Schreiber said in response to confirmation of the finding by the SAHRC that it was “an enormous victory”. The complaint was lodged in 2021 when it came to light that newcomer students “were prohibited from speaking any language other than English in their residences, public spaces and even on park benches”.
He said the DA was approached by Afrikaans students who said they were “threatened with disciplinary action” if they spoke their mother tongue in residences.
But some staff members spoke out about the inconsistency of language rights at the university, saying those who felt Afrikaans students had been violated were not always willing to fight for the rights of others.
Sim Xeketwana, a lecturer in the faculty of education, said at the time: “My hope is that those who are so extremely unhappy about the fact that students were asked to speak a common language during the welcoming period in residences at the start of the academic year will always be consistent in their unhappiness and cries. I hope such unhappiness will cut across language and racial barriers and be channelled and diversified in all the challenging and complex issues of our country.”
In May 2021 the SAHRC said it would engage with university leadership, including vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers, and “invite other affected [parties] to make submissions” so it could “determine the extent of the violations of various human rights, including the right to equality on the basis of language”.
In June the university said it was a “miscommunication” that such a policy had been implemented and the SAHRC had not released the findings of the report to the public.
But according to Schreiber, the report concluded that the university’s ban on Afrikaans sought to “control what language every student should speak in multiple contexts”, which led to “absurd and disturbing outcomes”.