The article below is an English translation of the following:
May this entire country one day read the moving resignation letter of Advocate Jan Heunis SC, former chairperson of the Stellenbosch University (SU) convocation.
During his speech at the final meeting of the convocation for 2019, Advocate Heunis SC swore to resign should the investigation by retired judge Burton Fourie exonerate SU vice-chancellor Professor Wim de Villiers’s behaviour during the recent language policy litigation between language equity lobbying group Gelyke Kanse (“Equal Opportunities”) and SU. De Villiers was accused of improper conduct after it came out that he had contacted and met with the new SU chancellor, former Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, while the university’s case was still pending before the Constitutional Court. Cameron also wrote the judgement, which came in the university’s favour. Advocate Heunis SC, true to his word, resigned soon after.
His brief yet powerful letter provides a summary of the man who led the charge during the long-running language policy conflict at SU. This struggle for equitable institutional language arrangements was never a reactionary, supremacist or anti-transformative movement. Instead, it was a fiery moment in the history of democratic South Africa, during which it was attempted to bring about language equity at one of South Africa’s top institutions. For now, it seems like the battle is lost in favour of the slow-punctured anglicisation of SU.
There are no proactive and overt attempts at SU to bring about indigenous language usage and academic development for Afrikaans and Xhosa. The push towards English supremacy is aided and abetted by SU, who claims that students prefer English and, therefore, the institution can wash its hands in indifference over the alternative, which is dignifying and decolonial multilingualism.
Heunis SC, Gelyke Kanse and various other comrades in the battle for language equity at SU and other institutions fought for Afrikaans as an indigenous and co-official language’s place in tertiary education with utmost dignity and gallantry.
They never shared high tea with the judges who heard their cases. They never deployed language supremacy, language intolerance, racism or other forms of discrimination in their modus operandi. They participated in the democratic due process and debate on the issue with great collegiality towards their opponents and detractors. They were firm, but acted with decorum and respect.
Heunis and his comrades were often ridiculed, shut down and insulted for their valiant attempts at language equity. To this day, there has been no comprehensive attempt by Gelyke Kanse’s opponents to level reasoned criticism at the lobby group or its broader philosophy of proactive language equity. These same opponents have not said a word about Professor De Villiers’s behaviour during the language litigation, and no large-scale counterarguments to the allegations against the vice-chancellor have been published. It’s like the opposition attempts to “silence away” this crisis in the judiciary and the public language regime.
Their silence makes you wonder. Their shouts and jeers during convocation meetings make you frown. But it’s their irregular and unethical background bamboozling, accompanied by suspicious successes in the courts of law and the SU council, that make one fume with anger.
The greatest irony will remain in how Afrikaans-speaking officials were the ones who summarily disposed of that language in the public academic realm, at a university that once hosted defiance to apartheid ideology by celebrating Afrikaans as a carrier of all of its speakers’ dignity.
SU and its fellow askaris ripped the rug from under Afrikaans as a language of theses, of research, of academic debate and of instruction in the arts, law and science. And they handed it over to the mercy of a bombastic, technocratic and colonial global Englishness. They let slip their chances to host deep discussions on language equity in a democratic and pluralistic society founded upon human rights, due to the US dollars and British pounds that glinted in their greedy eyes.
They negligently or knowingly colluded with the government elitists of the day to steer the country closer and closer to a monolingual abyss, instead of promoting and aspiring to an ethical and equitable multilingual society.
Drawing upon the thinking of renowned South African philosopher Johann Rossouw, it is clear to me that SU threw their arms around the regressive English-dominated West of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. They never looked to how other nations, in Europe and closer to home in Africa, managed and promoted multilingualism.
But the Afrikaans-speaking community does not stand to be without blame. Where were you, Afrikaans-speakers, when the Adam Tas student society for Afrikaans and others stood up for language equity at SU back in 2015? Where are the open-minded leaders and grassroots organisers who can muster resistance against this great injustice? Or do you think that being a keyboard-warrior is sufficient?
Or did you just give up, war-weary in the face of the enormous neocolonial Englishness of the Trump-Johnson West?
Why sacrifice your unique identity as dignified new South African people by opting rather to give up on your country and leave to enrich the British queen, the likes of Prince Andrew and their lackeys in Canada and Australia? Maybe your children will one day be rich due to your surrendering to Englishness. Or maybe not.
What you will be is complicit in the incredible sacrifice of something as sublimely beautiful, unique and decolonially transformative as a multiracial, inclusive and dynamically colourful Afrikaans language on southern African soil. If we all abdicate our duties, no one will take responsibility.
During the Irish Easter Rising against English colonial rule in April 1916, the Irish citizens of Dublin laughed at freedom fighter Pádraig Pearse when he proclaimed the Irish Republic and denounced colonial Englishness. They also sneered when he and his comrades were led away in captivity after six days of armed resistance. But they were shocked and mummed when Pearse and the other Irish freedom leaders were summarily executed by a firing squad.
While this level of political bloodshed has hopefully left our national landscape for good, I cannot help but lament the fact that the message remains the same: those who fight for the rights of others will very often be ridiculed and ignored by the very same people.
This is so, because people tend not to relinquish their relative leisure, like a toad in warm water. It’s only when the water starts boiling that the toads regret their lethargy.
The waters of multilingual South Africa are already boiling:
PanSALB, a constitutionally entrenched institution with the job to promote, protect and develop a multilingual society is nothing but a dead rat in a gutter.
There is only one public university still making academic progress in an indigenous language, and that is the NWU Potchefstroom campus.
The SU vice-chancellor socialises with and offers the chancery of SU to the same Constitutional Court justice who hears and decides the case wherein the vice-chancellor is a litigant.
The Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng flips around when he says, on one hand, that multilingualism is important in the face of Englishness, but unilaterally decides that the courts of the land shall henceforth only make use of English. What is believable nowadays in this post-factual, absurdist environment?
Advocate Jan Heunis SC, I wish you a well-deserved chance to rest, now that your years of fighting tirelessly for a new language ethic in South Africa have come to an end.
Tiocfaidh ár lá.1 Our day will come.
1 This Irish Gaelic slogan, meaning “Our day will come”, probably originated with prolific Irish writer James Joyce. It remains a key adage of the Irish anti-colonial left and the Irish republican movement.