By Jessie Taylor

South Africa’s diverse cultural and linguistic heritage has left it with a legacy of diversity, which is most noticeable in the country’s 11 official languages. These languages allow millions of South Africans to access government services in their mother tongue. 

However, to ensure that each language is adequately represented in the country’s judicial system, legislation and other official documents need to be translated into all official languages. This is the work of a specialist team within the Department of Justice and Correctional Services.


Creating inclusive legislation

The Office of the Chief State Law Adviser (OCSLA) established the Translation Unit in Cape Town in 2008 with three Legislative Language Practitioners. At the time, they were appointed to translate legislation into Siswati, IsiZulu, IsiXhosa.

The OCSLA provides legal advice, representation and legislative drafting services to all state departments, municipalities, and parastatals and supports the government to achieve its objectives of transforming South African society.

In May 2010, the Translation Unit became a formalised unit within the OCSLA and started to translate legislation into all the eleven official languages of South Africa. These eleven official languages are Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, isiZulu, isiXhosa, isiSwati, isiNdebele, tshiVenda, xiTsonga, English and Afrikaans. The Unit is overseen by Senior Legislative Language Practitioner.

The Translation Unit currently only provides services to national departments, and due to limited capacity, it will need to be further capacitated to expand services to provincial or local spheres of government. These spheres do, however, have their own Language Practitioner units.

As part of promoting the use of all the official languages, the Unit has ensured the OCSLA office environment has signage in all official languages and observes days of significance relevant to its work. This includes International Translation Day, celebrated annually on 30 September.

The Legislative Language Practitioners will also give lessons on the history, culture and languages of indigenous languages.


Building a multilingual judiciary

Multilingualism in the judiciary was recently highlighted by South Africa’s new Deputy Chief Justice, Justice Mandisa Maya, when she was commended for writing judgments bilingually (in isiXhosa and English) during an interview for the position of Chief Justice in February.

Justice Maya said there is a need to develop African languages for use in courtrooms, and that they would be included in law degree curriculums. This would enable more judges and court officials to work in African languages and would also create more job opportunities for forensic linguistics and legal translation experts.

South Africa’s legal profession adopted English as the language of record after democracy. However, with less than 10% of the country’s population speaking English as their mother tongue, developing legislation into other languages creates an inclusive judiciary for all South Africans.

In addition to promoting the status of all of South Africa’s official languages, the judiciary may soon be embracing a 12th official language. Justice Minister Raymond Lamola recently announced he has gazetted a constitutional amendment for public comment, which will make South African Sign Language (SASL) an official language. This change would allow for the legal recognition of SASL.

Minister Lamola said those with hearing disabilities are often marginalised and excluded in social circles, at work, in schools, at places of worship and at many leisure, cultural and sports events. By making SASL an official language, those with hearing difficulties would have access to government services and resources, allowing them to access their full human rights.

Increasing the number of languages used in legislation and the judiciary offers an opportunity to further the agenda of transformation. It ensures that no one language is seen as superior and allows for all official languages to become a tool for social justice.


International Translation Day

International Translation Day pays tribute to the work of language professionals in bringing nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation, and contributing to the development and strengthening of world peace and security. The annual commemoration, held on 30 September, was adopted by the UN in 2017.

The date celebrates the feast of St. Jerome who is considered the patron saint of translators. The priest from North-eastern Italy is known mostly for translating most of the Bible into Latin from the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. He also translated parts of the Hebrew Gospel into Greek. Jerome died near Bethlehem on 30 September 420.

According to the UN, there “is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in attaining quality education”. It is essential for preserving cultural heritage.


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