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There’s no place like home

| October 13, 2011 | 0 Comments

Afrikaans independent schools in South Africa today

By Jacques Janse Van Rensburg

“The number of public organisations with a predominantly Afrikaans character, identity and mission is continually dwindling, and since Afrikaners are being presented with an increasing number of options relating to the question of how they should position themselves in the world with regard to their identity, language and culture, the Afrikaner culture and identity are beginning to lose their dominant value systems.”1

This observation, made by J.P. van der Merwe in his doctoral thesis on Afrikaner values in post-apartheid South Africa, provides a clue as to why Jan Celliers Primary School became the first Afrikaans independent school in South Africa in 1993. Almost 20 years later, it is time to consider the challenges this Afrikaans independent school faces and the contributions it, and others like it, can make.

Views of the Afrikaner Those South Africans whose ‘mother tongue’ is Afrikaans are generally referred to as Afrikaners. The first documented use of the term arguably dates back to 1707, when a sailor, Hendrik Biebouw, is said to have stated “Ik ben een Africaander”2 as an expression of identity. Before and during the Second War of Independence (also referred to as the second Anglo Boer War), the term ‘Afrikaner’ was used as an alternative to the word ‘Boer’, which denoted a “Dutch-speaking colonist in South Africa”.3 From the late 1960s, Naudé and other scholars set the term ‘Afrikaner’ “in opposition to the broader descriptor ‘South African’” – the latter referring to “the white population of South Africa descending from the first colonists”,4 and including Dutchspeakers from Calvinist families, French Huguenots, Germans, and Scots.

Throughout the history of the last 400 or so years, Afrikaners have been popularly conceived as ‘the last white tribe in Africa’5 – a group passionately concerned to preserve their culture, predominantly through language. This history carries with it the ‘baggage’ of apartheid. The 1976 Soweto riots were the result of the forceful state policy of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. Writing from a more forgiving vantage point, Dr Wilmot James, MP and Federal Chairperson of the Democratic Alliance, suggests that the protest undertaken by Black students was not against Afrikaans per se, but the belief that a cultural group could be subjected to a language other than their own.6

Fikile Bam, Judge-President of the Lands Claim Court and former Robben Island prisoner, recalls that in prison, Nelson Mandela adopted a similarly (and extraordinarily) sympathetic stance, envisioning the Afrikaner as part and parcel of the ‘rainbow nation’:

[Mandela]… was very serious about his Afrikaans, and not just the language, but… about learning to understand the Afrikaner – his mind and how he thought. Because in his mind, and he actually preached this, the Afrikaner was an African. He belonged to the soil and that whatever solution there was going to be on the political issues, was going to involve Afrikaans people. They, after all, were part and parcel of the land, apart from the point that they were the rulers of the land, but… they had grown up and they had a history in the country, which he wanted to understand. And hence he put a lot of work and effort into learning to speak Afrikaans and to use it.7

Likewise, in his book Reflections in Prison, Mac Maharaj recalls Nelson Mandela observing about Afrikaans: “[It] is the language of a substantial part of South Africa’s community. Language is the highest manifestation of unity in human history and is an inherent right of people to use it without restrictions.”8

Mandela is not alone in appreciating the Afrikaans language, history and culture. Matthews Phosa, freedom fighter, Treasurer-General of the African National Congress from 2007 until the present, ex-Premier of Mpumalanga, and one-time President of the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut (Afrikaans Business Institute) (AHI), is also an acclaimed Afrikaans poet. The Vriende van Afrikaans (The Friends of Afrikaans) (VVA) is one of several organisations identifying themselves as non-political, non-sexist, non-racial groups working to grow Afrikaans, using literature as a point of departure. Of particular interest is the VVA’s work in Soweto, where member Victor Khambulo teaches Afrikaans on a voluntary basis to learners and older members of the community. He defends the language fiercely when confronted: “This language is a language just like the other indigenous languages of Africa. It is ours, and we must be proud of it.”9

Survival of Afrikaans schools dependent on the survival of the language

The survival of Afrikaans schools – whether public or private – depends to a great extent on the survival of the language. Bemoaning the choice of more and more Afrikaans parents speaking parents from diverse areas of the province have expressed concerns that current language policies disadvantage their children’s academic progress.11 Afrikaans is not the only one of our 11 official languages under pressure. According to the Education Department’s statistics, only 6.6% of South African pupils are English mother-tongue speakers – yet, for 65.9%, it is their medium of instruction.12 Interesting in this regard are the comments made by the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) with reference to the recent Annual National Assessment (ANA) test results. The union called once again for mother-tongue instruction in schools, stating that: “One of the reasons for poor performance in Grade 4… has to do with the change in the language of instruction from mother tongue in Grade 3 to English in Grade 4.”13

Afrikaans in Education The largest group of Afrikaans schools in South Africa is public, and it is estimated that between 10 and 15% of Afrikaans pupils are in English public schools.14

The Suid-Afrikaanse Onderwysersunie (South African Teachers’ Union) (SAOU) research shows that about 10% of Afrikaans pupils are in independent schools.15 Forty two of those are part of a private group called the Beweging vir Christelike Volkseie Onderwys (The Movement for Christian National Education) (BCVO), which offers schooling in Afrikaans with a strong biblical foundation.16 A recent development is the CURRO group of schools, which offers parallel-medium instruction (Afrikaans or English) in separate classes or dual-medium (Afrikaans and English) instruction at 17 schools, with the tagline ‘affordable, quality private school education’.17 There are also at least four independent Afrikaans schools in Namibia.18 Jan Celliers Primary School is one of 24 single medium Afrikaans members of ISASA.

A school of their own I now want to turn my attention to how Jan Celliers Primary School works both to preserve the place of Afrikaners in this country, and to prepare learners for life in a diverse, democratic South Africa.

There are over 500 students enrolled at Jan Celliers preschool and primary school. The school was founded in 1933 by a passionate group of Afrikaans parents wanting a school of ‘their own’ in the predominantly English suburbs of Johannesburg. When this noordelike voorstedeskool (northern suburbs school) opened its doors in leafy Parkview, it was renamed after a prominent Afrikaans literary giant, Jan F.E. Celliers (1865–1940) and not a politician, as was the common practice. It is one of very few schools that can claim to have schooled both a leader of a leading political party – Nobel Prize winner, FW de Klerk – and the leader of the one-time official opposition – Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.

All languages important – but Afrikaans paramount Why does Jan Celliers remain a prominent cultural beacon of excellence? Like many Afrikaans schools, it regards itself first as a premier academic institution. Afrikaans and English are both offered at First Language level from entry in Grade 000 (three years old).

Pupils leave Jan Celliers at the end of Grade 7 proficient in English at a level that enables them to adapt to any high school setting. All learners also study Zulu as an additional language. We do, however, treasure the teaching and learning of Afrikaans, confirms Head of Department Rankie van Dyk, placing especial emphasis on advanced ability in both written and spoken Afrikaans, enriched by the study of literature and poetry, and nurtured through participation in national competitions offered by the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging (Afrikaans Language and Cultural Organisation) (ATKV) and the National Olympiad for Afrikaans Home Language speakers. We also participate in the Applous Choir Competition – with pupils singing not only in Afrikaans but also in some of the other 10 official languages. While our appreciation of all cultures comes to the fore on Heritage Day, our most important celebration is our annual Afrikaans day, when extra-special efforts are made to read and appreciate the language.

While our mother tongue is important to us, we concur with research findings that children who become fluent in at least two or three of our 11 languages are at a distinct academic advantage. Multilingualism brings with it confidence and a sense of achievement. Non Afrikaans-speaking pupils are welcomed at our school, and learners adapt quickly, confirming that the younger a person is exposed to a new language, the quicker mental shortcuts are formed.19 Our current Deputy Head Boy, Nickey Sibanyone, is a shining example of a pupil who has excelled in languages. He was chosen by the Make a Difference (MAD) Foundation as a deserving candidate for a bursary to enable him to complete a secondary and tertiary education. He will graduate from Jan Celliers to continue his studies at an Afrikaans high school next year. He is of Zulu heritage, but told this writer that: “I think in Afrikaans, I dream in Afrikaans, I get angry in Afrikaans.”

Afrikaner history crucial, but all points of view count

Our passion for our culture led to a move to enrich the entire Jan Celliers curriculum. As we considered each learning area in turn, we felt we were not doing enough to preserve an accurate and current understanding of Afrikaner history in the Social Sciences syllabus, and employed two specialist teachers to remedy the problem. Now, when an important event like the Battle of Blood River is studied, the issue is investigated from as many sources as possible, such as the highly acclaimed account documented by socalled coloured teacher Jan Bantjes20, as well as the information supplied by the Ncome Monument21, telling the Zulu side of the story.

A school intent on transformation, but retaining religious beliefs

Our staff is tremendously important to our success. Historically, our teachers were predominantly white Afrikaners (with the exception of the First Language English teachers and the Zulu Home Language teacher). As we moved to become a 21st century Afrikaans independent school, we undertook transformation from within, recruiting and training Afrikaans-speaking teaching assistants of colour in the preschool. As a result, we are now proud of our muchloved Grade 000 non-white Afrikaner teacher, Merolise Daniels. Two other full-time assistants are still in training. We recruit heavily in the so-called Coloured community of Riverlea, Johannesburg, and currently offer part-time employment to at least five sport coaches from this area.

Our teachers reflect the Afrikaner approach to religion and morality. Formal biblical lessons are an important part of our curriculum. Interestingly, we have recently enrolled a number of pupils for whom Afrikaans is neither their mother tongue nor that of their parents. These parents stress that they would like their children to be schooled according to Afrikaner values, underpinned by rigorous moral discipline. They also appreciate that Jan Celliers is part of the Johannesburg Mini Council and is the only Afrikaans independant school that supports this civic initiative.

Afrikaners have traditionally pursued the same moral and disciplinary codes on the sports field as in the classroom. Because team sports offer opportunities for growth, learning and the acceptance that rules that govern our society, it is a big focus at Jan Celliers. We work on the principle that success breeds success and that sport can be an esprit de corps that binds us as a cultural group and a society.

Diversity a significant challenge Despite all we do to celebrate multilingualism and multiculturalism, diversity remains the biggest challenge for Afrikaans schools in general. Much still needs to be done to change the perception that the Afrikaner clings to an outdated ‘laager mentality’.22 In the case of Jan Celliers, we struggle to attract a substantial number of Afrikaans-speaking learners from other ethnic groups largely because the demographic of Parkview – a largely English-speaking suburb – often does not work in our favour. Interestingly, the small number of non-white pupils attending our school comprises pupils from Xhosa or Zulu families, not, as one may imagine, from Coloured or Indian families.

Competing against entrenched attitudes and solid public Afrikaans schools

Many Afrikaans parents also do not see the benefit of spending relatively high amounts on independent education and, at Jan Celliers, we must compete for ‘bottoms on seats’ with a number of less-expensive public Afrikaans schools that are justifiably proud of their traditionally good reputations. Other parents shy away from an independent school characterised as Afrikaans, and still others tell us that the corporations for which they work offer financial assistance, but only for children attending English independent schools.

Another challenge for an urban, Afrikaans, independent school like Jan Celliers is to build and maintain relationships with public schools. Too often still, we are seen as ‘elitist’ by many of our Afrikaans-speaking friends. However, we remain fiercely protective of our independent status. Our school was created by parents who wanted a say in how their children were schooled and, due to this support, today we still provide an education that produces critical and creative students. We would like to forge stronger relations with other independent Afrikaans-medium schools who feel the same way, in order to share solutions to common challenges.

We honour our origins and look to the future From a broad legislative perspective, all Afrikaans-medium schools have the constitutional right to exist. All South Africans have the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. Other cultural groups have also established independent schools to protect their heritage and traditions – such as the King David Schools; SAHETI, which serves the Greek community; and the Deutsche Internationale Schule, which serve German South African communities.

Like these institutions, Jan Celliers Primary School honours its cultural origins. At the same time, we look to the future, believing we can offer quality education in our own language with a premium on traditional values. The preservation of the Afrikaner identity is important to us, but not at the risk of excluding our students from life in a multicultural South Africa. Visit us – you will see that, as Afrikaans singer Karen Zoid has said, “Afrikaners is plesierig!” (Afrikaners are full of fun).

Jacques Janse van Rensburg is the Deputy Headmaster at Jan Celliers Primary School.


1 Van der Merwe, J.P. (2009) Afrikaner Values in Post-apartheid South Africa: An Anthropological Perspective. Ph.D. thesis. University of the Free State.

2 See

3 Van Dale (1915) Van Dale’s Handwoordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal. Martinus Nijhoff: S-Gravenhage.

4 Naudé, S.M.,Oberholzer, C.K. and Thom, H.B. (1969) Die Waardes van die Afrikaner. Report delivered at the annual meeting of the South African Academy of Science and Art in June 1968 in Bloemfontein.

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8 Maharaj, M. (2001) Reflections in Prison. London: New Holland.

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19 Lorton, J.L., & Walley, B.L. (1979) Introduction to Early Childhood Education. D. Van Nostrand Company: New York. Pp. 58–62.

20 See

21 The Ncome river was the site of one of the most infamous battles waged between Afrikaners and Zulus, known as The Battle of Blood River. The Ncome monument on the east side of the river today commemorates the fallen Zulu warriors.

22 The idea that since every man (and his gun) is needed for the common defense of the group. From the Afrikaans word ‘laager’ – a circle of wagons forming a defensive perimeter, when the day’s journey was done and the group settled in for the night.

Category: Spring 2011

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