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Multilingualism Action Group

(10 February 2003)

National parliament should not regress on language

We the undersigned are deeply concerned about the recent suggestion by our Parliament’s Rules Committee that English be instituted as the sole language of record of Parliament, and the decision by the Speaker of Parliament to have this possibility investigated further.

Such a step would be in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of the Constitution and of the national language policy recently published by the Department of Arts and Culture and approved by Cabinet. It would constitute a regression in language policy at a time when progress towards multilingualism is sorely needed. Parliament has a special responsibility in this regard, being both a symbol and a potentially effective instrument of our liberal democracy and the values - including multilingualism - on which it was founded.

The suggestion of the Rules Committee, and the willingness of some parliamentarians actually to consider it, smacks of an elitist insensitivity to the serious social implications of decisions concerning language use in the public domain. It completely disregards the fact that language can be used either to limit or to extend access, participation and opportunities for the majority of South Africans who are poor and marginalised and do not understand English. It implies that the majority of South Africans have no interest or no stake in and no right to investigate the recorded proceedings of the National Assembly.

The suggestion that such a reactionary language policy would be “transitional” does not deserve to be taken seriously. In a progressive society, transition should always be closer towards, rather than further away from the ideal. In the case of language policies in South Africa, this means that any change in language policy in any public institution should always be towards increased rather than decreased multilingualism.

To regress on this score in the name of “cost-effectiveness” is obviously to miss the point. In a multilingual society such as ours, language equity is not an optional extra that we can or cannot afford in monetary terms. It is a constitutional requirement entrenching a basic human right, and - like Parliament itself - an indispensable pillar of democracy, which we cannot afford to weaken or undermine. The kind of calculating logic that would sacrifice human rights and democracy in the name of “cost-effectiveness” has no place in our public institutions, and should be exorcised once and for all. Considering the fact that the “costs of multilingualism” are not at all a simple matter of finances and that even in financial terms they are much less than most people realise, we believe that this argument should not be cited as the reason for a distinctly backward step.

We therefore appeal to the Rules Committee, the Speaker and the whole National Assembly to reject the proposal with all the firmness at their command. We suggest that parliamentary proceedings be recorded in at least two, but preferably all the official languages, one of which should be the language in which the proceedings took place. In determining the languages of record, the guidelines for language policy published by the Pan South African Language Board should be followed closely. Herein Parliament should set the example for all public institutions in South Africa.

We would also like to appeal to parliamentarians increasingly to use all our official languages in addressing parliament. If the leaders of our country are ashamed of their own languages, how will they lead the masses in overcoming the colonisation of the mind? In order to facilitate this, a permanent interpreting service for all language combinations should once again be instituted in Parliament.

In addition, the English-only public notices in and around Parliament should be replaced, as a matter of urgency, with notices in all the official languages. Parliament does not belong to a small, English-proficient elite, but to all South Africans.



(Media statement unanimously accepted by a general meeting of the Multilingualism Action Group on 10 February 2003.)

Neville Alexander
(Project for Alternative Education in Southern Africa, lid van die Wes-Kaapse Taalkomitee)

Piet Badenhorst
(Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurvereniginge)

Carole Bloch
(Project for Alternative Education in Southern Africa)

Gerrit Brand

Pedro Dausab
(Nasionale Khoisan Raad)

Amanda de Stadler
(Vriende van Afrikaans, Stellenbosch)

Tsedi Dipholo
(Noluthando School for the Deaf)

Koos du Toit
(Tabema / Taalsekretariaat)

Charlyn Dyers
(Iilwimi Sentrum)

Sandile Gxilishe
(Toegepaste taalkundige [English: Applied linguist])

Annette Humphries-Heyns
(Dowe Federasie van die Wes-Kaap / Sign Language Project)

Liesel Hibbert

Mhlobo Jadezweni
(Isiqhamo sikaPhalo)

Fayrooz Johnson

Monica Kirsten

Victor Khambule
(Vriende van Afrikaans, Soweto)

Wilna Liebenberg
(Suid-Afrikaanse Vertalersinstituut)

Sandisiwe Mangcu

Dominique Mwepu
(Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Studies and Services in Africa)

Koos Oosthuysen

Ncebakazi Saliwa
(Isiqhamo sikaPhalo)

Werner Scholtz

Latifa Shabodien
(Al-Wagah Oasis for the Deaf)

Quintus van der Merwe

Andre van der Walt

Alet van Huyssteen
(Iilwimi Sentrum)


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