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Braam Jordaan
 
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Shabangu making mockery of South African Sign Language (SASL)

17 February 2014, 08:21

Youtube video link: http://youtu.be/Vom6cF0Fpbc

Many Deaf and hard of hearing viewers of South Africa were thrilled to see that South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreter was available during the President Jacob Zuma's state-of-the-nation address on last Thursday night.

For first time in my life, President Jacob Zuma, in his address to the nation, announced that SASL curriculum will be implemented in schools from 2015. This affirms that the Government of South Africa still believes in implementation. I trust South African government and Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) will work closely in the process of implementation of the SASL curriculum.

It was Zuma's announcement that sign language would be included in the school curriculum that had MPs roaring with waving hands. Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr. Blade Nzimande responded jovially by waving his hands in air. In Deaf culture, Deaf audiences will use a more visually expressive variant of clapping. Instead of clapping their palms together, they raise their hands straight up with outstretched fingers and twist their wrists. It is because those Deaf persons cannot hear clapping but they can see waving hands.

I felt inspired by the reaction from Dr. Blade Nzimande as this was a testament of hard work the Deaf and hard of hearing community in South Africa, Member of Parliament Dr. Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen and especially DeafSA have done since the dawn of our freedom and democracy.  By officially recognizing SASL, Deaf people can enjoy their rights on equal basis with others, as enshrined in the constitution and improve their quality of life by means of equal education opportunities. DeafSA through its provincial offices and affiliates has fought and lobbied successfully at various levels of South African decision making levels in order to ensure that the Deaf plight remain on the national and provincial agenda.

However, when I looked beyond the waving hands of Dr. Blade Nzimande, a tasteless gag by a lady in purple dress caught my attention. It was Minister of Mining, Dr. Susan Shabangu. She smirked as she pretended to use sign language by mimicking nonsensical sign language. She was apparently referring to the thoughtless joke of fraudulent interpreter at Nelson Mandela memorial service. Despite this key milestone and important purpose, her ‘playground gag’ was a total offensive mockery of South African Sign Language.

It was infuriating to see ‘playground mockery’ and it made me think after years of advocating for sign language to be a part of the human race, is still to this day, be mocked. Sign Language is my family language and to see this in mainstream peak time television, it was offensive for us deaf and sign language users who are striving for equality.

The South African government has a proud history since our first democratic elections held in 1994 of promoting the rights of persons with disabilities, including deaf citizens.

We are proud to say that South Africa was one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and its Optional Protocol without reservation in 2007. This Convention recognizes the importance of sign language, the deaf and hard of hearing community and culture and protects the rights of all deaf and hard of hearing people to use sign language. It also protects the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people to all other modes of communication that facilitate equal access to communication and to information.

The White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy, released in 1997 by The Presidency, recognizes sign language as the first and natural language of Deaf people, whatever the spoken language of his or her hearing parents may be, and acknowledges sign language as the central focus of Deaf people's human rights. It furthermore notes that sign language is a language in its own right, with its own grammar and syntax, and that there are several regional variations of sign language in South Africa.

Why this was distasteful and not acceptable?

A wonderful announcement made by the president was about education has nothing to do with the mockery of SASL. The Department of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities is very well aware about the concerns raised by the deaf community, that government measures to date have been inadequate for any significant promotion of the linguistic identity of Deaf persons during the compilation of the baseline Country Report on the Implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Many Deaf learners in special schools are not taught in sign language due to the lack of sign language skills of educators. Many Deaf children are not attending school due to the lack of South African Sign Language (SASL) medium schools closer to home. Please have a heart and understand, Dr. Susan Shabangu.

This is also not acceptable to link this to the fake interpreter saga at expense of wonderful SASL interpreters who are working hard on daily basis, mostly on volunteer basis, to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing people in South Africa have access to communication and information on equal basis with others. Due to weak implementation of legislation, we have immense shortage of SASL interpreters. The current ratio is 1 certified interpreter per 10,000 citizens.

There is still no justice for corrupt officials behind the fake interpreter. The ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu's personal assistant Cikizwa Xozwa and her husband Rev. Bantubahle Xozwa, head of the ANC's Religious and Traditional Affairs desk, resigned with immediate effect after the Mandela memorial service. The couple were allegedly owners of the company that fraudulent interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie worked for.  Deputy Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities Bogopane-Zulu chose to align with corrupt officials by declaring that the interpreter was not fake. The government needs to show they are serious in protecting our human rights as enshrined in The Constitution. The government also needs to be serious in fighting against corruption. Dr. Susan Shabangu’s attitude was totally uncalled for.

I wonder if Dr. Susan Shabangu, on her capacity as Minister of Mining, is aware about the fact that there are several deaf miners in this country who are part of the economy workforce. Is it acceptable to make fun of their language?

Such mockery for the sake of laughs - and it was not even humorous to any extent - demeans SASL which has been proven to be a formal language complete with grammar, syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics. We demand that Dr. Susan Shabangu issue an apology to millions of deaf and hard of hearing people as well as the qualified interpreters for such inappropriate disrespect for a language that is recognised as official minority language status in South Africa. I also demand the government officials refrain from mocking sign language in any way ever again.

The South African government can still set a positive example and lead by example by taking these remedial steps in favor of recognising South African Sign Language as the 12th official language.

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” - Scott Hamilton

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