Sparks fly in debate on language parity
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Two days of public hearings on the government’s proposed SA Languages Bill have revealed the vexing nature of the country’s multilingual make-up and how divided roleplayers remain on the issue of language rights.
Most participants in this week’s public hearings before the National Assembly’s arts and culture committee agreed that the bill as it stood was inadequate.
Critics also argued that the bill was unlikely to give effect to the government’s constitutional obligation to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of (indigenous languages)” and to ensure all 11 official languages “enjoy parity of esteem and… (are) treated equitably”.
The bill is a response to a Constitutional Court instruction, given in a judgment (Lourens versus President of SA) two years ago, that the government pass legislation – by March 16 this year – that would safeguard the language rights enshrined in the constitution.
But several speakers interviewed on the sidelines of the hearings said that Parliament seemed more concerned with meeting the court-imposed deadline than developing an effective language law.
Many have urged the Department of Arts and Culture to seek an extension of time, rather than rush the bill through the legislature.
The Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging (ATKV) was among the organisations that suggested the bill be adopted “warts and all” to get the process of establishing a national language policy “moving forward”.
Its director, Danny Titus, said on Wednesday that while the ATKV recognised the bill’s shortcomings, “these concerns are not enough for us to go back and rewrite this bill”.
“Let us keep this show on the road. We cannot go back.”
The ATKV – and others – expressed concern that little progress had been made in developing an enforceable language policy since the cabinet approved the National Language Policy Framework and Implementation Plan nearly 10 years ago.
The bill proposes that all national departments, entities and enterprises develop their own language policies, provided they “identify at least two official languages… (to) use for government purposes”.
In choosing these two languages, departments would be required to take into account the language demographics of the area in which the entity would operate, the costs involved and other practical implications.
But they would also be required to explain how they would deal with requests for government information or services in a language other than one of the two chosen functional languages.
This has raised the fear – particularly among representatives of “indigenous” languages – that government departments would inevitably fall back on English and Afrikaans in most areas of the country as this option would cost the least.
Xolisa Tshongolo, of Iliso Lokhozi (loosely translated as Eagle-Eyed or Eye of the Eagle), an NGO that promotes the interests of Xhosa speakers, said his organisation would “never accept” the two-language option.
Instead, he proposed that the government be required to communicate and work in at least six of the11 official languages, of which one must be from the Nguni group of languages and another from the Sotho language group.
Representatives of the deaf and hearing-impaired community have called for the constitution to be amended to include SA Sign Language as one of the official languages.
Professor Sihawu Ngubane, who chairs the beleaguered Pan South African Language Board, surprised many by objecting to the idea of taking regional and provincial language demographics into account when determining which official languages government departments and entities should adopt.
He said this approach – which was a central tenet of the proposed bill – was akin to “going back to Bantustans”.
The bill would also establish a national language unit – and corresponding units in every national department, entity and enterprise – to oversee the implementation of language policies and to assess compliance by state entities.
The unit would report each year to the minister of arts and culture and to Parliament on the “status of the use of official languages” by government departments. - Political Bureau