South Africa: Justice department should reconsider its court language policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat May 3 13:26:51 UTC 2008

Justice department should reconsider its court language policy

 MAYBE it's time the South African department of justice and
constitutional development defined the guidelines on language policy
used in South African courtrooms. Fourteen years after attaining
freedom, the language spoken in our courtrooms still resembles the
apartheid era and in no way does it reflect the demographics of this
country. It's mind-boggling continuing having court proceedings heard
in English, for example, while the parties involved, such as the
magistrate, prosecutor, defence counsel and accused all speak an
indigenous language. Magistrate's Commission secretary Danie Schoeman
acknowledged English and Afrikaans were the only languages at present
deemed official court languages, but emphasised the need to promote
indigenous languages."However the department is investigating the
possibility of including the other indigenous languages.

"The most important thing to remember is that everyone must follow and
understands court proceedings," Schoeman said. If the Afrikaans and
English languages are still dominant in our courtrooms, then perhaps
it's high time the department wakes up and smells the coffee. Certain
court officials struggle to construct a sentence in court in their
second languages, which are English or Afrikaans. This often has led
to cases being thrown out of court. The injustices in the courtroom
will continue to haunt us unless the issue of language is addressed.

The Magistrate's Act recognises English and Afrikaans as the official
court languages, yet the Constitution names 11 official languages and
emphasises the need to promote and protect indigenous languages. All
languages in South Africa should enjoy equal status and the citizens
who speak them given the right to express themselves in the languages
of their choice. Signs of frustration at the slow pace to include
vernaculars are gradually gaining momentum as some presiding officers
flout the law and subtly conduct the proceedings in their mother
language. Recently a mother-tongue debate was evident at a metro court
when a Port Elizabeth lawyer objected to a presiding officer addressed
his client in isiXhosa. The magistrate, who did not want to be named,
was unrepentant and maintained he had done nothing sinister when he
addressed a respondent in a civil matter in his mother tongue. "How do
you explain the issue of clan to someone who does not understand the

"I informed the lawyer that after I had finished talking to his client
in his mother tongue, I would explain to him everything in English but
he chose to walk out," the magistrate said. "There was another
attorney who was explaining to him during the proceedings." The
magistrate said that in terms of customary law he was entitled to
address the parties as long as an interpreter was present and he made
sure the other party was afforded the opportunity to follow the
proceedings. The attorney who objected felt he had been deprived of
the opportunity to question the witnesses and the applicant when the
magistrate spoke in isiXhosa to his client. "The case was part of
customary law and there is nothing wrong with that. The most important
issue is to make everyone understand and follow the proceedings," the
magistrate said. "You cannot make a decision without them
understanding," the magistrate said.

In a similar incident in KwaZulu Natal, in February it was reported
that a Scottburgh magistrate insisted on conducting the hearings into
the murder of Austrian footballer Peter Burgstaller at a golf estate
in isiZulu. When journalists challenged him magistrate Themba Ndlovu
allegedly pointed a finger at the media, saying: "I have heard that
the media have concerns with me speaking in isiZulu. I will not
apologise because Zulu is an also official language." Perhaps this is
a wakeup call to the department speedily to incorporate vernacular
languages into the system.People must be allowed to express themselves
in languages in which they feel comfortable.


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