According to the report, Dawid Kamfer, a councillor of the Eden district municipality, was apparently told by the IEC that he could only ask questions in English during one of its regional meetings in Mossel Bay. Mr Kamfer was, according to the same report, also told that, in terms of a “high-level decision” taken by the IEC, the use of Afrikaans would not be allowed at its meetings. This allegation seems to have been confirmed by the IEC’s Election Officer in the Western Cape, Courtney Sampson, who was quoted as having said that all IEC meetings were being conducted in English due to “sensitivity” and to “accommodate all people”. He also stated that only if someone could not speak English at all, the IEC would arrange for a translator.

Frankly, if this is indeed the IEC’s policy, it does not meet constitutional muster.

Section 30 and section 31 of the Constitution determine, in principle, that everyone has the right to use the language of their choice and that no person may be denied the right, with other members of that linguistic community, to use their language. In addition, section 9 provides that the neither the state nor any other person may unfairly discriminate against anyone on the ground of language. Moreover, section 6 of the Constitution recognises Afrikaans as one of the official languages of South Africa along with the 10 other languages. This section requires the state to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages” and to ensure that all official languages are “treated equitably” and enjoy “parity of esteem”. Accordingly, section 6 requires national and provincial governments to use at least two official languages “taking into account usage, practicality, expense, regional circumstances and the balance of the needs and preferences of the population as a whole or in the province concerned”. Municipalities must also take into account the language usage and preferences of their residents.

The IEC is one of the state institutions established in terms of Chapter 9 of the Constitution with the objective of supporting and strengthening constitutional democracy in South Africa. As such, the IEC is, in terms of section 181(2) of the Constitution, subject to the Constitution and thus all its abovementioned provisions relating to language.

The IEC, in particular, is mandated by the Constitution to ensure the fulfilment of probably the most seminal right in our constitutional democracy – the right to vote and to elect a government. However, instead of realising this fundamental right in context of the multilingual and diverse society envisaged by the Constitution, the IEC seems to be ignoring the constitutional requirements in relation to the use of official languages, hence not taking into account the needs and preferences of the population in the province concerned. Ironically, the IEC believe that they are creating better access for all by using English as the sole lingua franca. This is not unique to the IEC, but a trend increasingly found across national, provincial and local spheres of government and other organs of state, in complete disregard of diversity and multilingualism – which are not only recognised, but protected and promoted by the Constitution.

In the Western Cape, for instance, Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language with 49.7% of the population having indicated this language as their mother tongue during the last national census (IsiXhosa being second at 24.7% and English only the third most used language at 20.2%). In the Northern Cape, Afrikaans is also the most widely used language with 53.8% of the population using it as home language. Afrikaans is also the second most widely used language in the Free State (12.7%), Eastern Cape (10.6%) and North West (9.0%). According to Stats SA’s most recent census figures, Afrikaans is the third most spoken home language in South Africa (English being fourth). Nearly seven million South Africans have indicated this language as their mother tongue, of which 3 442 164 are Coloured, 602 166 are black, 58 700 are Asian or Indian and 2 710 461 are white. In some instances, it is the only language in which some South Africans of all races are conversant. As such, by disregarding Afrikaans, the IEC is not only ignoring a substantial portion of the population, but may in fact be marginalising those South Africans of all races who are not conversant in any other official language. This is by no means limited to Afrikaans, but is also true for the use of all other official languages in those provinces where they are most widely used. The reality is that according to a 2008 survey, more than 30% of black South Africans indicated that they could not write and read English well or at all. Do these South Africans not have the right to be informed – in a language that they understand  – about one of their most basic democratic rights?

It is hence not unreasonable to expect of the IEC, as a Chapter 9 institution, to set an example when it comes to upholding the rights, principles and values enshrined in the Constitution. By not taking practical and positive measures to elevate the status and to advance the use of all official languages when promoting and realising one of the most important rights in our democracy – the right to vote – the IEC is simply ignoring the Constitution.

By Adv Johan Kruger, Director: Centre for Constitutional Rights

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