Extolling the language revolution

“An old dog can learn new tricks.” So says retired Judge Albie Sachs, adding that he has learnt a lot from the country’s language activists, who are putting up a worthy fight to secure the official recognition of their mother tongues.

On Tuesday, Sachs delivered the inaugural lecture at the annual Pan SA Language Board (PanSALB) Multilingualism Awards, marking the end of its celebration of 28 days of language activism. The event took place at Cape Town’s International Convention Centre.

Sachs was one of the activists who took part in talks to promote, protect and preserve multilingualism in the country and ensure that its citizens enjoy speaking our 11 official languages.

He told City Press that he was pleased to learn that a Constitutional Review Committee had agreed to make South African sign language an official language.

“The state has the duty to take practical measures to strengthen the languages. Making sign language official will be a major breakthrough,” he said.

In 1993, together with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete, Sachs represented the ANC in talks with the then National Party to negotiate the recognition of languages that had been sidelined during apartheid.

During his inaugural lecture, Sachs had mentioned that he did not think a constitutional amendment was an ideal way to get sign language recognised as the country’s 12th official language.

An emotional defence from deaf people and sign language activists attending the lecture ensued.

In a later interview, however, Sachs elaborated further on his views on sign language and other groups seeking official status.

“An old dog can learn new tricks. It was interesting for me to learn from one of the sign language speakers that sign language is not a disability. It is not just signs but a language. It is a culture and it has a huge amount of humanity.

“There is a particular South African sign language that is different from others elsewhere. That was an educative moment for me and I am firmly behind the recognition of sign language.”

At the Tuesday lecture, representatives of the Khoi, San and Nama languages also made an impassioned plea for their mother tongues to be accorded official status.

“We have been excluded from the Constitution as the Aboriginal Khoisan. This Constitution must change,” said an emotional Khoisan leader and activist, to loud applause.

Sachs said South Africa had accomplished “a lot” when it came to the use of official languages.

“We have done a lot. It is interesting that when people get excited in Parliament they speak in all languages. At one stage, it was very rare to hear an African language in Parliament.”

But the courts are generally still lagging behind.

“We have had discussions about languages of the court. In the Constitutional Court, we made allowance for translations. We said everyone had the right to bring a case to the court in the language of their choice.

"But people are being practical and still use English. It is still a challenge for the lower courts.”

He challenged PanSALB, saying it had been given constitutional powers to ensure that languages were treated fairly, but was “being too polite” when doing its job.

In his closing remarks, PanSALB chief executive Rakwena Mpho Monareng assured Sachs that he was working hard to change the board for the better.

“Today is the day that the phoenix is trying to get out of its ashes and dust. We are trying to rebrand ourselves,” he said.

Visit citypress.co.za to see a full gallery of images from the PanSALB Multilingualism Awards

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