Sign Language Bill – A landslide victory for deaf community

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By: Kamohelo Teele

Head of State and the Executive H.E President Cyril Ramaphosa have signed the South African Sign Language 18th constitutional amendment Bill into law on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Essentially, Section 6 (1) of the constitution of the republic has been amended and will now encompass 12 official languages to include South African Sign Language (SASL) as an official language in order to advance the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people.

With this proposal, South Africa becomes the fourth African country to recognize sign language as an official language, joining Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda.

The designation of South African Sign Language (SASL) as the 12th official language is an essential step toward realizing the rights of deaf and hard of hearing people.

South African Sign Language is an indigenous language that is an essential part of the country’s linguistic and cultural legacy. It has its unique grammatical structures and lexicon, and it is not related to any other language.

In addition, the inclusion of South African Sign Language in the constitution protects, promote inherent constitutional rights of the marginalized communities that has been denied a language on their origin since the dawn and advent of constitutional democracy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is one of the key pioneering figures behind both the interim and final constitution (Act 108 of 1996).

We have adopted a constitution many said it is the best in the world, others compare it to the Canadian constitution because it protects the rights of South Africans. In addition, we have adopted a constitution that has founding values like non-racialism, achievement for equality, human dignity and supremacy of the constitution. Furthermore, we have the bill of rights as the cornerstone of the constitution, Section 9 Equality clause and Section 10 dignity clause. Despite these progressive efforts transitioning into democracy, we still have the remaining marginalized section of South African society that have not reaped the fruits of this beloved constitution.

I am referring to Sign Language speaking people in South Africa, when our leaders drafted the constitution in the early 90s in the constitutional assembly they did so to the exclusive preserve of the South African Language, in essence they drafted a constitution which included only 11 official languages.

Due to the powers that comes with the constitution by virtue of supremacy clause it means the official languages recognized in the constitution possessed power over languages which were not included in the constitution. In addition, these indigenous languages go along with their cultural identity, traditions and customs.

Deaf people have been denied language of birth and subsequently experienced monumental challenges in the Post94 South Africa, these challenges comprise of inadequate family structures, social and political orientation, economic exclusion and overall crisis of Deaf Education as a result of language barrier. It is the same language barrier that has delegitimized their personal and social standing and left them in squalor, poverty and destitute, it is the same language barrier that has made them feel inadequate, lacking sense of belonging, patriotism and overall sense of being a proud South African. The absence of South African Sign Language in the constitution has ripped a deaf man apart, stripped their dignity, made him to beg, to survive in a society that was not prepared to listen, a society that was not prepared to learn his language.

The state that a Deaf man has been subject to reminds of the famous poem “Things fall apart”authored by William Butler Yeats, that poem is a poem of anxiety and uncertainty.

In the opening stanza (paragraph) the poet uses a figure of speech by alluding that a falcon cannot hear a falconer, things fall apart, and the centre cannot hold. The statement has many connotations and though the poet in symbolic form meant violence (Word war 1 which affected global population), my argument is that a Deaf man has been treated like a falcon, he has been lost, fell apart in the last 29 years of our democratic dispensation, that loss should be attributed to the absence of SA Sign Language in the South African constitution.

The new legislation aims to advance the cultural acceptance of SASL, ensure the realization of deaf and hard of hearing people’s rights to equal protection and benefit of the law and human dignity; and promote inclusive and substantive equality, as promised by Section 9 of the Constitution, and prevent or eliminate unfair discrimination. The bill will improve the quality of Deaf Education and give economic opportunities to deaf communities.

New pathway

The state of Deaf Education

The South African government has made quality education a top priority for all its residents, including those with hearing problems. To accomplish this goal, the government has launched several programs and projects aimed primarily at improving deaf education in South Africa.

The National Curriculum Framework for Deaf Education, which was released in 2011, is one such initiative. This curriculum serves as a complete guide for instructors dealing with deaf pupils, with an emphasis on strengthening communication and language abilities. The South African government has established the National Centre for Deaf Education in addition to the National Curriculum Framework.

This centre provides educators with training and tools, as well as conducting research on deaf education in South Africa. South Africa’s government is dedicated to promoting deaf education and has made great strides in recent years. However, more work must be done to guarantee that all deaf students have access to quality education.

It is not recognized as a South African Sign Language (SASL) Learning and Teaching (LOLT) Language. There aren’t enough Deaf role models. One out of every three deaf people is unable to learn a language. Most deaf graduates have few options for furthering their education or pursuing professional obligations.

The purpose of South African Sign Language (SASL) is to offer a deaf learner with equal access to a hearing-impaired education. SASL is still recognized as an elective subject in grades 12 and above. Students who do not have enough formal education to attend university are frequently obliged to return to school for the deaf to become instructors.

Economic opportunities

When the country’s unemployment rate rises, there is more competition for job openings and less space for people with disabilities to engage in the economy through work. Unemployment has a significant impact on their lives, and they eventually must rely on disability grants, family members, and charitable organizations to make ends meet (Graham, Moodley, & Selipsky 2013).

People with disabilities are still not treated as equally as others when it comes to economic development (Faizal, Kusnandar, & Sulaeman 2020), leading to this population’s disproportionately high unemployment rate.

Their median unemployment rate is 7.6%, according to International Labour Organization Statistics (ILOSTAT) (2022), compared to 6.0% for those without disabilities.

Even when employed, people with disabilities are more likely than non-disabled people to be underemployed, earn less money, and have less prospects for advancement. According to the White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2015) people with disabilities are less likely than those without impairments to have finished a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Those with higher levels of education were more likely to be employed than those with lower levels of education in both groups. Income-generating techniques are becoming practical as an alternative to paid employment for people with disabilities who are frequently excluded from conventional employment.

Giving people with disabilities the ability to create income allows them to be financially independent and completely integrated into society. According to Mpofu et al. (2011), persons with disabilities and their families must be empowered to care for their needs and take charge of their lives and decisions, which leads to a better future. Economic empowerment of people with disabilities leads in increased personhood and autonomy, as well as economic benefits for society.

Many scholars and researchers support the philosophy of economic empowerment, arguing that it promotes sustainability and people-centred development while reducing reliance on state resources. Economic empowerment increases access to economic resources and opportunities such as employment and asset acquisition.

The new Bill which has been signed into law will compel South African government to create meaning job opportunities for deaf people and ensure their social and economic justice, this bill is a landslide victory in a sense that it restores the dignity of deaf people through the promotion and protection of universal rights to access to information and economic opportunities.

In a constitutional sense, this amendment is progressive because it will integrate the marginalized sectors into economic ownership and create better economic opportunities, sense of autonomy and individual respect into lives of deaf people.

Kamohelo Teele is the National Spokesperson of South African Deaf Youth Development Organization and serves in the Disability Advisory Committee of the South African Human Rights Commission. He writes on his personal capacity.



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