Many languages, one voice of respect
The notion that SA should have two official languages and downgrade the status of the rest smacks of apartheid-era thinking, write and
ANC spokesperson David Masondo raises some interesting points around language in “Let’s speak as a nation united” (City Press, January 31 2016). However, the Constitution guides us, and is premised on dignity, equality and freedom. Section 6 is not a Utopian provision that lacks practicality. It specifically mentions that practical and positive measures are to be taken in ensuring 11 official languages are used equally.
Section 9(4) prohibits discrimination on a number of grounds, including language. If we apply the proposal put forward by Masondo of having two official languages, the remainder being negated to “national languages”, it would give rise to four issues.
Firstly, discrimination on the grounds of language in terms of section 9. Secondly, it would result in the creation of a hegemonic structure, resulting in the marginalisation of the “national languages”. Thirdly, speakers of the national languages would be excluded from the mainframe sectors of business, politics and access to government, including provincial and local municipalities, healthcare facilities and the legal system.
Let us take the Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012. This statute aims at implementing section 6 within government structures. This ensures speakers of all official languages are able to access government offices and complete forms in their language. If only two official languages are adopted for the purposes of accessing basic services, this will discriminate against speakers of the other languages. These rights are in essence what our democracy is grounded upon.
The adoption of two official languages would have further implications on our section 29(2) right, conferring the right to receive education in an official language or language of choice. Do we want to disadvantage our children further on the basis of language? The fact that the Incremental Introduction of African Languages Policy introduces African languages within schools illustrates the importance not only of complying with section 6 but ensuring our children are able to reach their full potential.
Russell H Kaschula
The proposal of having two official languages would have a negative effect on the legal system, given the fact that section 35(3)(k) confers a right to be tried in a language the accused understands or, if impractical, for proceedings to be interpreted. We would, in essence, be tampering with the right to a fair trial, given the possible prejudice due to a language restriction.
Masondo highlights the interconnection between language and culture, which in fact has a deeper connection, as illustrated in sections 30 and 31 of the Constitution. Section 30 provides that every person has the right to use the language of his or her choice and to participate in the culture of his or her choice, strengthened by section 31 pertaining to the formation of linguistic, cultural and religious communities. In applying the proposal of two official languages, how would we give effective meaning to the realisation of the right in section 30?
The South African banking sector continues in its attempt to ensure inclusivity on the grounds of language. Nedbank’s online banking system provides access to an online consultant in any of the official languages. This is a profound new development.
Regarding possible harmonisation of our languages, the Constitution does not recognise this. This debate began in the 1960s within the ANC and was later raised by the now late multilingual rights activist Neville Alexander in the 1980s and 1990s, never gaining any real traction. What are, in essence, dialects in South Africa have become recognised official languages within the Constitution and among citizens. There is a political and educational background to this that cannot be negated.
There is nothing simple about adopting two official languages and the rest being termed national languages. It is in fact complex in every sense; we have seen that the constitutional provisions are clear and precise. The difference between an official language and a national language is yet to be constitutionally determined. It can be said that the drafters focused on equality and reversing the effects of apartheid.
Nation-building and social cohesion can only begin when we as a collective acknowledge and celebrate our linguistic richness, where language was once used as a tool to divide, now it unites us. If we are to achieve unity based on adopting two official languages and negating the rest to national languages, we are in fact adopting apartheid ideals, an injustice we cannot justify on the grounds of necessity and sufficiency.
Kaschula is the National Research Foundation’s SA Research Chairs Initiative chair in the intellectualisation of African languages, multilingualism and education, and chairperson of the Rhodes University language committee Docrat is the student nominee on the Rhodes
University language committee