Language issues: Proposed recognition of South African Sign Language as official language, Sepedi/ Sesotho sa Leboa issues: Briefings by Deaf SA, CRL Commission, Pan South African Language Board

Committee: Constitutional Review Committee

Chairperson: Mr B Mnguni (ANC, Free State)

Date of Meeting: 12 Nov 2009

Summary

The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), addressed the Committee on the need to recognise South African Sign Language (SASL) as an officially recognised language under the Constitution. It was a real language, and recognition would mean that institutions would be required to accord it full weight, and allow for it to be taught to children in schools, promoted as part of the language policy of the SABC, and require that interpreters be made available for deaf people, for instance. DeafSA stressed that at present the Department of Education did not recognise it as a medium of instruction, which was akin to forcing children to be taught via a medium that was completely foreign to them, similar to the situation with schools in 1976. This request had been made prior to 1994 and again in 2007, when a task team should have been set up. The Third Parliament had approved the report of the previous Committee that SASL be recognised as an official language, and DeafSA therefore appealed to this Parliament to take the matter further.

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRLC), addressed the Committee on whether Sepedi or Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho) should be listed as an official language in the Constitution. The interim Constitution had designated Sesotho sa Leboa as an official language, but this was replaced in the final Constitution with Sepedi. Some communities complained to the Commission that Sepedi was in fact a dialect of Sesotho sa Leboa, not a language on its own, and would prefer their children to be taught in Sesotho sa Leboa.

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) indicated that it had done research also into this issue, and had reached the conclusion that Sepedi was indeed a dialect of Sesotho sa Leboa. PanSALB recommended that the Committee should do some more research and consult with a broader community before any final decision was taken on the issue. It also recommended that there must be more consultation on whether to recognise SASL as an official language.

Members asked why DeafSA wanted the language to be recognised officially, asked if other countries had accorded their sign language official or protection status, asked how South African sign language was aligned to other international sign languages, and whether it was able to be used only by those who were educated. Members indicated that although they were sympathetic to the request, there were some practical considerations, and that in fact many of the official languages were already not being accorded equal treatment, airing or resources. Members indicated that they wished to hear (perhaps not at this meeting) the differences between the work of the PanSALB and the Commission, and why Sepedi had been inserted as an official language in the final Constitution. They were aware how difficult the issues were, being closely linked to identity. The Committee asked whether PanSALB could give recommendations, and the Commission and PanSALB indicated that there were a number of differing views that would require some sensitivity to reconcile. Because there was no quorum, further deliberations would stand over to the next meeting.



Minutes

The Chairperson recorded apologies submitted from Members Mr S Holomisa (ANC), Mr A Watson (DA - Mpumalanga) and Ms B Mncube (ANC - Gauteng). He noted that the Committee did not have a quorum present, and thus no decisions would be made today, although it wished the institutions to make their presentations. 

Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) Submission
Mr Bruno Druchen, National Director, Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), addressed the Committee on the need to recognise South African Sign Language (SASL) as an officially recognised language under the Constitution. He noted that South African Sign Language was a real language. In February 2007, DeafSA had also made a presentation to the Committee in which it made out a case for SASL to be recognised as an official language. He explained that prior to 1994, DeafSA was run by those without hearing difficulties, but since then it had been run by deaf people, and it was affiliated to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). At present South Africa had 44 schools for the deaf, yet only ten had classes up to matric level. This was a major concern for DeafSA. It had lobbied the Department of Education to use SASL as a medium of instruction in these schools, so that more learners could obtain their matric on a proper standard. It was therefore important that all teachers also learn SASL.

He went on to explain that SASL was a language on its own, and did not differ from one language group to another, although, just as there were different dialects within other languages, SASL also had different dialects. He added that it was a wrong perception that total communication (spoken language with signs) was the same as SASL. He explained further that Uganda was the first country in Africa that had approved sign language as an official language.

After the last presentation had been made to Parliament, a task team was supposed to be set up with DeafSA and the Department of Arts and Culture. This, however, had never taken place. After the presentation in 2007, Deaf SA wrote to the Speaker, who had promised to follow up on this issue. The Third Parliament had approved the report, which suggested that SASL be recognised as an official language. Action, however, was now required. The deaf community was looking to this Parliament to take the matter further. He concluded by emphasising that the deaf community did not want the spoken language enforced on them.

Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRLC)
Mr Wesley Mabuza, Chairperson, Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRLC), addressed the Committee, following the powerpoint presentation attached to this report. He explained that the CRLC was presently addressing the issue as to whether Sepedi or Sesotho sa Leboa (Northern Sotho) should be an official language that would be listed in the Constitution. He explained further that the CRLC was a constitutional body, established in terms of Chapter 9 of the Constitution, and that it had received complaints from some communities about the fact that Sepedi was accepted as an official language in South Africa. These communities felt that Sepedi was a dialect of Sesotho sa Leboa, and not a language on its own. It should therefore be replaced by Sesotho sa Leboa as one of the official languages. These communities were also unhappy that their children were being forced to learn Sepedi and not Sesotho sa Leboa. He pointed out that in the interim Constitution, Sesotho sa Leboa was designated as an official language. This was changed, however, to Sepedi in the final Constitution of 1996, without consultation.

Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB)
Mr Chris Swepu, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), addressed the Committee on the issue of SASL and Sepedi, as outlined by the previous presenters, and in line with the powerpoint presentation that he tabled. He pointed out that PanSALB had done research and that the main finding was that Sepedi was indeed a dialect of Sesotho sa Leboa. PanSALB recommended that the Committee should do some more research and consult with a broader community before any final decision was taken on the issue.

In regard to SASL, he indicated that much progress had been made by PanSALB in this area, but PanSALB also recommended that there must be more consultation on the matter.

Discussion
Mr N Koornhof (COPE) asked if DeafSA could give one or two examples why it would be better for SASL to be declared an official language. He also wanted to know if the countries that had been mentioned in the presentation had declared sign language an official language, or whether it was just protected or recognised in these countries. He also wanted to know when sign language was first initiated.

Mr H Schmidt (DA) asked DeafSA to explain how SASL linked with international sign language, and whether there was not one international sign language.

Ms J Sosibo (ANC) wanted clarity on the fact that SASL was recognised by some schools, yet it seemed like the implementation was a problem. She wanted to know if this meant that monitoring was not being done.

Ms Sosibo asked whether a person who had not been educated would be able to communicate with an educated person in sign language.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) asked what the CRLC’s position was on SASL.

Ms D Smuts (DA) was sympathetic to DeafSA's plea for SASL to be made an official language, but wanted to know what this would mean in practical terms. She was not sure whether it would give any additional impetus or muscle to the language. The present eleven languages did not receive equal funding or usage. The Constitution stated that provinces and municipalities had to use at least two languages, but it was necessary to consider and be sensitive to the practical issues.

Mr Swepu indicated that if SASL were made into an official language, the different government departments would be compelled to use it. Provinces and municipalities would also include it in their language policy.

Ms Smuts noted that the presentation had given a figure of one million deaf people in South Africa, but enquired whether perhaps this number was not higher. She had been informed that four million South Africans were hard of hearing.

Mr Druchen said that prior to 1994, DeafSA had also lobbied for SASL to be declared an official language. The SABC had not put this into its language policy, because SASL was not listed as an official language. The Department of Education had also not accepted it for schools, because it was not listed as an official language. The Department of Transport had also not employed any interpreters, again because SASL was not an official language. He hoped that this illustrated that declaring SASL as an official language would compel departments to make these service available to people.

He pointed out that New Zealand, Uganda, Finland and Spain had made sign language an official language. The other countries mentioned in the presentation had either protected sign language or had given it some form of recognition.

He pointed out that sign language was possibly the oldest language, as cavemen had probably used it to communicate. The first documented signs occurred in the seventeenth century. He added that some people who were born or became hard of hearing and accepted sign language could communicate well with others. Some people who became deaf later in life, however, did not want to accept sign language.

He explained that the Department of Education still told DeafSA that SASL was not a real language, and insisted that in the schools, total communication be used. The spoken language was therefore being enforced on deaf children. For the deaf community this was akin to people being forced to be educated in Afrikaans in 1976.

Mr Druchen explained to the Committee that each country had its own sign language. There were different signs for the same words, but the grammar was the same. The WFD was aiming to have everyone adopt the same system. Adjustments, however, could be made so that people could communicate. People who were illiterate still were able to use basic signs to communicate with others.

Ms Digkale supported SASL being declared as an official language. This would enable more children to obtain their matric and find work, rather than becoming dependent on grants.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) wanted to know what the difference was between the CRL and the PanSALB.

Mr Ainslie asked why Sepedi was made an official language in the final Constitution.

Ms C Digkale (ANC) commented that Sepedi was not a language on its own but rather a dialect.

Ms Smuts suggested that the Committee should not spend time discussing the difference between the CRL and the PanSALB, or how Sepedi was made an official language, as this information could be obtained by Members outside this meeting.

Ms Smuts asked about the impartiality of PanSALB, and said that it should give recommendations to the Committee, since the Committee was not able to consult with all communities. She added that PanSALB had consulted with people within the DA, and it had agreed with the recommendation originally made by PanSALB regarding Sepedi. She pointed out that it was only the Zulu and English versions of the Constitution that needed Sepedi replaced by Sesotho sa Leboa.

Mr Swepu responded that he did not think that it was necessary for PanSALB to make recommendations as to what the Committee should do, and it was up to Members to say whether Sepedi should be recognised as an official language or not. The mandate of the PanSALB was to work with languages. Parliament, however, had to decide what the status of those languages should be. He added that PanSALB had consulted and had submitted a report to the Department of Arts and Culture. It had also met with the Chairperson of the previous Committee.

Mr Mabuza said that the CRLC was under no illusion as to the seriousness of the issues around the use of Sepedi. The Commission had met with PanSALB as well to discuss the matter. It was important that all sides be satisfied with the outcome.

Mr Aubrey Sedupane, Acting Manager, CRLC, added that the Commission had received submissions from all the dialects that fell under Sesotho sa Leboa. There had to be some sort of test that needed to be done so that the status of the languages could be determined.

Mr Schmidt said that the issue around Sepedi was very confusing and intricate. He referred to some of the dialects that Ms Digkale had mentioned, and asked where those fitted in.

The Chairperson said that these dialects were part of Sesotho sa Leboa.

Ms Digkale said that the Batswana and Basotho fell into the same group, and this was the reason why Sepedi should also fall into this grouping.

The Chairperson asked the organisations to give closing statements.

Mr Swepu said that PanSALB had found the discussion to be very valuable. He encouraged the Committee to approach the Sepedi language question with an open mind, in order to resolve the issues. He emphasised that there were other perspectives that needed to be taken into account.

Ms Smuts (DA) said that of all the issues in South Africa, language was one of the most difficult to deal with, as it was linked to identity. She was not sure about the way forward.

Mr Mabuza said that despite the difficulty involved in the Sepedi language question, South Africa had great people who could do great things. He warned that the Committee should not spend too much time on this issue, as there were other important matters to attend to as well. It was important to use the important research that PanSALB had done already, and to be fully informed on, and keep an open mind on the issues.

Mr Druchen said that DeafSA had faith that the Committee would take the proper steps.

The Chair repeated that there was no quorum and therefore no decisions could be taken at his meeting, and would stand over to the next meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.