South Africa: Should court cases be conducted in English?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Dec 16 16:25:58 UTC 2008

Should court cases be conducted in English?
By Zelda Venter

A Brits attorney will ask the Pretoria High Court to force government
to finalise and promulgate a national language policy so that South
Africans could be served by government departments, including the
courts, in their own language. Cornelius Lourens said in papers filed
at court that as things now stand, all other languages have to stand
back for English, which is the language officially used by government
departments.  English, he said, is being favoured above any of the
other official languages, resulting in a policy of Anglicisation.

"The book Animal Farm, written by George Orwell, which states that
'all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others can
be adapted to our language policy, namely that all 11 official
languages are equal, but English is more equal than the others,"
Lourens stated. He wants the court to force the President to order a
language audit of the national government departments to determine
which languages are predominantly spoken in which regions and whether
the officials employed in those departments are able to serve people
in their languages.

Lourens said the language demographics of a specific region should be
taken into account when personnel are employed to ensure good service
delivery. He said in terms of the Constitution, government was
compelled to, within a reasonable time after accepting the
Constitution, promulgate a national language policy.  Lourens stated
this is long overdue. He said the South African indigenous languages
have suffered great historical neglect and are threatened with
extinction if the court did not step in. He said government, by
omitting to implement a national language policy, is hampering the
other official languages from developing on a high level, which would
ultimately lead to their demise.

He referred to a notice in the Government Gazette in 2002 in which it
was recommended that a proper language policy be put in place to
adequately serve the needs of the communities concerned. Lourens said
it is quite clear that it is not viable that all 11 official languages
be used in every office; therefore government must look at the
specific demographics.

He said at the Brits Magistrate's Court for instance, more people
speak Afrikaans and Tswana, yet only English is used. Lourens said in
criminal cases, the proceedings should be conducted in the language in
which the parties are comfortable with.  If the accused, the
prosecution and the magistrate for instance speak Zulu as their mother
tongue, the case should be heard in that language.  Lourens said this
would curtail court time and the postponement of cases.

He said the fact that court judgments are delivered in English was an
example of how unconstitutional the practice was. Lourens said a
solution to the problem would be for the parties to indicate
beforehand what the preferred language is, and for the Deputy Judge
President, in allocating a judge for a case, to take this into
consideration. He said if this was not possible, court papers should
be translated into the language of preference.

Lourens said the practical effect of the language policy at present is
that English is being furthered. He said government departments should
determine what the language of preference in their regions are, and
then strive at least to make official forms available to the public in
those languages and not only in English.
N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list