Lack of SA Sign Language interpreters compromises victims of sexual violence

Court proceedings are never kept in abeyance or postponed for an interpreter to be secured. Photo: Supplied
Court proceedings are never kept in abeyance or postponed for an interpreter to be secured. Photo: Supplied


There are nine permanently employed and 20 casual SA Sign Language interpreters in all 864 courts in South Africa to interpret for deaf people during court proceedings.

This is despite reports showing that there are approximately 4 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the country.

Figures from the justice department show that there are 523 district courts (magistrates’ courts) and 341 regional courts in South Africa. However, figures from the office of the chief justice are higher, reflecting 704 district courts, 386 regional courts and 25 superior courts, of which 16 are high courts.

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Even though South Africa will soon make SA Sign Language its 12th official language, lack of interpreters at police stations, hospitals, clinics and courts continues to be a major challenge.

Interviews conducted with the deaf community demonstrate that essential workers in the public sector such as police officers, doctors, nurses and court officials cannot communicate in SA Sign Language.

Stakeholders lamented that patients and victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence are often assisted by their immediate family members, teachers, church leaders or even friends. They believe it is not advisable for such individuals to act as interpreters during court cases, as they are not equipped to handle legal matters, which could compromise victims during court proceedings.

Nonprofit organisations such as Neema Foundation for the Deaf, Deafinitely and DeafSA expressed that the deaf community experiences many challenges at government departments due to communication barriers.

Neema Foundation chairperson Cebisile Ndebele and DeafSA national chairperson Bruno Druchen said that such barriers resulted in many deaf women who had survived abuse having to return to their abusers.

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Reverend Anel Becker-Ferreira, the founder of Deafinitely, said:

There are no SA Sign Language interpreters at police stations, hospitals, clinics, doctors’ rooms, courts or even at the banks. Deaf people have a constant struggle.

Becker-Ferreira, who is also an interpreter, added that deaf people have little to no access to mental healthcare.

There are no psychologists in Pretoria that I know of who can communicate in SA Sign Language. It is impractical for a deaf person to take an interpreter with him or her to such a personal psychology session.

Deafinitely offers counselling to deaf people who have experienced different forms of trauma, including that emanating from the death of a loved one, loss of employment and rejection from society.

Through her role as a reverend of the Dutch Reformed Church in Pretoria, Becker-Ferreira said this year their branch, which caters to deaf people, conducted a course in which they discussed different aspects of trauma and mourning, and discovered new ways of healing.

Speaking on behalf of deaf children, youngsters and women, Ndebele appealed to the public as well as to the private and third sector to consider the double trauma that many victims of sexual and domestic violence are exposed to because of a lack of SA Sign Language experts to assist them.

“The level of physical and emotional abuse that exists in the deaf community is high. It therefore requires SA Sign Language interpreters at every level to ensure that their cases are adequately reported and appropriate action is taken,” said Ndebele.

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Justice department spokesperson Steve Mahlangu explained that “there is an efficient internal process which notifies the departmental language service of the need for both foreign and SA Sign Language services well in advance. Court proceedings are never kept in abeyance or postponed for an interpreter to be secured.

“The department has recently collaborated with the Pan South African Language Board to embark on the training of frontline staff in basic sign language to make our services easily accessible to the deaf community. This initiative will be rolled out in the current financial year.

“During court proceedings, we still rely on the interpreter employed in the department, or alternatively on an outsourced interpreter. The department is continuing to use this approach until such time that the contemplated intervention above has taken off,” said Mahlangu.

The national health department’s Foster Mohale said they did not have permanent officials employed as interpreters in healthcare facilities, “but arrangements can be made for special cases if family members notify the health authorities”.

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