Using forensic linguistics in the pursuit of justice

Associate Professor Ralarala, Director of the Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development
Associate Professor Ralarala, Director of the Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development

By Karabo Baloyi, MA student in Journalism and Media Studies


As part of the two-day Forensic Linguistics Colloquium held by the NRF SARChI Chair in the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education and the support of the Rhodes University Language Committee, on 9 and 10 October, guest speaker Professor Monwabisi Ralarala presented his research on the anomalies in police record construction and sworn statements within some cases in the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Prof Ralarala is currently an Associate Professor in Language Practice and Director of the Fundani Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

After Prof Ralarala completed high school, he enrolled at the University of the Western Cape for a higher diploma in education. “I came to realise that there was a need, based on assessment and performance, to take a closer look at the academic literacy and language needs of learners who were second-language English speakers. This was one of the knowledge gaps that triggered my interest in language studies,” he said.

Under the mentorship of Rhodes University’s now Professor of African Language Studies and NRF SARChI Chair, Professor Russell Kaschula, Prof Ralarala began research into Sociolinguistics and Multilingualism. In 2015, he completed a PhD in Translation and Forensic Linguistics at the University of the Free State.

Prof Ralarala used the working definition of linguistic forensics as the use, evaluation and application of linguistics evidence and language practice to legal processes and matters with the primary purpose to have access to justice.

He began his presentation by explaining the inextricable link between language and the law: “I cannot see how you can successfully handle a legal matter without drawing strongly on language use,” he said.

Sworn statements recorded by the police are a crucial entry point to the administration of justice in South Africa. Due to various factors such as language difference, inadequate translation and unequal power relations, there are many cases where the sworn statements given to the court at the beginning of the case are different from the complainant’s testimony. This negatively affects legal cases in several ways. For instance, the charges brought to the court by the prosecution may not be the correct ones, which creates confusion within court proceedings.

One of the possible reasons for this, Prof Ralarala explained, was the lack of an ethical code amongst police officers when it comes to translation during the recording of sworn statements. With no ethical guidelines, omissions and misrepresentations often go unrecorded and unaccounted for.

An example of this was in the highly-publicised ongoing trial of Pastor Timothy Omotoso, which began in 2019. During the cross-examination of the first witness, the court found out that the charges brought by the prosecution on that day did not match the charges on the indictment form. The court had to ask the prosecution to recheck with all the witnesses in order to understand what charges needed to be brought to the court and to amend the indictment form.

Prof Ralarala argued for the introduction of recorders and Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered translators to be used, in order to prevent these misrepresentations and omissions. “This is an interdisciplinary approach and it will help us to make justice more accessible to everyone. This would help to restore faith in the criminal justice system and help make the legal process more efficient,” he said.