Johannesburg, one can never forget, is a mining town. There are physical reminders – great pyramids of spoil from the mines litter the landscape – but more entrenched is the psychology of the mining town. People usually come to Johannesburg because there is money to be made here and they often go as soon as they have made it. The crassness of the place is, roughly speaking, Texan – South African golfers playing the American pro circuit tend to live in Houston, another skyscraper city in the middle of nowhere. But Johannesburg is changing at a remarkable rate: more and more obviously it is becoming Africa’s capital as traders flood in from Zaire, Nigeria and all points between. The result is high-quality African masks and curios on sale in the streets, Nigerian drug barons running a whole suburb, Francophone accents everywhere and an extraordinary dynamism.
Vol. 19 No. 15 · 31 July 1997
From Michiel Heyns
R.W. Johnson reports that his ‘liberal Afrikaner friend’ is ‘fulminating’ against the Government’s plans to ‘ram English-language instruction’ down my university’s throat (LRB, 17 July). The real situation is that some members of the Government, notably Professor Bengu, the Minister of Education, feel that the University of Stellenbosch has strategically entrenched Afrikaans as the language of instruction in order to discourage black students from coming here – which it effectively does. To quote from Bengu’s speech to the University of Stellenbosch, ‘the majority of South Africans’ may ‘perceive your language policy as the misuse of cultural and linguistic distinctiveness as pretext or camouflage for the perpetuation and preservation of apartheid privilege’. Indeed, I know quite a few liberal Afrikaner academics at Stellenbosch who share this perception and the Government’s concern about it. They also feel that the legal status of Afrikaans plays into the hands of extremists, like the professor who screamed abuse at a graduate student for answering the telephone in English. There is understandable impatience with conservative English-speaking students who come here because they don’t want to brave the more robust atmosphere of more fully integrated campuses, and then demand that their lectures should be in English – but other than for these spoilt children of privilege, many academics are quite willing and able to use English as a supplementary language of instruction, and are in fact already doing so. These same academics value Afrikaans as a vital language with a flourishing literature. It is the de jure entrenchment of Afrikaans that critics of the university, within and outside the university, object to: I’m not aware of anything being rammed down anyone’s throat.
University of Stellenbosch