Thursday, 28 May 2015

Reflections on Kees Van der Waal’s seminar on “Creolisation versus essentialism: the relevance of Glissant’s notion of relation for transformation of higher education”

As someone who attended Afrikaans-medium universities during the transition period in South Africa, it was quite refreshing to listen to Kees Van der Waal’s presentation at UJ on the 21st of May 2015. I am not familiar with Van der Waal’s academic work and I found myself inspired to read him more. My experience as an undergraduate student at the University of Pretoria, and later postgraduate Studies at Rand Afrikaans University were relived during this seminar. I was always puzzled by the manner in which some lecturers would use Afrikaans as the main language for teaching the majority of English-speaking students, despite the fact that many of us could not grasp it. Surprisingly, some of my fellow Afrikaans-speaking classmates preferred English and they also wrote their assignments in it. Who were they exactly teaching in Afrikaans? As someone who was working and funding my own education, I always interpreted these actions as ‘injustices’ on my part. At the time, I was already trained as an educator. This seemingly ‘I don’t care’ attitude in the classroom used to bother me immensely as it conflicted with what I know. I understood that it was my responsibility as a teacher to create a conducive learning environment for my students. Yet, here I was with professors (whom I assume knew more than I did then) constantly creating barriers for my own learning by using a language that was hardly understood by 80% of the class. To be honest, we spent most of our study time translating reading materials and study guides from Afrikaans to English using tweetaligge woordeboeke. I remember how some students even used audiotapes to record so that someone else could translate for them -at extra costs off course. What was disturbing was that we were attracted by official policy which suggested dual-medium teaching at these universities. However, what actually transpired in classes depended on individual lecturers. Listening to Kees’ reflections about his journey and personal transformation as an experienced lecturer in former Afrikaans-medium universities, coupled with his deliberate efforts to accommodate students was inspiring. The adage ‘where there is a will there’s a way’ comes to mind. This seminar was quite encouraging, particularly when he notes:
…I have grown increasingly resistant to the exclusion that occurs when I teach in Afrikaans, as a growing number of my students do not know it. An increase in white, coloured and black English-speaking students and staff challenges attempts to retain Afrikaans as the main language of teaching and internal communication” [1] The discomfort Kees felt is the same discomfort I feel when I instruct a predominantly Western curriculum, devoid of context, to more than 90% of African students in Africa. Yet in the Western world such as the UK there are attempts to diversify the curriculum. The new university students campaigns in the UK such as “Why is my curriculum white?”[2] are examples of the worldwide movements for curriculum transformation that will reflect the pluriversal world we live in. Curriculum should reflect everyday realities of our students. The above statement challenged me as someone who has an interest in curriculum transformation and aspiring to practice socially just pedagogy in my classroom. It encourages me to continue on this journey and challenges me to ask: what actually prevents me from transforming the curriculum? His proposition for a transformative pedagogy is quite intriguing. He urges us as educators to make a mental shift towards openness, adaptation and accommodation, critical dialogue, reflexivity in our classrooms. These ideas, though formulated in the discourse of language, could be translated into curriculum transformation.
Kees’ analysis of the Afrikaans language movements in SA from as early as the 1800s demonstrated how Afrikaans as a language has been used to sustain cultural hegemony and essentialist notions of being and ethno-nationalism of White Afrikaners while marginalizing Afrikaans speaking Coloureds. In contrast, this resistance from Afrikaners did not deter the growth of non-standard form of Afrikaans by Coloureds and the increasing use of English by blacks including non-essentialists White Afrikaners. He further touched on the long and bitter debate surrounding the seemingly ‘perishing’ Afrikaans language. What really stood out for me was the irony of this essentialism he demonstrated, Afrikaans emerged through creolization yet white Afrikaans language movements wants to protect it from ‘further’ creolisation by non-white speakers! I concur with him when he asserts that the quest for standardisation of Afrikaans was based on  a racist logic where there was a conscious decision to construct  it as a form of white ethno-nationalist identity separate from the language of working class Coloureds. In my view, the language debate is riddled with contradictions as there is an attempt for standardization and preservation of essentialist version of Afrikaans from creolization by Coloureds, however, when standard Afrikaans appears to be vulnerable the very same non-standardised speakers (Coloureds) are coopted into language movements to salvage it.Another interesting episode is observed in the Mid-1970s when Afrikaans was nearly imposed to the majority of black schools partly as an attempt to contest the English language which was becoming dominant in an Afrikaner capital. Since this imposition was based on a false assumption that some bodies will be prepared to buy-in the Afrikaans nationalist project, it was shockingly met with resistance through the Soweto uprising in 1976. Weren’t they concerned that like their Coloured counterparts, blacks were going to ‘contaminate’ the language? This type of imperialist attitude has historical origins as it continues to reproduce the “I know what is good for you”.  Hence, it is often met with resistance. I find this to be the blind spot of Afrikaner language activism. At best, this imperialist attitude corrupts the struggle for Afrikaans language preservation simply because it is often not organized through dialogue but through imposition to sustain racial superiority and to create ethnic enclosure. This seminar exposed some of the darker side of the modern colonial world with its multiplicity of power structures and hierarchies. These hierarchies were institutionalized to preserve cultural hegemony of the Euro North-American world in the colonies[3]. I can name a few of those hierarchies here e.g. spiritual, aesthetic, pedagogical, linguistic, gender, racial, sexual, spatial, medical and many other forms of hierarchies that we still grapple with up to this day over which there are no easy solutions. In this seminar Kees Van der Waal demonstrated how essentialist notions of identity, ethnicity and culture continue to reinforce coloniality of being, power and knowledge in post-apartheid SA. By coloniality here I refer to those invisible power structures that serve to sustain colonial relations of domination and exploitation long after direct colonial adminstration has ended.[4] Hence, the persistence to relegate some people to the bottom runk of human ontology and their knowledges continue to be marginalised and inferiorised.  It is thus not a concidence that certain forms of languages could be peripheralised in this process. In the context of post-apartheid South Africa,  coloniality continue to operate in many Afrikaans-medium schools located in former White surbubs. Every year we observe how some learners are denied access to schools due to resistance to transformation in these schools, despite the changing demographics in these areas. It appears that these schools seek to protect their language at the expense of others using state resources. This form of resistance to transformation will further compromise the struggle for Afrikaans language preservation.The seminar challenged us to ask further questions at the end, over which there were no straightforward answers:
·       How do we promote diversity and protect purity?·       Do notions of purity have a place in a hybrid, mixed world?

·       Are we not trying to essentialise non-essentialism? (Anton)·       In South Africa, why do urban speakers of Zulu and Afrikaans code switch to English when one speaks essentialist Afrikaans or Zulu? (Ria)·       How come Afrikaans is not being ‘ghettoised’ at Stellenbosch? Would it have been the same if it was any other local language e.g. Venda at the University of Venda? (Michael)

In closing he proposed Fusch’s anti-essentialism and Glissant’s creolisation as a way forward to forge our common humanity and avoid polarisation in our society. He suggests that our difference can be used positively to accommodate one another and strengthen our relations.As I drive home and reflect on this seminar the following quotes from his paper stood out for me and kept me thinking deeper:·       'we must be ourselves, but…we must be beyond ourselves at the same time"[5] ·       'One cannot save any one language by letting others perish" [6]Till we meet in the next SoTL seminar - a liberating and reflective space for pedagogues!

[1]Van der Waal, C.S. (2012): Creolisation and Purity: Afrikaans Language Politics in Post-Apartheid Times, African Studies, 71:3, 446-463
[3] Professor Ramon Grosfuguel (2014) from Berkeley University, California presenting at the College of Human Science Summer School Summer School,Unisa.
[4] Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007) “On the Coloniality of Being” Cultural Studies 21:2-3
[5] Dash, M. and Troupe, Q. 2006. ‘Interview with Edouard Glissant’. Black Renaissance Noir, March
[6] Glissant, E. and Jorris, P. 1999. ‘From Introduction to a Poetics of the Diverse Author(s)’. Boundary
2 26(1):119–21.


  1. Thank you for this refreshing and personal analysis of the talk by Kees Van Der Waal, I enjoyed reading this, Edith. Regards Roshini

  2. Hi, Dinong Phaswana
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  3. Hello, Dinong
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