[lg policy] South Africa: Sparks fly in debate on language parity

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 20 17:09:40 UTC 2012

Sparks fly in debate on language parity

January 19 2012 at 10:19am
By Deon de Lange


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

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

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

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

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


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