I don’t have enough context to know how big the problem really is, so let’s look at why black students should want to go to an Afrikaans university, given that English is a much more useful language in terms of tapping into international expertise. If you look at options available to students, 2 out of the 5 top-tier universities – University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria, Rhodes University and Stellenbosch University – are Afrikaans-language universities. Allowing that Rhodes is pretty small and Pretoria is pretty large, that means about half the places in the country’s top universities are at historically Afrikaans institutions.
Black students of course could choose to go exclusively to the English-language universities, but do the Afrikaans universities want that? Officially not, of course, and their numbers depend on being open to all races because that’s the reality of the society we live in now. Even if they completely privatised, they would still be under pressure to deracialize.
So what are the difficulties?
Most students who have not grown up with Afrikaans do high school in English. This means that lessons in Afrikaans – even if only some of the materials handed out are in Afrikaans – can be a challenge. That can be addressed by a sympathetic environment, by making it socially conducive for black students to mix with native Afrikaans speakers, by encouraging students to help each other with translation in informal study groups and so on.
The problem really starts on the social side. If students are not made to feel welcome and not offered the opportunity for an immersive Afrikaans experience, that heightens the language difficulty.
How bad a problem is it really? As I say I don’t know any more than is in the video, which may leave out a lot of context. What I do know is that the discussion over at YouTube shows there are plenty of people out there with strongly pro-apartheid sentiments. One Johannes S for example spouts all the racist arguments about inherent intellectual inferiority the darker the skin, how segregation is natural and everything else is leftist social engineering, and so on.
Those posting racist comments fail to spot the obvious irony that their commentary validates the point of those demanding transformation.
That takes me to the real deep problem. It is not just about transforming the odd university. It is about transforming our society as a whole. Is the rainbow nation a myth? I think not – there is a lot of good will on all sides. But there is this unpleasant sore that won’t go away. And I do not think it is up to the government to heal it. There is just so much legislation can do, and politicians are not on the whole all that competent.
So let us listen to those from communities that differ from ourselves, understand where they are coming from and engage in a respectful way. Only by making the Johannes S style of discourse so socially unacceptable that it crawls back under the rock from which it emerged will we make the rainbow nation a reality. And that is just the start – we also need to address the practical problems that make South Africa such an unequal society.