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Speaking freely on Freedom Day

Media Statement by the Multilingualism Action Group (i-MAG) on 27 April 2004

On 27 April, South Africans will celebrate 10 years of freedom from colonialism and apartheid. I-MAG would like to use this opportunity to honour our patron, Dr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the first president of a democratic South Africa, who was inaugurated on this day in 1994, and to remind all South Africans of his poignant words:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

His successor, our current President Thabo Mbeki, confirmed this sentiment when he stated:

We will not permit it that our differences in terms of race, colour and culture serve as cause for us to treat one another as other than South Africans who share a common patriotism and common destiny. Neither shall we permit it that any of our languages, our cultures and religions is reduced to a position of inferiority or domination by another.

Statements like these echo the vision of the Freedom Charter, which proclaimed that “All people shall have equal right to use their own languages”. In this spirit our Constitution insists

  • that South Africa has 11 official languages, which should enjoy “parity of esteem” and “equitable treatment”;
  • that the State should make policies to promote multilingualism and enhance the status of marginalised languages;
  • that Government should communicate with the public in more than one language;
  • that every South African has the right to speak the language of her or his choice;
  • that education through the mother tongue is a basic human right;
  • that communities have the right to maintain their cultures and languages;
  • that defendants have the right to be tried in a language they understand; and
  • that discrimination on grounds of language is outlawed.
  • Moreover, the Constitution protects several other rights and freedoms that are intimately linked to linguistic freedom, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, the right to education and information, and rights to health care, housing and a safe environment. Such rights can be understood, demanded, and granted by everyone only to the extent that their languages are set free and empowered.

    For South Africans - as for citizens of any multilingual country - true and comprehensive freedom is inseparable from linguistic freedom.

    Over the past 10 years important strides have been made towards freeing South Africans from the bonds of linguistic oppression and discrimination. Most recently, a National Language Policy Framework was accepted, which binds Government to the use of all our languages when communicating with the citizens of our country. State Departments, such as the Departments of Education and of Communications, have instituted laws and policies that strive towards multilingualism in various public domains. Public bodies, such as the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB) have been set up to promote multilingualism. I-MAG recognises the work that has been done, and continues to be done, to create a legislative and policy framework reflecting the true spirit of our Constitution.

    However, we are concerned about the failure to translate such policies and laws into practice - a failure that could at least partly be ascribed to a lack of political will and an unwillingness to make available the necessary funds and other resources. For the average South African - and especially for the majority who are not proficient in English - the promised freedom has not yet translated into linguistic freedom.

    Freedoms guaranteed on paper do not lead to real freedom unless they are concretised in tangible, measurable changes on the ground. Laws and policies cannot by themselves give access to education, information, jobs or other opportunities. Such access could be created by valorising and empowering the languages through which our diverse people perceive and experience the world, and express their very being.

    People who are forced to function in a foreign tongue on a daily basis are not free to express themselves or realise their potential and, therefore, cannot be said to be truly free. A philosopher once said: “The language of the conqueror in the mouths of the conquered is the language of slaves.”

    Likewise, when people are deprived of the opportunity to learn new languages, and acquire new identities, thereby extending their horizons and possibilities, their freedom remains severely limited.

    We challenge the nation to claim the freedom for which so many had fought and suffered, by freely speaking their languages, learning one another’s languages, and insisting on the tangible implementation of a language policy in every sphere of public life.

    We appeal to our leaders to lead us on the “Long Walk to Freedom” by setting the right example and putting the linguistic challenges we face at the very top of our national list of priorities.

    South Africa will not be free until our people are able to speak freely.

    Issued by:
    Mhlobo Jadezweni (Chairperson)
    Alet van Huyssteen (Vice-chairperson)
    Gerrit Brand (Secretary)
    Annette Humphries-Heyns (Treasurer)
    Pedro Dausab (Member)
    Werner Scholtz (Media Liaison Officer)

    on behalf of the Multilingualism Action Group (i-MAG).

    An Afrikaans version is also available



    LitNet: 27 April 2004

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    boontoe


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