Constitutional Court approves Stellenbosch University’s English language policy

 ·10 Oct 2019

The Constitutional Court has ruled that Stellenbosch University’s language policy is in-line with the Constitution – dismissing attempts to have it overturned.

The university adopted new language policies in 2016, taking the decision to open up the university to a broader student base by changing the primary language of instruction to English, from Afrikaans.

The policy explicitly made provision for students who prefer to study in Afrikaans, while also improving access to education for students who are proficient in English only.

However, the policy was challenged in court in 2017, on the grounds of the change discriminating against Afrikaans students who are not proficient in English.

In that case, brought by volunteer group Gelyke Kanse and eight other applicants, it was argued that the policy is inconsistent with the Constitution; that it is contrary to the right of access to higher education; that it constitutes unfair discrimination against Afrikaans speakers and white and Coloured students; and that it is inconsistent with the Language Policy for Higher Education.

However, the Western Cape High Court ultimately dismissed the application, ruling that the policy is in line with the constitution and could remain in place.

The opponents of the policy subsequently applied for direct access to the Constitutional Court to appeal the High Court Ruling, seeking the policy to be ruled unconstitutional and set aside.

Gelyke Kanse attorney and secretary Danie Rossouw said that the group wanted equal weighting and support to be given to English and Afrikaans, and also wanted to see development of isiXhosa as an instruction of learning.

The university, however, said this would not be practicable due to costs.

Constitutional Court ruling

In the judgement handed down from the apex court on Thursday (10 October), the ConCourt agreed with the High Court’s findings, saying that the language policy change is in line with the Constitution, and served the broader goal of nation building and giving broader access to higher eduction.

The main judgement was unanimous, finding that the 2016 policy was Constitutionally justified, and reasonably practicable.

The Court was satisfied with the evidence presented by the university that showed that “near-universally, brown and white Afrikaans speaking first-year students are able to be taught in English”.

“Conversely, while a most students are able to be taught in Afrikaans, a significant minority cannot,” it said.

The Court added that the 2014 policy (which held Afrikaans as the primary language) added exclusionary hurdles to higher education, particularly for black South Africans.

Read: Stellenbosch, Pretoria universities adopt new language policies

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