Language Policy Of The Sandf: hearings


03 August 1998
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Meeting report



3 August 1998


Documents regarding the language policy of the SANDF were submitted by:

Volkstaat Council (Appendix 1)

Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference - Parliamentary Liaison Office (Appendix 2)
Mr. I.M Sibusiso

Mr. Matanzima Buda

SANDF College of Educational Technology
Defence Department's Language Policy Proposals: Draft 6: Discussion Document


All of these parties listed above, except for the Volkstaat Council, believe that English should be the "thread" language of the SANDF, i.e. the language which is used throughout the Department of Defence in order to facilitate general communication, command, control and coordination (as defined by the Department of Defence). The Volkstaat Council submitted a very detailed and complex report on why the SANDF should not adopt an exclusive "thread" language at the expense of other languages which are more representative of the population in question.


The Department of Defence has outlined two criteria to be used when selecting the "thread" language to be used for command, control, management and training:

(1) Applicability: i.e. which language is best understood by the majority of the target group or is required for technical reasons.

(2) Effectiveness: i.e. the use of an official language, other than the applicable official language selected to communicate with minority groups who do not understand the selected language or if this language is required for technical reasons.

Oral submissions were given by a member of the Volkstaat Council; The Southern African Catholic Bishop’s Conference Parliamentary Liaison Office; Ms Moremi (responding as an instructor at the SANDF College for Educational Technology and former member of the non-statutory forces). Another Sergeant of the SANDF was supposed to address the Committee, however, he was denied the opportunity to do so by his Commanding Officer. The Chairperson of the Joint Standing Committee of Defence commented that he would look into the situation for more clarity.

The Parliamentary Liaison Office of SACBC, praised the accountability and the respect for the Constitution which the Department of Defence showed with regard to the Language Policy of the SANDF and expressed the hope that this would continue to be the case in other Defence matters. Based on the experiences which the Catholic Church has encountered with regard to language policy of the Church in South Africa and abroad, Mr. Mike Pothier (PLO) stated that a thread language was definitely needed for the SANDF and that the most practical language would have to take precedence. In this specific case, English was probably the most practical language.

Comment from opposition party committee member: pointed out that the language make-up of the SANDF is approximately 33 000 Afrikaans speakers and the next biggest language group is Zulu with approximately 7 000 speakers. These facts show that a dual English/Afrikaans language policy should be continued with.

Submission by Major Morene (responding as a member of the public) She focused her submission on the effects of language policy on the rank and file of the SANDF, like herself. She stated that Afrikaans was used as the language of instruction, communication of policy, orders etc. However most members were not Afrikaans speakers and therefore found it difficult to understand the technical Afrikaans terms used. In training Afrikaans was used - which caused a lot of confusion. In lectures materials were often translated into English, which was incredibly helpful and relevant as most of the students understood English, and furthermore many of the texts used were British or American. She therefore supported the idea that English should become the thread language, bearing in mind the increasing role which the SANDF will play in international and regional cooperation.

Mr. Marais (NP) appeared to question the objectivity of Ms Moremi.

Mr. Goniwe (ANC) directed to Ms Moremi: If English were to be accepted as the thread language of the SANDF, then what in her opinion would the effect of this be. Would it not cause a rupture in the Afrikaans section of the SANDF. The aim after all of policy makers is to unify the SANDF.

Major Morene believed that it probably would be regarded negatively by the Afrikaans section of the SANDF, however, they are beginning to accept and even expect the language policy to favour English rather than Afrikaans. Therefore these reactions would be overcome, unlike maybe in 1994, when transformation was less accepted.

Mr. Ismail (who is involved in the drafting of the language policy into legislation) assured the committee that any policy which would be formulated would be sent down to the level of rank and file.

The Chairperson, Mr. Yengeni (ANC), said that, from his experience of visiting various military bases, he had discovered that there were many members who both on a formal and informal level speak only Afrikaans, a situation which must be taken into account.

An opposition party committee member in clarifying the language situation in the SANDF, stated that the numbers who speak Afrikaans cannot be compared to the numbers of English speakers, because those who speak Afrikaans have the advantage of speaking their firstt language, their mother tongue, while those who prefer to conduct military affairs in English are not speaking their first language but usually their second, even third or fourth language. Therefore one cannot compare numbers of English speakers to Afrikaans speakers. The fact is that Afrikaans speakers at the moment enjoy the advantage, and therefore a language which can be spoken by the majority of the people in what ever proficiency must be the "thread" language of the SANDF.

Appendix 1: Volkstaat Council


1. Introduction

1.1 The Volkstaat Council realizes that your Department is a specialized agency that has to function effectively under circumstances of rapid change, in normal limes and in combat situations. For reasons of safety and security, and for technical reasons, decisions may suddenly have to be taken and implemented without delay. Complicated and cumbersome procedures to comply with language policy guide-lines may not be advantageous.

1.2 On the other hand, you are setting a trend. What happens in your Department is bound to be regarded as a precedent and may in time become standard practice. For this reason in particular, the thought that you have given to the matter of language and the extensive efforts you are making to arrive at a policy that complies with statutory requirements, are especially commendable. The steps set out in paragraph g-k of the executive summary to facilitate the introduction, review and smooth functioning of the policy are constructive and bound to be most helpful.

1.3 The Volkstaat Council has reservations about the concept of a thread language, about elevating one language to that status, and about the ability of the draft to allay the fears of communities who are anxious to preserve their language and cultural identity. The comments below deal mainly with these points. The Council trusts that they will assist you in your search for a policy design that will be acceptable to the members of your Department and to the communities from which they come.

2. Community rights

2.1 The importance of language for a community and for individuals, can hardly be over-emphasized. A language is the product of generations of social co-operation, a record of the history of the people using it as their national language1. it is the sediment of their culture, probably the most important force that holds their society together. it is, in effect, an expression of the common culture of the people concerned.

2.2 Learning a language for the first time is, in a sense, assimilation into the culture of the environment. in the process of learning, a child acquires the cultural heritage of his people and his times, and a mental set, a life style and world view which the language reflects and symbolizes2. Learning a new language means acquiring new conceptions that have to be reconciled and integrated with existing ways of seeing things.

2.3 In multilingual states the question keeps cropping up as to whether there should be a single official language, or more than one. Small communities insist that their languages should be recognized as such because of their anxiety that otherwise they will be handicapped when participating in international affairs. They believe that freedom to develop their cultures and languages should be protected and supported, and that that should constitute the basis of nation-building. On the other band centralists keep stressing the importance of a single language as a focus of unity and as a medium for inter-regional and international communication. These opposing standpoints have frequently erupted into violent clashes that have upset the national harmony and stability. As language relations are intertwined with power relations and affect promotion and access to employment, the issue has invariably been an explosive one3.

2.4 Therefore, there will always be a need for governments to be mindful of the importance of language issues, and the sensitive and explosive nature thereof4. On the surface everything may appear quiet, but perceptions of unfair treatment or suppress ion can arise unexpectedly and end up in resistance in one or other form and under one or other banner. In the interests of economic and political stability, an aggrieved party, no matter how small, needs to be accommodated.

2.5 From the foregoing it can be seen that the language policy of a department is a matter that concerns not only the members of the department concerned, but also communities that will be affected in one way or another by the policy requirements and decisions. Ultimately the well-being of the entire society will be affected. Communities may be tolerant towards their members who choose of their own free will, or of necessity or from powerlessness, to accept what they regard as a defective policy, but they are unlikely to acquiesce to the long-term effects that that would have on their identity and power.

2.6 Any real or perceived threat or injustice to a first language or mother tongue5 strikes at the root of the community's existence and that of its individual members. It disrupts their view and understanding of the world and of life and of their sense of security. Without the prospect of a secure and functioning language everything that has meaning in terms of the value systems of the community falls apart.

2.7 One point that emerges from community interests in language policies is that individuals exercise their rights in a social, cultural and spiritual environment. They act within their family and community contexts6. Therefore, pressures come to bear on them when they are confronted by language arrangements of which their families and their social and political structures are critical. Tensions may arise, the end-result of which would be uncertainty, instability in the short- or medium or long-term, depending on the power that aggrieved communities have and on their will to use that power.

2.8 A second point is that communities are recognized by the Constitution and that the rights of their members are protected as if they were collective rights7, including rights of self-determination8. Communities will respond to decisions on language matters by government and other agencies, in terms of the rights they have. The responses may be different, even conflicting, but this will not obviate the need to come to a satisfactory solution.

2.9 A third point is that language rights are intertwined with other rights , the most obvious being rights of education, of existence and maintenance of identity, and rights to freedom of religion, of expression, of association and others9. Communities will also view language policies in terms of their effect on these other rights, notably rights of education, culture and identity.

2.10 A final point is that community rights are protected not only by the Constitution and national legislation but also by international covenants, declarations and agreements to which the government has become a party. The most notable of these include Section 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, and measures to give effect thereto10. Governments subscribing to these measures are bound to take legislative and other steps to ensure that the rights of indigenous languages and vernacular's are effectively protected.

2.11 In recent decades, considerable progress has been made as far as the recognition of minority and community cultures and languages are concerned. Education policies whose purpose it was to denationalize them and to relegate their languages to an inferior status, have been abandoned and superseded by systems which foster and promote community languages and development11. From the point of view of political stability and social harmony it was found to be advantageous to give communities what they want, rather than to suppress them. Many international documents and agreements exist, or are in the process of being drafted, to give effect to this new trend12.

3. Language rights

3.1 As said earlier, the rights of communities, or of the members of communities, have not been defined. This will need to be done when Section 185 of the Constitution is implemented. However, there is no doubt that language rights will receive consideration and that they will be scrutinized by representatives of the various communities. It seems certain that reference will be made to the rights which have been or are being considered by governments and minority organizations in their endeavours to give effect to Section 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

3.2 The interpretation and implementation of the provisions contained in the Constitution may raise controversial issues that may ultimately have to be decided by the Constitutional Court13. It is suggested that the interpretation should be liberal, in the sense that it conforms to the international trend in this regard. This would mean that the following rights be considered;

(a) Anyone should have the right to use his language, privately and in public, and in his contacts with the government, government institutions and agencies, the civil service, the judicial authorities and security services and should be entitled to receive communications in his mother tongue.

(b) In particular; persons should, when arrested, be entitled to be informed promptly in their mother tongue of the reasons for their arrest and of any charges against them; when charged with a criminal offence, to be informed in their mother tongue promptly and in detail, of the nature and cause of the accusations against them and to defend themselves in that language, if necessary with the free assistance of an interpreter.

(c) Persons should have the right

(i) to learn their mother tongue and to be instructed in it throughout the whole system of instruction and education including, not only compulsory education, but also kindergartens pre-school education, secondary school education, technical and vocational education, vocational continuing education, university and adult education;

(ii) to an appropriate number of state schools and other educational establishments, located in accordance with the geographical distribution of the persons belonging to a particular linguistic community;

(iii) to education in their mother tongue in areas where the minimum number of pupils to form a class is not achieved in schools that are reasonably nearby;

(iv) to education in the mother tongue in principle by teachers for whom the language concerned is also their mother tongue.

(d) In areas of dense settlement of members of a community, they should have the right

(i) to the use and equal status of their language in the legislation, the administration and the judiciary, in particular also in public institutions and in communications such as official publications, general information, official signs as well as all acts aimed at the general public or intended for public use;

(ii) to local names, signs, inscriptions and other similar information in their mother tongue14;

(e) The provisions of Section 6(3) of the Constitution with regard to official languages15 in the provinces, should also be applicable to regional or other territorial authority areas in which members of a particular community are settled in substantial numbers.

4. Thread language and link languages

4.1 For the purposes of the Department of Defence it would be advantageous to have only one language that is fully understood and accepted by all. It would be advantageous for most of the other State departments as it would be for industry, commerce and finance. However, that is not the reality of South Africa. The second best would appear to be a Lingua franca16, which is not available, and which would have to be fostered, promoted and enforced. There is already anxiety in some Communities that the government and the powerful money industry are both working in this direction.

4.2 From the nature of a first language outlined above in Part 27 it follows that members of the Department whose mother tongue is not the thread language, or, under certain circumstances, a link language, will be at a disadvantage. Few people are able to be multilingual and it stands to reason that those who are will have an advantage in the competition for employment and promotion17. An important obstacle to preserving the Yugoslav Federation has been that its defence force virtually became a Serbian force, In particular, large sections of the population who are not conversant with the former official languages will find it difficult to adjust to defence force requirements for employment and promotion. It may become increasingly difficult to make the defence force representative of the population.

4.3 The situation with regard to the first language of the South African population is set out in the table below, which speaks for itself. It is hard to imagine that a second or third language can be the language "which is best understood", or that the language "which is required for technical reasons", will be the language that is best understood by all concerned

Mother tongue Percentage of total population

isiZulu 22,4

isiXhosa 17,5

Afrikaans 15,2

Sepedi 9,8

English 9.2

Setswana 7,2

Sesotho 6,9

Xitsonga 4,2

SiSwati 2,6

Tshivenda 1,7

IsiNdebele 1,5

other 1,8

Source. CSS, Provincial Statistics 1995.

4.4 The promotion of a lingua franca is also bound to elevate that language to the status of de facto official language, thereby making it difficult, as was the case in the past, for other languages to develop their full potential. As far as political, social, economic and cultural power and prestige are concerned, the lingua franca has the edge, especially if used by both government and big business18. Such a policy may not be able to meet the injunctions of parity, equity, non-discrimination and effectiveness. In addition, the government will find it almost impossible to meet its obligation to "elevate the status and advance the use of these languages".19

4.5 The concept of functional multilingualism will have to be applied with circumspection. Indian communities in South America have described their languages as "technically and scientifically structured", as a comprehensive system of communication and transmission of culture" and have asked that they be given official status. Greenlandic, Eskimo, Lapp, Aromanian and Maori languages are but a few of the small vernaculars that have been given special status next to the official languages in their territories, that have become languages of instruction and whose users are set on developing them into modem languages in the modern sense of the word.

4.6 Reference has already been made to the new trend in the post-colonial world, towards cultural and linguistic pluralism, which is considered to have given multilingual slates a new lease of life. It is regarded as unrealistic to view one language as better suited to culture, science, art and civilization than another. Any language can develop into a modem language, that is what the Constitution has in mind, and that is where the emphasis needs to be placed and that should be the starting point of policy design.

4.7 Care should be taken that functional multilingualism does not detract from the importance of the injunction to elevate the status and advance the use of indigenous languages. Multilingualism is a reality, all languages have to be preserved, defended, strengthened and, where necessary, revitalized and promoted to developed languages in the broadest sense of the term. Restricting the use of a language to certain contexts will amount to restricting the development of the community to those contexts, will be perceived as discriminatory and should be unacceptable.

5. General observations

5.1 People are attached to their language. The mother tongue constitutes an integral part of their culture and its value systems. This attachment will vary in depth according to the perceptions of attack and discrimination or of peace and quiet in matters of language relationships. Opinion surveys and evidence before the Volkstaat Council have shown that many citizens are unhappy. some very unhappy, with the way in which their language and cultural values are being treated, and with inroads into the status and use of their languages by what they perceive as fostering a lingua franca at the expense of other languages.

5.2 The government has to use at least two of the official languages in the conduct of its business. However, in their public addresses and official pronouncements, government leaders and officials use one language in particular. For purposes of employment, promotion and good service, it is better to use one language in particular, in the civil service, semi-government agencies and in business and finance. They interpret the language provisions; of the Constitution, and they are perceived to be doing what they like. The lower cadres have to follow their example. Small communities with little in the way of money, property, purchasing and voting power, are at a disadvantage.

5.3 From the available evidence and experience it would seem unwise to settle for a lingua franca as the apparently easy and obvious solution. other languages are bound to suffer. The insistence of the policy draft on language development and multilingualism is praiseworthy, but there is a real possibility that the provisions of the Constitution, and language policies based thereon, may turn out to be no more than good intentions. In The absence of constant pressure from inside and from outside, and under pressure from other work arid from money shortages, and finally in the heat of operations, there may simply be neither the time nor the money nor the personnel to promote language proficiency and development. The situation is more complex and requires an entirely different kind of organization from that which existed in the past.

5.4 It is suggested that in language policy matters consideration should also be given to the following:

(a) The regional distribution of languages should be reflected in some way departmental organization and in the use of official languages by the government:

(i) Column (3) of the table below shows that in the case of seven of the eleven. official languages, from two thirds to four fifths of the persons having them as their mother tongue are concentrated in six different provinces. In two instances the proportions are between 55 and 60 percent, involving a seventh province, and in two instances the dispersion is wider.

(ii) Column (1) of the table shows That in seven provinces users of one borne language constitute from 57 to 83 percent of the total population of each province. Bearing in mind that a provincial government has to use at least two official languages, column (2) shows that the two languages in each province which are used most include from 54 to 95 percent of the population in eight of the nine provinces.

(iii) On the basis of Column (2) ten of the eleven languages will actually be used as official languages. From column (3) it is apparent that language development programmes benefit large proportions of the users who are intended in Section 6(2) of the Constitution.

Distribution of the population by home language and by province

[Ed note: Table not included]

Sources CSS, Provincial Statistics 1995

(b) Language development should be a separate and important government function It should receive greater priority than it does at present and the budget of the Pansalb should be determined accordingly.

(c) Cultural and Linguistic communities will be increasingly vigilant as regards definitions of language policies and their application wherever they may originate. Not only members of the department, or industry or undertaking concerned, but also, and in particular, the parties, non-governmental organisations and Leaders of the communities to which they belong, will need to be consulted and satisfied on language issues

(d) It is doubtful whether the Defence Force will be regarded as a special case for any length of time Consideration may have to be given to a new organization and new relationships between languages on a regional basis, which may even 'transcend provincial boundaries, The perceptions of community rights and of the detrimental effects that policies may have on rights of identity and survival, and protection against assimilation, need attention. It may be advantageous promote the development and use of languages to the satisfaction of the communities concerned, thereby creating a favourable climate for co-operation between them.

(e) Co-operation between linguistic communities and provincial governments should be a key concept in future policy design and administration. The data on home language in the table above should also be examined with a view to protection and promotion of rights referred to in Part 3 of this submission. Present governmental organization and structures and practices appear to continue on the basis of the previous dispensation under which only two of the languages were official languages. They follow existing patterns on the lines of least resistance, towards unilingualism instead of multilingualism. The defence and security community may find it advantageous to examine the possibilities of regional structures in which neighbouring provinces co-operate in the provision of language services, the protection of rights and the promotion of language development, rather than continuing with the old structures and practices of competing for resources to maintain identical administrations and services in the same language.

Appendix 2: Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference


Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Defence on the Language Policy for the Department of Defence

1. Draft 4 of the Language Policy is a rigorous and well-researched document which sets out the issues with clarity, and which bodes well for the eventual adoption of a progressive and constructive language policy and practice in the SANDF.

2. The commitment to the Constitution, and to the Bill of Rights in particular, is welcomed, and is understood as symbolic of an underlying commitment on the part of the DoD to the values of equality and respect for human rights.

3. The choice of English as the 'thread language' for the DoD is logical and practical. Given the nature of the activities of the defence force, especially in operational contexts, it is imperative that at least one language be readily understood by all members. English would seem to be best suited to this purpose. Sufficient guarantees are provided to allay fears that the use of English will lead to the marginalisation of other official languages. The role of the proposed language monitoring advisory board will be pivotal in this regard.

4. The active promotion of multi-lingualism, as advocated in the draft, is a constructive step, and can only advance the goal of improving inter-group relations.

5. The experience of the Catholic Church. and other denominations which operate across a range of languages. is that the use of a 'thread language' (in South Africa it is English, and Latin still fulfils this function internationally in the Church) does not necessarily lead to the downgrading of other languages. and that creative ways can be found to incorporate them into the life of the institution.

6. We thank the Joint Standing Committee for the opportunity to comment. and we look forward to seeing the firm policy proposals in due course.

Mike Pothier

Research Officer

3rd April 1998


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