Celebrated annually on 24 September since 1994, Heritage Day recognises and celebrates the diversity of South Africa’s ‘Rainbow Nation’. Our Constitution assures South Africans’ rights to use the language and participate in the cultural life of their choice, as well as the right to join and maintain cultural, religious and linguistic associations with other organs of civil society.
With over 11 official languages (soon to be supplemented with sign language as a twelfth official language), language rights are strongly entrenched – not only in the Bill of Rights, but also in section 6 of the Constitution. Section 6 also requires the government to:
- take active measures to promote and elevate the use of indigenous languages;
- use at least two official languages at the national and provincial levels;
- adopt legislation to regulate and monitor the use of official languages; and
- ensure that all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and be treated equitably.
The 2021 Annual Report of the Pan-South African Languages Board (PANSALB) pointed to the government’s continuing failure to promote indigenous languages and the failure of government departments and institutions to comply with the Use of Official Languages Act 12 of 2012 (Official Languages Act).
The Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill 2022 (BELA Bill) poses a serious threat to language and cultural rights in South Africa, as single-medium schools would soon be forced to provide dual-medium education, and school governing bodies stripped of their power to determine the language and admission policy of their schools. The language transformation processes followed by public universities in South Africa evidence the fact that dual-medium education quickly leads to the extinction or severe dilution of Afrikaans – a language spoken by 14% of the population.
Just last week, the Western Cape High Court ruled on allegations that Stellenbosch University (SU) had violated its language policy for only providing single-medium education during the Covid pandemic. The court found that, on “an objective, sensible interpretation”, the policy would only be “subject to what is reasonably practicable to do in particular contexts, including available resources.”
In the ANC’s January 8th statement 2022, the party emphasised its commitment to “non-racialism as a fundamental principle of the ANC that lies at the heart of our objective to build a SA nation with a common patriotism and loyalty in which the cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of the people are recognised.”
The continued erosion of language rights resulting from the implementation of the BELA Bill and the failure to implement the Official Languages would amount to an unjustifiable and unreasonable limitation to fundamental human rights.
This Heritage Day, let us proudly celebrate our diversity and the multilingual and multicultural population we have. Let us do more to promote acceptance of difference based on mutual respect, human dignity and Ubuntu.
“In our quest for peace we should constantly ask ourselves what we should do to create conditions in which peace can prosper…peace does not fare well where poverty and deprivation reign, it does not flourish where there is ignorance and a lack of education and information…racial, class and religious intolerance and prejudice are its mortal enemies.” – President FW de Klerk’s speech upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Nelson Mandela