It was created by UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation) on 17 November 1999 to promote the dissemination of ‘mother tongues’; to achieve a fuller awareness of the thousands of linguistic  traditions throughout the world, and to inspire inter-language solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

The theme for IMLD 2014 is “Local languages for Global Citizenship: Spotlight on Science”. The theme encourages people worldwide to read books, texts, poems etc. in their local or a lesser-resourced language “somewhere in public”. The goal is to raise awareness for all the mother languages in the world.

Because the languages we speak are inseparably linked to our cultural and personal identities, theyare also essential for the enjoyment of our basic foundational rights of human dignity, and equality.

The South African Constitution makes full provision for   the culturally and linguistically diverse nature of our society. It specifically entrenches as the official languages Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. The Constitution expressly states that all of South Africa’s languages must enjoy parity of esteem and equitable use, and also forbids discrimination on numerous grounds, including language.

As South Africans, we ought to have little trouble in celebrating our rich multilingual heritage on International Mother Language Day. However, the strong recognition in of our linguistic diversity in the Constitution is unfortunately not reflected in the reality of language use and development in South Africa.

There are a number of reasons for this.

The first is the Government’s lack of commitment. It did not adopt the Use of Official Languages Act (UOLA) until it was forced to do so by litigation initiated by Mr Cerneels Lourens, apractising attorney from Brits. The resulting legislation is, at best, a skeletal attempt by government to observe the clear language requirements in section 6 of the Constitution. The UOLA was enacted to provide for the regulation and monitoring of the use of official languages by national government for government purposes. It also requires the adoption of language policies by national departments, national public entities and national public enterprises. In addition, it makes provision for the establishment and functions of a National Language Unit.

However, despite the fact that UOLA became law on 2 May, 2013, very few government departments or state institutions have thus far adopted the requisite language policies. As a result, Cerneels Lourens  has once again  found it necessary to litigate against government – this time against  the Premiers of the North Cape and Free State – to force them to carry out their language responsibilities in terms of UOLA and the Constitution(government departments have until 1 November 2014 to finalise their respective language policies).

A second reason for South Africa’s failure to implement the language provisions in the Constitution lies in the fact that the Pan South African Languages Board (PanSALB), which is supposed to promote and develop our official languages, is simply not carrying out its functions as intended.

The PanSALB has long been plagued by mismanagement and neglect. In the latest incident, PanSALB’s acting chief executive Mxolisi Zwane has been accused of irregularly appointing people to fill unfunded posts. Zwane was appointed by Paul Mashatile, the Minister of Arts and Culture, as acting chief executive in June 2012, following the removal of the then-acting chief executive and board for financial mismanagement. Now 28 employees have lodged court proceedings to seek an order declaring Zwane’s appointment unlawful and invalid. Mashatile has been accused of protecting Zwane, and has been criticised for failing to appoint nominees approved by the National Assembly’s Committee on Arts and Culture, to a new PanSALB board. So PanSALB finds itself with an embattled acting CEO and with no board!

The third reason for our failure to achieve the language vision in the Constitution is the strong perception that the government has decided to promote English de facto as the only official language.

This tendency is becoming more pervasive in all spheres of government. Even in Parliament, debates rarely take place in any language other than English. Although the importance of English as a world language is recognised by everyone, this does not detract from the clear requirements in the Constitution that “national government and each provincial government must use at least two official languages.”

This move towards an almost exclusive use of English in government and business is also filtering through to the education sector in South Africa, and is unconstitutional. Afrikaans schools – and the remaining universities that provide some tuition in Afrikaans – are experiencing enormous pressure to gravitate toward English – in clear violation of section 29 which states that “everyone has the right to education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where such education is reasonably practicable.”

The need for mother language education is not simply nostalgia for the linguistic diversity of the past. It has been established that if children do not receive the first six or seven years of their education in their mother language their further education prospects may be severely impaired.  One of the main causes for South Africa’s acute educational crisis is that a whole generation of children have been taught after the third year of education in English – a language that they often do not understand – by teachers who are frequently not fullyproficient in Englishthemselves. In terms of section 6 of the Constitution, government has a duty to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of our indigenous languages”,but has failed to do so.

Ultimately, the languages that we speak are intimately intertwined with our identities and with our sense of human dignity. On 21 February all of us – and particularly government -should consider what we should be doing to assure the realisation of the language rights that form an important and integral part of our constitutional vision.

Adv Jacques du Preez, FW de Klerk Foundation

Photo credit: Nagarjun / Foter / CC BY