OP-ED: Can the adoption of South African Sign Language unify its people?

27 July 2023

On 19 June 2023, the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, finally signed the South African Language Bill on an occasion at the Union Building in Pretoria. The signing of this bill was anticipated by many for some time now, mainly because it addresses the gap created by Sign Language not being an official language in South Africa, thus tempering the rights of its speakers.

 Dr Yanga Majola.

In his own words, the President said, “The official recognition is just the beginning. Much more work still needs to be done to support this language.” And this gives us hope that the government, through the President, will keep their end of the bargain.

South Africa has previously had 11 official languages, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, siSwati, Sesotho, Sesotho as Leboa, Setswana, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga, despite some South Africans such as Balobedu and others arguing that none of the above-mentioned languages represents them, both linguistically and ethnically. One then asks themselves, to whose benefit is the adoption of language(s) if not its users? But that is a story for another day. Today the focus is on the good news for Sign Language speakers.

The Tshwane University of Technology’s Department of Applied Languages in the Faculty of Humanities is one of the few institutions of higher learning which offers Sign Language as a module for all its third-year Diploma in Language Practice students. This brings me to my next point: unless we, those who “think” we do not need Sign Language, should reconsider. In fact, Sign Language should be a compulsory language in schools. Arguably, the adoption of Sign Language as an official language may be the uniting force we need as South Africans.

I say this because the majority of South Africans identify themselves through their language(s) in two ways, linguistically and ethnically. In other words, I am a Xhosa by language and ethnicity. Now regarding Sign Language, no one can be a Sign Language speaker by language and ethnically, so if we all learn Sign Language, it will take us away from the whole issue of tribalism, where we identify more as Zulu than as humans or Africans.

It is not enough for the government to adopt South African Sign Language as an official language without a clear implementation plan ensuring that all levels of education, from primary to higher, learn it as a compulsory language. Because if that does not happen, then what is the use of adopting a language only to be used by its speakers? 

We owe it to ourselves to learn Sign Language now that it is an official language, and all official programs of higher education institutions and all government-related events should have Sign Language interpreters. Both the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) should ensure that they fight to protect and promote Sign Language. PanSALB should, by extension, ensure the use thereof. 

As South Africans, we should own Sign Language because its adoption is a victory for people from all walks of life. South African Sign Language, therefore, does not have any preferred skin colour, nor does it have a preferred tribe. Nobody can use it to promote tribalism, nor will racists use it to promote racism. 

For more information on the Tshwane University of Technology, please contact Phaphama Tshisikhawe, Corporate Affairs and Marketing.
Tel: +27 12 382 4711   Email: tshisikhawerpt@tut.ac.za