Hoerskool Overvaal, where language is a proxy for race

By Prince Charles

“Apartheid has left us with many scars. The worst of these must be the vast discrepancy in access to public and private resources. The cardinal fault line of our past oppression ran along race‚ class and gender. It authorised a hierarchy of privilege and disadvantage. Unequal access to opportunity prevailed in every domain. Access to private or public education was no exception” Gauteng Department of Education v Rivonia Primary

In African mythology and culture, crossing a river signifies an achievement and important step towards reaching a destination. The same cannot be said for a school which is located over the vaal river called Hoerskool Overvaal in Vereeniging. The school is currently embroiled in a protracted tussle between itself, the Gauteng education department and parents of fifty five pupils who were not admitted by the school. The school claims it doesn’t have the space and capacity to cater for the English speaking learners while the  department of education and the parents are of the view that the school is deliberately excluding the learners due to the fact that they are not Afrikaans speaking. The matter landed in the High court and the court ruled that the school indeed didn’t have the capacity to cater for the English pupils and could not at such a short notice become a double medium school. Parents joined by several political organisations protested outside the school and violence erupted with many arrested and charged with public violence. Cases of this nature have become a somewhat a permanent feature of post-apartheid South Africa, they have in a way come to represent the state of our nation.

These cases if analysed superficially (depending on which side of the political spectrum you reside) always seem simple “the school is racist and wants to protect a purely white Afrikaner reality and privilege” or “those parents are being unreasonable and violent, why don’t they take their children to another school?” However a deeper analysis reveals serious fault lines in the state of our nation, how we as a nation approach legitimate social justice issues and our predisposition to politicisation and use of violence. If the matter was purely about language it would certainly not have escalated so quickly (I am by no means underestimating the emotive nature of language), however what seems to be happening in Hoerskool Overvaal and schools like it is that language is being used as a proxy for race, so when you hear the term ‘English speaking learners’ it is a reference to black pupils while ‘Afrikaans speaking learner’ is a reference to white pupils. It is this conflation of language with race that creates an intractable conflict which has the potential to jeopardise the future of our nation.

This phenomenon is obviously rooted in the apartheid state which used Afrikaans primarily as a tool to subjugate and exclude. One issue which is a concerning spin off of this tussle are the calls for Afrikaans as a language to fall, those calls are rather unfortunate. Afrikaans as a language has every right to exist in South Africa, it is the third widely spoken language in our country according to the 2011 census and most importantly it is a language that is spoken widely by black people who claim it as their language and who want to be taught in it. This therefore means we must not merely look at such complex issues lightly and our understanding of race must not be simply viewed as a reference to pigmentation, race is a political discourse.

The situation at Hoerskool Overvaal is a mircrocosm of our nation and how it continues to approach issues of transformation, what is certain however is if we continue to use language as proxy for race violence is a guaranteed outcome, violence is contrary to the spirit of our constitution. Furthermore as Ivo Vegter eloquently articulates it “we cannot replace the dominant social order of whiteness which caused so much harm with blackness, which will cause just as much harm”. It therefore requires us to enter into painstaking negotiations and meander through our nation’s contradictions in order to find workable solutions because at the end of the day we are a nation of different communities and that is a state of our nation we cannot change.

Photo credit: News24

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