The claiming of language rights is the responsibility of every mother-tongue speaker,The problem is that not everybody is equally informed about their language rights.When we celebrate Human Rights Day on 21 March, it is important to remember that opportunities and rights for languages are one of the by-products of our democracy which is 23 years old this year. The right to use the language of your choice and to participate in the cultural life of your choice are part of the Bill of Human Rights, as summed up in Section 30 of our Constitution.
Language rights are recognised as an important aspect of human rights not only in South Africa but also internationally.
According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) the exclusion of languages boils down to estranging those that speak them ‘from their fundamental human rights to scientific knowledge’. Effective communication is necessary for enforcing human rights such as equal rights to dignity, freedom, justice, health and peace, and that the most effective communication usually happens in the mother tongue. According to the Constitution, national and provincial governments must use at least two official languages depending on factors such as language preferences, practice in the province/regions and costs.
The Use of Official Languages Act (2012) extends it to three languages. The act also makes it clear that municipal governments must consider the languages and language preferences of their communities in the establishment of their language policies. Therefore find out today still what is in your municipality’s language policy and exercise your language rights accordingly. It is important for us to remember that every South African has the right to be educated in the official language or language of their choice, and that we may exercise our cultural life and religion in the language of our choice. In the case of judicial administration, it is also the right of the accused to be heard in the language that they understand. If it is not possible, an interpreter must be appointed. Therefore in practice you may, for instance, insist on an interpreter during court proceedings and you may make your statement at the SAPS in the language of your choice. Make sure that the SAPS officer takes it down correctly because you may be cross-examined on it later. In terms of the Use of Official Languages Act you may also insist on the language of your choice at the state departments.
The Local Government Act and the National Credit Act
You may insist, for instance, that your local municipal account be issued in the language of your choice if you live in a region where that language is dominant. In terms of the National Credit Act the consumer has the right to receive information in the official language that they can read and understand, with consideration of such factors as practice, costs, regional circumstances and needs and preference of the population that is normally served. The Consumer Protection Act also stipulates that documents must be in plain language and understandable to the person they are intended for. Here you can specifically ask the private sector for labels and advertisements in the language of your choice, and complaints about these can be lodged with the Consumer Commission. Language rights are widely protected. In terms of the Housing Development Schemes for Retired Persons Act, for instance, the buyer is even entitled to choosing the official language in which his or her contract must be drawn up.
Language rights are protected even by the National Health Act by Section 6, which stipulates that a health-care provider must, to the extent possible, inform the patient in the language that they understand.
The state may not directly or indirectly discriminate against a person on the basis of culture and language. In case something like that does happen, at every magistrate’s court, higher court and equality court free forms are available where you can lodge complaints of unfair language discrimination. These forms, known as J693, are also available online at www.justice.gov.za.