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Sign officially becomes South Africa’s 12th language

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Last month in Pretoria, South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa made sign language the 12th official language during an official ceremony at the Union Buildings.

The move came after the National Assembly approved a request to amend Section 6 of the Constitution to include South African Sign Language (SASL), in May. The official amendment aims to promote the rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing and states it will:

  • Advance the cultural acceptance of SASL.
  • Ensure the realization of the rights of people who are deaf and hard of hearing to equal protection and benefit of the law and human dignity.
  • Promote inclusive and substantive equality and prevent or eliminate unfair discrimination on the grounds of disability, as guaranteed by Section 9 of the Constitution

This makes South Africa the fourth African country to recognize sign language as an official language, after Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Uganda. 

Dr Claudine Storbeck of the Centre for Deaf Studies at the University of Witwatersrand said the constitutional recognition of sign language had been campaigned for in South Africa for the last 25 years.

Although this is a significant move, the deaf and hard of hearing community in South Africa is still campaigning for changes in education law, including increases in the extent of study for SASL teachers. 

A statement by the government noted SASL’s status as an indigenous language:”South African Sign Language is an indigenous language that constitutes an important element of South African linguistic and cultural heritage” 

The statement adds “It has its own distinct grammatical structures and lexicon, and it is independent of any other language.”

To announce the news, President Ramaphosa was joined by prominent members of the deaf community, as well as students from local schools for the deaf and hard of hearing.

He described the event as an historic moment in the history of South African democracy and apologized for the time it had taken to make this change happen.

“This is just the beginning. Much more work still needs to be done to support the language.

“We’re going to ensure proper implementation. It should not only end up with interpretation, but it should filter into other aspects that affect the lives [of those who are deaf].”



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