Do­crat breaks down lan­guage bar­ri­ers to law, jus­tice in SA

Aca­demic wins Al­bertina Sisulu Doc­toral Fel­low­ship

Sunday World - - Sunday Report - By Carla Lever

Q&A with aca­demic and lan­guage ac­tivist Za­keera Do­crat.

Con­grat­u­la­tions on your two re­cent awards – hav­ing your MA the­sis voted the best in South­ern Africa by the African Lan­guages As­so­ci­a­tion of South­ern Africa and win­ning the Al­bertina Sisulu Doc­toral Fel­low­ship at the SA Women in Sci­ence Awards. What will this recog­ni­tion mean for you?

It’s an in­cred­i­bly grat­i­fy­ing feel­ing to know that my re­search is be­ing recog­nised at the high­est lev­els of academia and govern­ment. It also casts the na­tional spot­light on a rel­a­tively new field of foren­sic lin­guis­tics – or lan­guage and the law.

You look at how African lan­guages are rep­re­sented in the le­gal sys­tem. Tell us about your cur­rent re­search?

My PhD re­search fo­cuses on lan­guage and the law, specif­i­cally the lan­guage of record in South African courts.

In 2017, English was made the sole lan­guage of of­fi­cial record, but only 9.6% of the pop­u­la­tion in South Africa speak English as their mother tongue. Lan­guage af­fects peo­ple’s rights in courts.

How do you think it changed your world­view to be able to com­mu­ni­cate with a va­ri­ety of peo­ple in their own lan­guages?

By ac­quir­ing an ad­di­tional lan­guage, in turn you ac­quire a key to nav­i­gate cul­tural bar­ri­ers. We live in a di­verse, lin­guis­ti­cally rich coun­try where most peo­ple speak an African lan­guage as their mother tongue. I couldn’t imag­ine be­ing un­able to com­mu­ni­cate with most peo­ple in the prov­ince of my birth­place, the East­ern Cape. You’re able to see the world through some­one else’s per­spec­tive, to re­late to fel­low cit­i­zens and be re­spect­ful of their tra­di­tions.

Since 1996, courts have made trans­la­tion avail­able to any­one who needs it. Why is this not enough to re­ally en­sure peo­ple are fairly rep­re­sented? How can it still place de­fen­dants at a dis­ad­van­tage? All ac­cused per­sons have a right to a fair trial and to be legally rep­re­sented. But can a le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tive de­fend the ac­cused fully when they com­mu­ni­cate through an in­ter­preter? No.

Are there coun­tries where le­gal lan­guage poli­cies are in­clu­sive and work well? Who can we look to?

We could em­u­late the Cana­dian model, with ju­di­cial of­fi­cers and le­gal prac­ti­tion­ers be­ing fully bilin­gual.

Al­though South Africa has 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages as op­posed to Canada’s two, there is no rea­son why there can’t be lan­guage poli­cies for each prov­ince given that there are two lan­guages spo­ken by the ma­jor­ity in each prov­ince.

Aca­demics are of­ten the­ory driven, but was there a prac­ti­cal mo­ment or dis­cov­ery that re­ally brought home the in­jus­tice and short­com­ings of a le­gal sys­tem that can’t ac­com­mo­date peo­ple’s lived, lan­guage­based re­al­i­ties?

How do we en­able ac­cess to jus­tice for the ma­jor­ity of our peo­ple who are not English mother tongue speak­ers?

The case of State v Sikha­fun­gana (2012) re­ally brought home to me how dif­fi­cult it can be for South Africans to nav­i­gate our le­gal sys­tem.

It saw a deaf com­plainant need­ing to tes­tify about be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted, but be­ing at a se­vere dis­ad­van­tage be­cause she couldn’t un­der­stand English or com­mu­ni­cate us­ing South African sign lan­guage. It was heart­break­ing to see how there were so many bar­ri­ers to jus­tice for her.

How do you think we can de­velop and nur­ture a love for, and prac­ti­cal en­gage­ment with all of our coun­try’s lan­guages in South Africa?

It starts in the home! Chil­dren need to be en­cour­aged from an early age to learn an­other lan­guage or lan­guages. Mother-tongue speak­ers also need to value the power and sta­tus of their lan­guage – by do­ing this, oth­ers will be en­cour­aged to learn those lan­guages too.

/ Stephen Pen­ney

Za­keera Do­crat on a win­ning streak.

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