The 12th South African Official Language Is Not What You Expect

Sign language

South Africa is sometimes referred to as a Rainbow Nation. This is due to its unique, rich, cultural diversity. The country has 11 official languages. However, the nation is considering a 12th language, the South African sign language. This is a government’s effort to recognize the deaf community and give them a voice.

September is the International Deaf Awareness Month. This special period helps to draw attention to the challenges of the deaf community. In addition, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) also proposed that a day be set aside for the language of the deaf.  Therefore, in 2018, the United Nations declared the 23rd of September as the International Day of Sign Languages.

There are about 72 million deaf people worldwide. However, roughly 80% of them are in developing nations. The number of sign languages used globally is over 300. Sign language involves the use of hands, facial expressions, and body movements to convey meaning to people who cannot hear. Thus, it is a vital means of communication.

South Africa’s Move to Incorporate sign Language in the Constitution

South Africa’s parliament is looking into adopting the sign language as the 12th official language. By doing so, they will join the ranks of nations such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mexico, and New Zealand. These are some of the nations that have declared sign language an official language, and given it legal recognition.

Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize advocates sign language as a right giving hope to the deaf community
Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize

Prof Hlengiwe Mkhize is the Deputy Minister in the Presidency Department of Women, Youth, and Persons with Disabilities. She made this announcement at the launch of the South African Sign Language Charter. This launch coincided with the 62nd year of the celebration of the International Month for the Deaf. According to SA news on 4th September, the minister said,

“I want to emphasize that South African Sign Language is a right and not a privilege and is a language of the first line of commutation for deaf people. The strengthening of inter-sectoral collaboration between the government and the deaf community will make South Africa one of the countries that provide for deaf people’s communication mode in their own local language.”

The Benefits of Recognizing Sign Language as an Official Language

There are over 4 million deaf persons in South Africa. This includes those with impaired hearing. They mainly communicate through lip-reading and sign language. When the government of South Africa recognizes the new language, it will prompt the public to put more effort into its learning. It will also signify that sign language is a means of communication for society at large–not just for the deaf.

In addition, official recognition will promote deaf awareness and deaf culture. It will help in the integration of deaf people into society. Consequently, it will lower or eliminate the discrimination faced by deaf people across the nation. For instance, sign language will be incorporated into school curriculums. This will encourage sign language literacy.

The Role of the South African Sign Language Charter

The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) launched the South African Sign Language on 04th September 2020. The goals of the Charter as stated include;

  • Recognition of South African Sign Language as the 12th official language, deaf awareness activities for the South African public, promotion of deaf culture, access to all services and facilities by deaf people, the inclusion of the new language into the curriculum of all educational level, and professionalization of South African Sign Language.
  • Closed captioning, sub-titles and South African Sign Language go hand in hand and the same applies to lip reading, relay interpretation, and non-academic hand signs that are most prevalent in the township and rural areas. 

How Other African Nations can Emulate South Africa

Sign language is an important part of the culture and community of the deaf. Legalizing it will uplift it to the level of other languages. In addition, it indicates that the government is committed to granting the deaf community equal rights and opportunities. One thing is certain, the legalization will promote the diversity of culture and tolerance for all. In the task of nation-building, no person should be left behind.

The legalization by the South African government is a feat that all other African governments should consider. Perhaps, the starting point should be its inclusion in the primary school curriculum. The reason is that it is easier to teach children than adults. Also, discrimination starts from a young age and gets internalized as we grow. Therefore, fighting discrimination against those with a disability should start from the young. 


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