South Africa begins talks to promote 11 official languages

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The Independent Online

South Africa is to introduce legislation to promote equal use of its 11 official languages and redress the dominance of English and Afrikaans.

Adriaan van Niekerk, an MP driving the new legislation, said its essence was to empower the people of South Africa by promoting multi-lingualism.

Under the proposed law, South Africa's 11 official languages will be categorised into six language groups because some of the languages are so similar. Government departments would then be required to communicate with the nation in the six language groups.

No legislation will be signed by President Thabo Mbeki unless it is translated into the six language groups. At present, South Africa's laws require legislation to be translated from English into at least one other language before it is signed into law. The other language has been mainly Afrikaans.

Under the proposed law, each government department will have a language committee to implement the policy and monitor the implementation of the proposed legislation. It has been estimated that the cost involved in implementing the new policy will be 1 per cent of the budget of each government department.

Professor Niekerk said a recent survey had shown that only 20 per cent of South Africa's 45 million people understood the Executive when it communicated in English. He said it was unfair that anybody should be expected to do business in their second or third language.

He dismissed suggestions that the new policy was not practicable or too difficult to implement. "Those who say multi-lingualism is very costly have never calculated the cost of mono-lingualism," he said.

"There is a direct link between the lack of mother tongue education in the first seven years of schooling and failures at tertiary levels of schooling. If you calculate the cost brought by these failures at tertiary levels, they are way too high," he added.

He said only 8 per cent of South Africans had English as their mother tongue, yet it dominated official documents. He said a system of "provincial preference" will be factored in to the new legislation.

Government departments will be expected to communicate with a province using the languages used by that province. For instance, if a government department communicates in KwaZulu/Natal province, then it will have to use English and Zulu; communications with Free State province will be in Afrikaans and Suthu.

At national level all communications must be provided in the country's six language groups. South Africa has nine provinces. The draft legislation is currently under discussion and will be presented to parliament next year.