NEWS & ANALYSIS

No urgency to promotion of language rights in SA

Zohra Dawood says proceedings of Arts and Culture Portfolio Committee on PanSALB make for grim reading

No urgency to promotion of language rights in South Africa

5 July 2018

A perusal of the proceedings of the Arts and Culture Portfolio Committee, of its 23 May 2018 meeting, makes for grim reading in respect of the work of the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB).

Most telling was that the Portfolio Committee, meeting to discuss the process of appointing a new Board for PanSALB, was unable to arrive at any conclusion because there was all round confusion at its meeting. There were muddled understandings of whether the Portfolio Committee was able to initiate a call for nominations for a new Board in the light of an appeal pending by the Chair of the previous Board; what processes were permissible to draft a term of reference for an ad hoc committee to interview potential candidates and whether it was the role of the Minister of Arts and Culture or the Portfolio Committee to make key decisions on a final slate of names. 

The issue of language and promotion and protection of these as central to identity, cultural and educational life was acknowledged in Constitutional Principle XI of the Interim Constitution. It stated that the “diversity of language and culture shall be acknowledged and protected, and conditions for their promotion shall be encouraged”. Chapter 1 of the final Constitution expounds on the issue of official languages and those commonly used in South Africa, with section 6(5) providing for the establishment of PanSALB. The fact that PanSALB is a Chapter 1 and not a Chapter 9 body is significant in the premium placed on it to actively promote, protect and ensure non-discrimination against all official languages.               

PanSALB was established in 1995 by an act of Parliament (Pan South African Language Board Act 59 of 1995, amended in 1999) and placed under the stewardship of the Department of Arts and Culture, hence the necessary oversight from the Portfolio Committee cited above. 

Its mission is to:    

1 .Promote and create conditions for the development and use of official languages;

2. To promote and ensure respect for all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa. 

Its role is to: 

1. Develop all 11 languages;

2. Promote multi-lingualism in South Africa; 

3. Initiate and research the promotion and development of the 11 official languages, plus Khoi, Nama, San and sign language. 

Its focus areas include the following: 

Status language planning;

Language in education;

Lexicography, terminology and place names;

Development of literature of previously marginalised languages;

Language rights and mediation;

Research; 

PanSALB is mandated by law to investigate complaints about language rights violations, including through hearings.

The elucidation of the mandate, roles, functions and institutional issue areas noted above is not simply a reminder to some.  For many, it may come as a surprise that such an institution exists to give constitutional protections to all South Africans in respect of language and cultural rights. This shortcoming though may be excused on the basis that the institution has been dysfunctional and close to non-existent in terms of its mandate for the last few years.

Fiscal and administrative concerns, including frequent budget overshoots and irregular expenditure in FY2014/15, coupled with an interventionist Board and a CEO accused of financial mismanagement, have dogged the institution and culminated in then Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, dissolving the Board in January 2016. 

This culmination of failures has resulted in neglect in the oversight and implementation of the Official Languages Act 12 of 2012, which has directly hindered the promotion of multi-lingualism in South Africa. Equally importantly, PanSALB has neglected the monitoring of performance of the language policies of government departments, which impedes access to information and services to many. The necessity for the continued maintenance of a Chapter 1 institution, at great cost to the fiscus and that has proved to be weak and ineffective, is one that must be resolved sooner rather than later. 

The conclusion of the process above is a necessary one to determine if and how PanSALB will go forward per its mandate and crucially, in a country like South Africa, where language remains a political issue. To date, much of this has centred around Afrikaans education but the neglect of nine of the 11 official languages is a matter of grave concern. The impact of not learning, teaching and communicating in mother tongue has been widely researched and pedagogical studies indicate its value in the formative years for children. 

The history - or perhaps recent non-history - of PanSALB does not bode well for a vigorous debate and crucially for an action plan to promote multi-lingualism in South Africa. The institution’s actions and performance contradict its own mission, “to provide language products and services that lead to equitable use of all South African languages including Khoi and San languages and sign language, with a special emphasis on languages that were previously marginalised. This will be achieved by developing, preserving, promoting and protecting language rights, and fostering respect for language”. 

Respect for and promotion of language rights remains a key pillar for promoting a diverse and multi-faceted society. Institutions tasked with this work must be held accountable to deliver on this crucial mandate. This broken institution must be fixed with urgency. A new Board comprised of people with the requisite skills and commitment to fulfilling the founding provisions of the Constitution must be appointed post-haste. It is incumbent on the Minister of Arts and Culture to act with urgency and demonstrate in word and deed government’s commitment to the promotion of multi-lingualism and all languages.               

Ms Zohra Dawood is Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity.