Challenging the language of power in South African courts and beyond

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Dr Zakeera Docrat reads from PhD thesis-based book, 'A handbook on Legal Languages and the quest for linguistic equality in South Africa and beyond'
Dr Zakeera Docrat reads from PhD thesis-based book, 'A handbook on Legal Languages and the quest for linguistic equality in South Africa and beyond'

By Zamamiya Majola, Rhodes University contributor


Language constituted in how and what we ‘hear’ and ‘speak’ impacts various aspects of our reality, including how we experience the South African democracy as it stands. Those were some of the words from Judge Belinda Hartle at the virtual launch of A handbook on Legal Languages and the quest for linguistic equality in South Africa and beyond by Rhodes University alumna, Dr Zakeera Docrat, in partnership with Professor Russell Kaschula and Professor Monwabisi Ralarala.

In 2019, a group of linguists, literary enthusiasts, and academics were snuggled up in one of the Seminar Rooms at Rhodes University’s School of Literature and Language. There was a buzzing sense of pride and enthusiasm for the launch of ‘New Frontiers in Forensic Linguistics: Themes and Perspectives in Language and Law in Africa and Beyond’, the first volume of this series, geared at revisioning and radically influencing change in the South African legal systems. Towards the end of the evening, there was chatter between the panellists and audience about the prospects of seeing more of the conversations and discourse arising into further book volumes and launches.

A little under two years later, some of the same faces appeared on a Zoom webinar for the launch of the second edition of the series, this time spearheaded by Dr Docrat. The handbook is based on Dr Docrat’s PhD thesis (awarded from Rhodes University in 2020). The handbook is a first of its kind on the African continent, where Dr Docrat continues to develop the field of forensic linguistics/legal linguistics on the African continent.

Judge Hartle, who wrote the Forward for the handbook, spoke about how it highlights how crucial it is for the state to adopt a diverse language approach to ensure that no one is inadequately represented or mistreated in our legal system and processes simply because they are not proficient in one language - English.

Dr Docrat explained that in 2017 a policy was passed which imposes English as the sole language of record in South Africa’s courts. Judge Hartle gave the audience a snapshot of how negatively this policy has affected South Africans by reading from page 119 of the handbook, highlighting some of the current problems with court interpretation.

Professor Kaschula, Docrat’s former supervisor and mentor, reflected on Dr Docrat’s journey from their first interaction when she enrolled to take isiXhosa as a first-year student at Rhodes University in 2010 through to witnessing her PhD thesis evolving to the handbook.

The 10-chapter handbook was adapted to reach a wider audience. “It is not just a law textbook; it’s a diverse text relevant to various fields from psychology, law, linguistics, sociology, to criminology and beyond,” said Professor Kaschula.

Dr Docrat discussed how language has played an integral part in her 12-year journey in higher education. The handbook includes various African (Kenya, Morocco and Nigeria) and global (Australia, Belgium, Canada and India) case studies on the use of language(s) of record and proceedings in courtroom discourse and the importance of graduating linguistically competent LLB graduated from higher education institutions. The handbook traces the history of the language(s) of record in South African courts and the shortcomings of our legal system, legal profession and the higher education institutions. She gave a critique of how English is given more power over the rest of the official languages, and in doing so, takes power away from the majority of South Africans. The handbook also includes seven recommendations for how we could best transform our legal system to ensure it accommodates everyone equally.

The handbook will appeal to students in the fields of forensic linguistics, legal linguistics, law, language, constitutional law, applied language studies as well as researchers, academics, legal practitioners, judicial officers and members of SAPS as well as those who are interested in language and law and language planning.

Before the launch of more volumes from this incredible book series, make sure you get yourself a copy of A handbook on Legal Languages and the quest for linguistic equality in South Africa and beyond, which is available from various outlets both locally and internationally.


The handbook can be purchased from the following outlets:

African Sun Media:


Barnes & Noble:



Google Play:





Van Schaik Bookstore: