A case for African languages in the legal systemDate Released: Wed, 31 October 2018 10:28 +0200
By Sphumelele Ndlovu, Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism and Media Studies Student
In August 2017, African Language Studies Section of the School of Languages and Literatures at Rhodes University reported that they were developing a new Honours module to ‘address the classism and language-based discrimination of our legal system’. At the time, there were only a small number of African academics who were working to develop the discipline.
Fast-forward to October 2018 and the inaugural honors class that registered for the course had much to say. Speaking at the day-long Forensics Linguistics Colloquium, hosted by NRF SARChI Chair in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education Professor Russell Kaschula, Ntombizethu Nyakambi, a student at the department, said the course is the reason she left Nelson Mandela University in favour of Rhodes. She also remarked on how the course exposed her to the legal world, with which she had never previously engaged.
Her classmate, Tholinhlanhla Thwala agreed. Thwala, who is from Swaziland, said that during the course, she realised the problems South African courts faced due to the country’s many languages, are also present in Swaziland. Believing that everyone should take this course, Thwala said she has already recruited three people to register for it next year.
Zikho Dana, another student pioneer of the programme, said the course allowed her to envision herself delivering justice in court for the first time – instead of having to rely on interpreters. She mentioned how her lecturers, Prof Russell Kaschula and PhD student, Zakeera Docrat - who holds an LLB and Masters in African Languages - did not make her feel intimidated because she had no prior knowledge of law.
The last of the students present, Sandisiwe Mafalala, said that the course would be more effective as a year-long course as it was intense as a semester course. She also said she could see the course resulting in the development of new terminology.
This was much to the delight of Dean of Law, Professor Rosaan Kruger, who said law students have shied away from the isiXhosa for Law elective largely due to a lack of terminology. However, the Law Faculty is among the outliers in this regard, she said, as the number of students registering for courses in African Languages in general has increased. This is thanks to the vocation-specific courses such as isiXhosa for Journalism and isiXhosa for Pharmacy. Professor Kruger said she hopes that a course can be developed between the African Language Studies Section and the Law Faculty.
Guest speaker, Cameron McConnachie, who is director of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), Grahamstown / Makhanda office, was lectured by both Profs Kaschula and Kruger during his time at Rhodes University.
McConnachie said he has witnessed first-hand how the lack of African language used in courts has negatively impacted people who are most vulnerable. An example of this, he stated, happened in a case where Eastern Cape schools lacked necessary furniture. When the LRC took the Department of Education to court, their response was that the schools “did not report their needs”.
Further attempts to get the schools to report their needs did not yield much improvement. It was only when they were mandated to announce it on Umhlobo Wenene FM, an isiXhosa radio station, that the reports started coming in. This showed how addressing people in their own language resulted in improving services through the implementation of language rights, where people could understand what was being asked of them.
The colloquium was attended by various other speakers who have had significant impact in the area of language studies and law including: Professor Monwabisi Ralarala who is an Associate Professor and Director of the Fundani Centre for Higher Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology; Cerneels Lourens - a lawyer and language activist who in the case of Lourens v The President of the Republic of South Africa and others forced the national government to pass a language policy; Zakeera Docrat and Prof Russell Kaschula who presented on the ongoing issue of the monolingual language of record in South African courts; Annalise de Vries who serves as Language Planning Coordinator at AfriForum and presented her paper about a linguistic survey aimed at investigating linguistic attitudes, need and choices among legal practitioners; Karien Brits who is the Manager for Language Affairs at the ATKV; and Thomas Wrigley and Miguel Da Costa from language-learning app Uthini, who presented their pilot study on second language acquisition for professionals.