SA Geographical Names Council Amendment Bill, Language Framework, Telephone Interpreting Service, Human Language Technologies, SA Heritage Month: Department Progress Reports

Arts and Culture

21 August 2007
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

21 August 2007

Acting Chairperson: Ms P Tshwete (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Telephone Interpreting Service for South Africa (TISSA) Project to the Portfolio Committee: presentation

South African Geographical Names Council Act Amendments
Portfolio Committee Briefing (21 August 2007)
Schedule: Legislative programme 2007

Capacity Building For Language Facilitation
Portfolio Committee On Heritage Month 2007: Briefing  

Human Language Technologies (HLT)* National Strategy

Audio recording of meeting

The Department of Arts and Culture gave a progress report on various projects to the Committee. A progress report was given on the South African Geographical Names Council Amendment Bill.
A briefing was given on the National Language Framework that was to be created to manage the policy and legislation around the eleven official languages. Each government department was to establish individual language units, to ensure the sustained use of all eleven official languages. The Framework would enable effective service delivery and ensure maximum public participation in government processes. It would also promote increased publication of teaching and learning materials in all languages, accelerated use of human language technologies and offering of bursaries for language study. Departments would need to spend around 3% of their operational budgets on the Units. Questions by Members addressed existing bursaries, the need to promote signage in all languages, the perception that certain languages were being marginalised, the need to work from now to put the framework in place, and the budgetary implications.

The Department indicated that the Telephone Interpreting Service for South Africa was developed as a pilot project, to be implemented from 2004 to 2006. It was intended to facilitate translation, by dialing a call centre, between the public and personnel at police stations, hospitals, courts and service delivery outlets. It had experienced huge problems, including non delivery by the service provider, and their performance was currently the subject of legal proceedings. The service had also been under utilised. The project would be re-assessed and further reports made once the legal proceedings were finalised.  Members discussed the need for further investigation into why the call volumes were so low.

The Department gave an update on the Human Language Technology National Strategy, which aimed to coordinate all interaction between humans and automated systems (such as automated teller machines and pay points) at a central office. National government would give financial support and a variety of government departments and the commercial sector were involved. The benefits were increased access to government services, better dissemination of information, promotion of multi lingualism and increased technological knowledge. No questions were asked by Members.

A final report informed the Department of the plans for the Heritage Month in September, which would focus on South African poetry, with emphasis on oral traditions in indigenous languages, and creation of new audiences, particularly among the youth, for poetry and literature. Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile would lead a poetry workshop. National Heritage Day would take place on 24 September. The Department was also working with publishers to encourage re-release of South African literary works and to encourage translations between indigenous languages. There was insufficient time for discussion.

SA Geographical Names Council Amendment Bill
Owing to rescheduling of the meeting, there was no recording by PMG of this briefing.

Capacity Building for Language Framework: Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) Briefing
Mr Themba Wakashe, Deputy Director General, DAC, reported that since South Africa had eleven official languages, a framework for managing the SA language infrastructure was imperative. The government needed to have full language capacity to manage effective service delivery and ensure maximum public participation in government processes.

The National Language Policy Framework (NLPF) was approved in February 2003, and the initial feeling had been that legislation must be drafted. Now, however, the Department had decided that it was first necessary to put an infrastructure in place to manage the demands of the prospective legislation.

As part of establishing a language infrastructure, the NLPF required that every government department should establish individual Language Units (LUs), which would be designed to ensure the sustained use of official languages. All LUs should be in place by 2012. They would allow for all government documents to be translated and should help to increase the economic value of all official languages while greatly increasing the government’s capacity for service delivery.

Other imperatives for capacity building included the increased publication of teaching and learning materials in all official languages, offering language bursaries, and the accelerated development of human language technologies. The government would also encourage media to increasingly display multilingual images.

Funding for LUs would come directly from the individual departments as well as the provinces. The Cabinet Committee for the Social Sector had calculated that departments would not need to spend more than 3% of their normal operational budgets on LUs.

The Chairperson noted that Members of Parliament did their best to use indigenous languages during debate as a way of promoting South Africa's official languages.

Mr Wakashe was gratified to hear this.

Ms D Van der Walt (DA) suggested that the framework must surely already be in place, and she believed that it was now necessary to focus on implementation. The first step would be to place signs in all official languages throughout Parliament.

Ms N Mbombo (ANC) asked if there were currently language bursaries.

Mr Wakashe responded that bursaries initially targeted post-graduate students in specific language fields, and that numerous students had benefited. In 2006 it was decided to extend the language bursaries to undergraduate students also, and specifically to target marginalised languages.

Ms P Tshwete (ANC) noted that when the Committee had visited the Northern Cape locals had complained that the government was ignoring their languages. She asked if the Department was doing anything to accommodate these groups.

Mr Wakashe responded that he was not sure of the exact situation and would like to consult with his colleagues before responding.

Ms Van der Walt lamented the perception that the government had done little to protect languages despite the Constitution's requirements.

Ms Mbombo asked if the government realistically had budget to implement LUs and translation for all 11 official languages. She would be concerned if the government was making promises that it could not accomplish.

Mr M Sonto (ANC) asked why this had not been included in the current budgets, and why 2012 was named as the target for implementation.

The Chairperson pointed out that the establishment of LUs was a continuous process from now until 2012, and 2012 was the date for completion. 

Mr J Maake (ANC) asked for clarification whether there would be one or eleven LUs in each department. He also asked how the media were being encouraged to display multilingual images.

Mr Wakashe responded that the DAC was driving the policy forward toward legislation, but expected all stakeholders to work together. The provinces must also develop their own language policies Some departments already had LUs in place. The DAC had its own fully-fledged LU that was already doing production work and reporting, as more fully outlined in the Department's Annual Reports. The lack of LU capacity in other departments was a challenge because it forced the DAC to pick up the slack.

The Chairperson responded that it was unreasonable to expect the DAC to do this additional work as well.

Mr Wakashe suggested that greater cooperation was needed between the Portfolio Committee and the DAC given the complexity of the issue. The DAC should have time to give concrete progress reports, including a full explanation of the challenges faced, instead of providing broad overviews, and this would better inform the Members.

Telephone Interpreting Service for South Africa (TISSA): Implementation Report by DAC
Mr Wakashe reported that the Telephone Interpreting Service for South Africa (TISSA) was developed as a pilot project, to be implemented over a three-year span from August 2004 to August 2006. Golola Optical was hired as service provider for the project, which targeted police stations, hospitals, and courts as locations for service delivery.

From the outset, TISSA was fraught with problems, which included non-delivery by the service provider, fraudulent accounting practices, poor financial management, and under-utilisation by stakeholders. After a complicated legal dispute, the DAC considered that there were three possible options: either to dismiss Golola, to force Golola to fix the problems, or to open the project to bidding from other service providers. Because of the contractual implications, it was decided to put Golola on terms to resolve the problems, and the Department was also looking at setting up accountability mechanisms. It seemed that it would be in the interests of all parties to simplify the financing and reporting structures. The legal dispute was ongoing.

DAC had decided that a new communication strategy was also required, because, quite apart from the complications with Golola, all call centers had reported low call volumes.

Once the legal proceedings had been finalized, the Department would re-examine all aspects of the TISSA pilot, and discuss the outcome with the stakeholders.

Mr R Sonto (ANC) asked how the service had been utilised and suggested that the Department needed to undertake an investigation as to why the call volume was so low.

Mr Wakashe cited how the system would work at a police station. If it was necessary to have translation facilities for communication between civilians and police officers, a call would be placed to a call centre where an appropriate translator was on call. The DAC had found that usage was generally very low during the week and higher at weekends. The challenge seemed to be that the project was more academic than practical.

Ms Van der Walt asked if the project had come to an end, or if it was still running.

Mr Wakashe responded that because of the ongoing litigation, the DAC was being cautious in its responses. He would be giving a further report and be able to engage in more meaningful discussion after the current legal dispute had been finalised. 

Human Language Technologies National Strategy: Department briefing
Mr Wakashe noted that human language technology (HLT) involved the interaction between humans and various automated systems. The DAC wished to coordinate all HLT activity through one office. The process began in 1999 and had been progressing very slowly. An HLT Steering Committee was formed in 2003 to try to move matters along.

The HLT was an implementation mechanism of the National Language Policy Framework (NLPF). Financial support for HLT would come from national government and would be supported by bids from the private sector. All government HLT activities would be managed and marketed by the Department's HLT unit, but a variety of other role players were involved,  including the Departments of Trade and Industry, Science and Technology, Communications, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, higher educational institutions, and the private sector.

The primary benefits of HLT were increased access to government services, increased dissemination of information, multilingualism, and increased technological knowledge. An example of HLT interaction would be an automated teller machine (ATM), where a variety of languages and choices made banking more efficient.

Implementation of the HLT national strategy would involve the establishment of a National Centre for HLT, which would form the hub of all HLT activities and services. This would be a first on the African continent. However, there was a challenge on slow progress and a need for tangible results to be seen soon.

The Chairperson noted that no time was available for questions.

Heritage Month: Department Briefing
Mr Vusi Ndima, Chief Director: Heritage, DAC, tabled a report containing the plans for the Department's Heritage Month (HM) in September. The main theme was “Celebrating South African Poetry” with a special emphasis on indigenous languages. This project would be seeking to promote a culture of reading and writing in the context of African literature in both the oral and written traditions.

A major goal of HM was to create new South African audiences for poetry and literature, particularly amongst the youth, by highlighting oral narrative as a means of preserving culture and history across generations.

Heritage Month would be launched in Cape Town on 8 September. The South African National Poet Laureate, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, would lead a poetry workshop, and similar workshops would be held in every province.

National Heritage Day would be held on 24 September, where President Mbeki would participate in a day blending music and poetry. Consideration had been given to all current poetry projects and the Department had sought input and expertise to help coordinate the national effort. Local government would play a leading role, widely supported by media though television, radio, and print advertisements.

The DAC was also working with publishers to encourage the re-release of great works of South African literature in a variety of indigenous languages. Although translations were common between English and indigenous languages, literature was rarely translated from one indigenous language into another.

The Chairperson regretted that there was no time for discussion.

The Chairperson noted that further reports would stand over to the next meeting.
The meeting was adjourned. 


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