More and more countries are recognizing various sign languages as official languages. Two African countries have recently made headway in this area. In May of 2022, a bill proposing the 18th Constitutional Amendment was made available for public input. Its goal is to recognize South African Sign Language (SASL) as the 12th official language of the Republic of South Africa.
What is SASL?
Different sign languages are used around the world. For instance, American Sign Language (ASL) is used in the United States. New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is used in New Zealand. South African Sign Language (SASL) is used in South Africa. Nonetheless, there are many similarities between different dialects. This allows deaf individuals from different countries to communicate with different sign languages.
However, South African Sign Language (SASL) is a natural, self-sufficient language, originating in the deaf community in South Africa. It has its own set of grammatical rules and syntax that are unique. Like spoken languages, SASL has the capability to convey the entire spectrum of human experience. It uses a sequence of signs to express ideas. This is similar to how other languages use a sequence of words. Accordingly, there is no direct, one-to-one conversion between words and signs. A sign can be translated into multiple words. Conversely, one word can be translated into several signs.
Why is It Important for South Africa to Recognize SASL?
As summarized by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson in 1995, in a paper on Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination, “Often individuals and groups are treated unjustly and suppressed by means of language. People who are deprived of linguistic human rights may thereby be prevented from enjoying other human rights, including fair political representation, a fair trial, access to education, access to information and freedom of speech, and maintenance of their cultural heritage.”
Furthermore, DeafSA released a memorandum in 2007 demanding that SASL be recognized as an official language in South Africa. They express that the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution is useless without SASL. DeafSA explains that the Deaf community’s access to human rights is closely tied to the availability of SASL, since it is their medium of communication. Finally, the memo concludes that “Therefore, the recognition of SASL will enable Deaf people to ‘enjoy the same rights’ as other South African citizens, and it is only through SASL that the quality of Deaf people’s lives can be promoted.”
“…The recognition of SASL will enable Deaf people to ‘enjoy the same rights’ as other South African citizens, and it is only through SASL that the quality of Deaf people’s lives can be promoted.”
Background and Development
The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) is a worldwide association striving to guarantee equal rights for the deaf population worldwide. Additionally, the 2020-2030 Strategic Direction of the WFD emphasized the need to advance the legal recognition of sign languages nationally. WFD partners with its Ordinary Members, which are national associations of the deaf community. Primarily, their goal is to gain substantial legal standing for their national sign languages. All nations have this responsibility, according to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).
The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), an Ordinary Member of the WFD, aided in the passing of SASL legislation. Activists established DeafSA in 1929 to meet the needs of the deaf community in South Africa. In South Africa, the deaf community consists of more than four million deaf and hard of hearing people.
DeafSA organizes events and activities to actively promote SASL. For example, they conducted a National Deaf March to demand that SASL be used for instruction in deaf schools. They also registered the unit standard for SASL as an additional language with SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority).
Furthermore, another organization, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), announced official support for establishing SASL as the 12th official language. The Republic of South Africa created PanSALB in 1999 to promote multilingualism and acceptance of South Africa’s official languages. In their annual newsletter for 2020-2021, PanSALB published a charter for SASL. It declared that “all people in South Africa should […] take steps aimed at ensuring that SASL is advanced, promoted, maintained and regularly used in all aspects of life in South Africa.”
In addition, the charter also included pledges to make SASL and multilingual education widely available to deaf children. There are other provisions regarding professional translators and interpreters that should be accessible to a deaf person. The charter was signed by the chairperson of SASL NLB, Mr. Bheki Guliwe, and Dr. David Maahlamela of PanSALB. It was also signed by Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize from the Department of Women, Youth & Persons with Disabilities and Mr. Nathi Mthethwa, the Minister of Sports, Arts, and Culture. PanSALB further details in its charter that the South African Constitution established that SASL is “a fully-fledged language that is indigenous to South Africa.”
Rachael is a high school student with single-sided deafness from California, United States. She was born with her hearing loss and currently wears the Phonak Cros B and utilizes the Phonak Roger On and Compilot II. Rachael works as a Brand Ambassador and Content Creator for Hearing Like Me. She passionately advocates to create a more accessible world for disabled youth through art and writing.
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