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Picture: SABC
Picture: SABC

The SA democratic dispensation was meant to usher in constitutionalism, entrenching participatory governance where citizens are guaranteed rights and freedoms. The constitution promised that all citizens would be equally entitled to these rights and freedoms, privileges and benefits of citizenship. 

In the founding provisions of the constitution, 11 languages were recognised as official languages, with SA sign language being recognised as the 12th a year ago. This was a deliberate attempt by the founders of the constitution to move away from apartheid’s bilingualism, in which Afrikaans and English were the only official languages except in the bantustans, where indigenous African languages were regionally recognised as the official languages of each so-called TBVC states.

Tintswalo, the fictional character President Cyril Ramaphosa introduced in his state of the nation address at the beginning of the year to mark the 30th anniversary of democracy, was meant to symbolise the gains of three decades of freedom. However, her creators were tone-deaf when it comes to the promotion of multilingualism in SA. For instance, Tintswalo has never had the option of writing her exams in the language she understands best. This compares to English and Afrikaans-speaking pupils, who are guaranteed learning through their mother tongue from kindergarten to university.

Reflecting on the integration and celebration of linguistic diversity as guaranteed by sections 29, 30 and 31 of the constitution, can we guarantee that every citizen has access to state information? The constitution acknowledges that social justice demands that we seek to improve the quality of life of every citizen while unleashing the potential of each person. Being able to access information in the languages citizens speak in their daily lives and understand best guarantees social justice, socioeconomic improvements and dealing with social ills such as illiteracy, unemployment, femicide, rape and the high crime rate.

These social ills are increasingly affecting the youth in this country. The unemployment rate among those aged 15-34 was 45.5% in the first quarter of the year, in contrast to the national average of 32.9%. If that was not a clear enough indication that young people in general are struggling, according to Stats SA the unemployment rate among young females is estimated at almost 50%. 

University of Washington professor James Tollefson writes about language as something that is built into the economic and social structure of society so deeply that its fundamental importance seems only natural. The late SA language policy and planning pioneer, Neville Alexander, asked a critical and central question: “Is it possible for us to turn the languages we speak in SA into a resource instead of allowing them to remain a problem?”

In SA it is accepted as natural for English and Afrikaans to be used as languages of socioeconomic and political transactions at every level of society. Yet this language practice maintains the systematic and structural discrimination of apartheid’s bilingualism, where the languages of the majority were deliberately neglected and are now blamed for underdevelopment.

In the past 30 years apartheid’s bilingualism has shifted into English monolingualism, with English hegemony promoted in the interest of convergence by elites, black and white, to their material benefit, ignoring the plight of the far larger black segment of society whose command of English is minimal or nonexistent.

For instance, in SA only English and Afrikaans-speaking pupils are now able to learn through their mother tongue from kindergarten to university. Expanding this to include the rest of the population could play a critical role in the creation of job opportunities using indigenous African languages.

However, this will depend on these languages being used more by the organs of state, especially where critical information that is held by the state is made available in the languages young South Africans understand.        

• Dantile is executive head of languages at the Pan South African Language Board. 

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