Use of Official Languages Act, South African Language Practitioners Acts: implementation plans: Department of Arts and Culture briefings

Arts and Culture

28 October 2014
Chairperson: Ms X Tom (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) briefed the Committee on progress on the implementation of The Use of Official Languages Act, and the plan for the implementation of the South African Language Practitioners Act. It was noted that the Use of Official Languages Act was promulgated to regulate the use of languages by national government. The official deadline for the adoption of national language policies was 2 November 2014, and regulations under that Act gave guidance to institutions on how to draft language policies. So far, the Department had held workshops, and government departments had been asked to update the Department on their progress in implementing the languages policies, which were presented on 30 September and gazetted for public comment. So far, only two institutions had requested exemption from establishing language units; the Office of the Pension Funds Adjudicator and the Playhouse Company, both of whom had a small staff complement but confirmed that they would be appointing a senior staff member to deal with the function. The War Museum of the Boer Republics had drafted and tabled a language policy. Members discussed whether the Act ought to refer to specific languages in particular, but clarity was given that at least three official languages must be listed. They noted the political sensitivities around language, and expressed concern that South African Sign Language was still not recognised as an official language under the Constitution. They doubted that all entities would be able to comply by the deadline, and wondered what sanctions might apply, also urging the Minister to put pressure on other ministries and officials to implement. Members noted that the Act applied only to public bodies, and wanted updates regularly, pointing to the risk of litigation should there not be compliance after 2 November. Suggestions that the Act and its implementation might reside better under the Presidency were discussed.

The DAC then gave an update on the progress of setting up the Council under the South African Language Practitioners Act, which was to be established to professionalise and regulate language practices. A business case had been formulated, suggesting alternatives to a more costly Council structure, and it was noted that the Minister would be responsible for tabling the entity’s annual financial statements and annual reports in Parliament and would be accountable to Parliament for the functioning of the Council. Members suggested that the interim phases should be put in place immediately, asked to what extent universities and other culture bodies had been involved, and asked for clarity on the funding.  They were interested in the extent to which DAC was working with other organisations, and how many practitioners were being trained.

Meeting report

Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) briefings
Implementation of the Use of Official Languages Act

The Chairperson noted an apology from the Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture.

Ms Monica Newton, Acting Director-General, Department of Arts and Culture, noted that section 6 of the Constitution obliged local governments to regulate and control the use of languages, and it was on this basis that the Use of Official Languages Act (the Act) was promulgated to regulate the use of languages by National Government. The official deadline for the adoption of national language policies was  2 November 2014, according to Section 4 of that Act. The regulations gave guidance to institutions on how to draft language policies.

She then outlined the progress made by the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC or the Department) on the implementation so far. A workshop was held for all relevant stakeholders to the Act and its draft regulations, to further inform them  what was required on the implementation of the Act. Various deadlines were set requiring government enterprises to update the DAC on the progress of the implementation of the DAC language policy. The policy was presented on 30 September and gazetted for public comments.

So far only two institutions had applied for exemption from establishing language units. The Office of the Pension Funds Adjudicator (OPFA) requested for an exemption from establishing a language unit on the grounds that it is a relatively small organisation with  less than 55 employees and had limited funding. If exempted, the OPFA was going to assign a senior person in its employment to perform the language functions that would normally be performed by a full-scale unit.

The Playhouse Company, which was a small organisation with 86 permanent employees, had also requested exemption, and said that it, similarly, if exempted, would assign a senior person in its employment to perform language functions as would have been performed by a language unit. It would be tapping into and using the services of the Kwazulu Natal Provincial Language Services Unit.

She then reported on progress by other entities of the DAC. The War Museum of the Boer Republics had drafted a language policy which was tabled before the museum’s accounting officer. She pointed out that the Minister was responsible for the monitoring of these official languages.

Mr M Rabotapi (DA) asked why other languages not referred to in the Act. Only English, IsiZulu and Isi-Tswana were considered. 

Ms Newton noted that the legislation required at least three of the official languages to be listed, as it essentially was applying, in each case, to a small sample grouping of individuals. There was a challenge of scope. She appreciated the fact that Afrikaans was widely spoken and therefore it might become a factor on where the country saw itself, on the political imperative on the use of language. However, the Act provided for a minimum of three languages and did not state a maximum.

Mr G Grootboom (DA) informed the Committee that Afrikaans and Xhosa were the most-spoken languages generally. There was a need to ascertain that the sections in the respective provinces would apply the respective languages. It would be a problem to totally disregard Afrikaans. The language policies need to be seriously reviewed, and he doubted that all entities would be able to comply by the deadline.

Ms Newton further explained that internal engagements and discussions had taken place, and inputs and comments were incorporated in the policies. She stated that, in the absence of the policies, a consideration of why certain languages were not included may not be openly determined; but the conclusion was made after the various discussions and recommendations that were made during the prior engagements and discussions.

Mr Rabotapi expressed concern that sign language was still not  recognised under the Constitution as an official language.

Ms S Tsoleli (ANC) also stated that South Africa should adopt its own uniform sign language, and pointed out that there were different versions of sign language in South Africa.

Mr J Mahlangu (ANC) agreed and supported that suggestion.

Ms Newton advised that this was a very complex area. She confirmed that "South African Sign Language" was recognised as a standard, and the National Council on Higher Education was working on having this applied nationally, by developing a curriculum. She agreed that attempting to set a uniform language would be a challenge as it was not an official language, and there were various dialectical differences.

Dr P Mulder (FF+) made the point that there were various very important government entities involved and the Minister should put pressure on the responsible officials to implement the policy.

Ms Newton said that the Minister was aware of this, and had encouraged these entities to ensure that they would follow up, and look at mechanisms over and above the implementation, and soft measures to ensure compliance by exposing those that complied and those that did not, in order to encourage more compliance  (through “name and shame”).  She added that the totality of the submissions would be presented later, when more detail was available.  There was no mechanism at the moment for sanctioning the lack of compliance on the implementation of the Act, but general auditing would recognise the lack of compliance in due course.

The Chairperson urged that departments needed to give the specific updates on the position of the units so that the progress could be measured. A national body could not opt for particular languages to be applied, and should be considering all languages, ideally. She asked how the languages were selected.

Ms Newton noted that those departments that had not responded were not presented in the report. Only departments that had responded were represented. She stated that compliance to legislation was a difficult issue and the DAC has used various language forums and announcements, despite the slow rate of compliance.

Mr Mahlangu asked whether the current situation was ideal, suggesting that an Act of this nature would surely be best decided upon and housed in the Presidency, and not residing under one specific Ministry or Department.

Mr Mulder advised that future litigation should be prevented by putting pressure on the Minister to ensure that the Act was being fully implemented before the deadline. He also agreed with Mr Mahlangu's point on where the Act's implementation would best reside.

The Chairperson responded that by now there should be a clear picture on the level of process and implementation. There should be a specific status on the respective entities’ level of implementation.

Mr Mulder suggested that it should be brought to Cabinet, to perhaps fast track the process. The Minister should be made aware that other departments were not compliant, and made the point again that there was a risk of litigation ensuing after 2  November.

Mr Rabotapi asked about the extent of the policy, and whether it applied to private entities.

Ms Newton explained that the legislation was limited in its application to Government entities and national organs of State.

The Chairperson recommended that the Ministers should be informed of any instance of non-compliance to the policy, for further action.

Ms Newton then commented on the budgeting process. As the system moved through, the entities were themselves expected to budget for this, since this formed part of the regulatory framework. Speaking to the suggestions for the relocation of the legislation, she said that this was a matter very much aligned with the general mandate of the Department of Arts and culture, and although the suggestions around the Presidency were perhaps ideal, there was much to be done on the practical implications that resided better in the DAC. The Government was fully aware of its obligations under the Act.

South African Language Practitioners Act
Ms Newton gave a second presentation, on the plans for implementation of the South African Language Practitioners Act, which was promulgated in view of the provisions of section 6 of the Constitution. In August 2009 the DAC developed a business case for the establishment of a Council for language practitioners, in future to be known as “South African Language Practitioners Council” (SALPC). The business case gave guidelines on the establishment and the implementation of the SALPC. The SALPC was to be established to professionalise and regulate language practice.

The work programme for the establishment of the Council to implement the Act would be divided into three phases :
- Interim phase: Appointment of a suitably qualified person or persons to administer the process of establishing the SALPC as a legal entity
- Establishment Phase: Recruitment and appointment of the SALPC, the CEO, senior management, staff and also the establishment of IT systems.
- Operationalisation Phase: The final phase concerned the induction of staff and the approval of internal operating processes and procedures by Council, in consultation with the Minister.

The business case suggested alternatives to a stand-alone Council structure, which could be expensive because of operational costs. The Minister would be responsible for tabling the entity’s annual financial statements and annual reports in Parliament and would be accountable to Parliament for the functioning of the Council.

Mr Mulder suggested that the interim phase should start immediately, as it was a very important project.

Mr Grootboom asked to what extent universities might be involved with the drafting, implementation and training of language practitioners. He suggested that there should be criteria for persons to be language practitioners, according to specific skills. He asked what extent organisations such as cultural organisations were involved in the process, because there were various technicalities involved in certain aspects of speech and pronunciations.

Ms Newton replied that universities and institutions had been involved, before the passing of the Act, and would continue to be involved after the passing of the Act. Also, the South African Translators Association had contributed to the discussions on the Act. The language practitioners were currently being trained so that by the time the Act was implemented they would be ready to carry out its objectives.

The Chairperson asked for clarification on the funding aspects of the Act. She stated that once it became operational, it must be implemented and the funds must be available.

The Chairperson also asked how the DAC worked together with other organisations in the field of languages.  She informed the session that some programmes within the Department would have to be re-prioritized in order to accommodate the new law. The Accounting Board, National Treasury and National Audit would ensure a strengthened system to ensure that the Department was able to be effective and use official languages across all government sectors and even in the private sector such as banking.

The Chairperson asked how many language practitioners were being trained, and where they were.

Ms A Matshobene (ANC) asked how much the implementation of the Act would cost and wanted clarification how many of the 290 national entities had confirmed their compliance.

Ms Newton replied that the figures were outlined in the presentation and referred Members to the relevant slides. The Act was passed in 2012, and some other entities had their languages policies implemented though their own systems. A proper costing had been done, and the figures were shown during the time when the Act was under discussion, and during the time of the implementation would be updated.

The meeting was adjourned.

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