[lg policy] Judicial system ‘must move away from using only English’

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu May 17 10:27:15 EDT 2018

 Judicial system ‘must move away from using only English’
Juniour Khumalo 2018-05-17 14:43
Dr Corné Mulder. Picture: File
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South Africa’s judicial system would serve its citizens more efficiently if
it moved away from the monolingual use of English and incorporated all 11
official languages into the system on all levels.

This was the argument by FF Plus chief whip and parliamentary spokesperson
on justice, Dr Corné Mulder, during a budget vote debate on Wednesday for
the office of the chief justice and judicial administration.

Mulder reiterated his party’s stance during an interview with City Press on

He was quick to explain that his argument was not particularly addressing
the issue of court interpreters or the lack thereof, which he said was a
solution which only cured the symptom and not the ailment.

The ailment, Mulder said, was the judicial system’s embracing of the move
towards a monolingual system using the English language as its medium of
communication and instruction at the expense of indigenous languages.

“The government admits that the courts must be accessible to everyone and
thus it is important to note that language plays a significant role in
making the judicial system accessible to all,” said Mulder.

If the government is really serious about making the judicial system
accessible to all, it needs to address the obvious move towards a
monolingual system, he added.

“The reality is that in many cases, particularly in rural areas, English is
not the lingua franca of the people.

“Our Constitution, in particular section 6, recognises the historically
diminished use and status of the indigenous languages and places an
obligation on the state to elevate the status and advance the usage of such
languages,” said Mulder.

He said the question that the government and the chief justice needed to
answer was whether South Africa was moving in the wrong direction with
regards to language.

“Courts are becoming unilingual and English is the language that is mainly

It would send a good message if law faculties across South Africa were told
they must not only use English as a medium of instruction, but they must
also incorporate other African languages into their training programmes,
said Mulder.

When asked if what he was referring to was not the same “decolonisation of
the academic spaces” that university students have been advocating for
during the fees must fall protest, Mulder chuckled.

“You make me laugh,” he said, without agreeing or disagreeing.

*FF+ stance not borrowed from students*

However he explained that his party’s stance on the matter was not borrowed
from student ideology, but evolved from a report by the Parliament’s
portfolio committee for the office of the chief justice.

The report only mentions language in a single sentence “where it states
that studying indigenous African law is an integral part of practicing law
in South Africa”.

The report states in section 5.5 that:

• The committee notes the judiciary’s view that English should remain the
language of record to avoid unnecessary delays on appeal but parties should
be able to speak their own language(s) in court. The committee, however,
remains firmly of the view that more needs to be done to support
multilingualism in courts. It has suggested that the legal professionals be
required to speak an indigenous African language to practice and that this
be part of the legal curriculum at our tertiary institutions. The committee
agrees that interpretation as a vocation should be properly elevated and
will engage further with the ministry on how this suggestion can be taken

“Let me give you a practical example,” said Mulder. “Imagine a scenario in
KwaZulu-Natal where the judge, the accused and the prosecutors are all
Zulu, but because of the current state of our judicial system they are all
forced to communicate in English resulting in the need for interpreters in
a case that could have been efficiently been conducted in isiZulu.”

In his research on language policy and the use of court interpreters in the
Eastern Cape, Advocate Matthew Mpahlwa highlighted the problem of
unprofessional court interpreters, who were often inadequately trained.

Mpahlwa found that a lack of understanding of regional dialects often
resulted in the wrong translation of local isiXhosa expressions.

He gave an example of someone who was convicted and who claimed there were
inaccuracies in the interpretation of his case.

A review of the full court transcript by the chief interpreter revealed
numerous shocking errors by the interpreter and concluded that the
interpreter’s performance “was alarmingly poor” and “resulted in the
infringement of the administration of justice”.

While Mulder saw the restrictions still hindering the judicial system’s
performance, the EFF’s Thilivhali Mulaudzi at the budget vote debate on
Wednesday argued that the judiciary had often been the last line of defence
for South Africans and had prevented the state from “descending into a
fully kleptocracy republic”.

“Were it not for an independent judiciary our country would still be under
the leadership of that thieving Casanova from Nkandla and his people
[former president Jacob Zuma and those aligned with him],” argued Mulaudzi.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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