South Africa has a new official language. President Cyril Ramaphosa made sign language the 12th national language on Wednesday during a ceremony at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
This after the National Assembly approved in May that Section 6 of the Constitution be amended to include South African Sign Language (SASL) as an official language to promote the rights of persons who are deaf and hard of hearing.
South Africa is now the fourth country in Africa to recognise sign language as an official language.
The other countries are Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda.
According to World Atlas, 41 countries, including South Africa, recognise sign language as an official language; 26 are in Europe, six in South America, two in Oceania, Asia, and Mexico in North America.
According to Dr Claudine Storbeck from the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, sign language was unique to the country it was signed in.
Storbeck said the deaf community had been campaigning for this bill for the last 25 years.
She added this was the first step towards inclusivity and there was still a need to change laws around education for people who were deaf or hard of hearing.
Storbeck said SASL teachers did not have to study the language, for example.
The Presidency added recognising SASL as an official language was an essential step towards realising the rights of persons who were deaf or hard of hearing.
“South African Sign Language is an indigenous language that constitutes an important element of South African linguistic and cultural heritage,” it said.
“It has its own distinct grammatical structures and lexicon, and it is independent of any other language.”
The new legislation seeks to:
* Advance the cultural acceptance of SASL.
* Ensure the realisation of the rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing to equal protection and benefit of the law and human dignity.
* Promote inclusive and substantive equality and prevent or eliminate unfair discrimination on the grounds of disability, as guaranteed by Section 9 of the Constitution.
On Wednesday, Ramaphosa was joined by prominent members of the deaf community, as well as students from local schools for the deaf.
The president apologised for the time it took to sign the bill and said it was a sign all angles had been carefully considered.
He described the event as an historic moment in the history of the democracy.
“This is just the beginning. Much more work still needs to be done to support the language.
“We’re going to ensure proper implementation. It should not only end up with interpretation, but it should filter into other aspects that affect the lives [of those who are deaf].”
Ramaphosa said work had already been done to standardise the language by collapsing the country’s different sign language dialects.
The national Department of Social Development added the Nelson Mandela Children’s Parliament welcomed the signing of the bill.
Its president, Dikgang Morudu, hailed it as a victory for the children’s parliament, which had advocated for recognising sign language as an official language.
The bill was a sign of unity and upheld the rights of deaf people, the children’s parliament’s former president, Hamza Muhammad, said.
“I am happy to hear that President Cyril Ramaphosa has recognised it as an official language,” added Muhammad, who is also deaf.
“We are all human beings who live in one world, and deaf people also have rights. I would like to thank the president for supporting deaf people in the country.”