Johannesburg — Justice Minister Dr Penuell Maduna has been quoted in newspapers as saying that English should be used as the only language of record in court.
There is no doubt the minister's comments will not go down well with language activists and speakers of African languages who have tried to ensure that these languages do not become extinct in this country.
To put matters into perspective, the dawn of democracy in 1994 ushered in a new paradigm in language equity and development. The establishment of the Language Task Group (Langtag) as an advisory body to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology was a landmark in the linguistic revolution of this country.
It was intended, among other things, to address "the lack of tolerance of language diversity" and the "fundamental importance of language empowerment in our democratic society".
The inauguration of the Pan South African Language Board (Pansalb) in 1996, to promote and create conditions for the development and use of all official languages, including the Khoi, Nama and San languages and sign language, as well as to promote and ensure respect for all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa, is another landmark in our language history.
Pansalb reaffirmed its mandate in its mission statement to "encourage the best use of the country's linguistic resources to enable South Africans to free themselves from all forms of linguistic discrimination, domination and division and to enable them to exercise their linguistic choices for their own wellbeing as well as for national development".
In our constitutional principles, as encapsulated in the Langtag Report, the goals of our language policy are to promote national unity, entrench democracy, promote multilingualism, promote tolerance towards linguistic and cultural diversity, further the elaboration and modernisation of African languages and promote economic development.
The Langtag Report rightly notes that "it has to be acknowledged that in the case of the Department of Justice, the possible impact of an official language policy on inter-provincial and province-central government relations, for example, the language in which judgments are written, necessitates a special and perhaps urgent in-depth study of this sector".
If Maduna's comments are anything to go by, it seems the sentiment that African languages are a problem will take some time to wither away in this country.
It needs to be acknowledged that language is a fundamental human right enshrined in our Constitution. Over and above this, the Constitution, the highest law in our country, makes provision for 11 official languages which must be used in the courts, parliament and the legislative, judicial and executive arms of government and in all domains of society.
Maduna's comments will therefore not only set the cat among the pigeons, but will cast a shadow on the credibility of our Constitution and the use of African languages in domains previously reserved for Afrikaans and English.
The Langtag Report noted that "no language is superior to any other but historical development and previous social struggles, including colonial conquest, racial discrimination and apartheid made it possible for English and Afrikaans to become the dominant languages in South Africa".
It is against this historical injustice and unfairness that we should all strive for language equity to permeate in all domains of our society.
Language must not be perceived as a problem but as a national resource for mutual enrichment, diversity, multiculturalism/multilingualism, economic prosperity and national development.
As agents of change in the transformation discourse, we should collectively address the linguistic domination in our courts, parliament, education, government and the private sector.
The promotion of multilingualism is not an impossible task. It is a national resource which will foster and improve language equity or fairness in the treatment of all official languages. In the South African context in general and the public service in particular, the use of language in government should be tailored to provide equal access in languages that the people understand.
The Department of Justice cannot be immune from the process. Translation and interpreting facilities should be provided.
How many people have been sent to jail because they were tried in a language they did not understand? How many people were acquitted of serious crimes because the police failed to record cases accurately in English? How many people were sent to jail because interpreters failed to strike a balance between the terminology of African languages and the complexity of the English language? Unless these pertinent issues are robustly discussed as part of the national agenda, some of the comments uttered by influential leaders will lead to serious insecurity in the legal field.
Inasmuch as one is aware that questions of usage, practicality and expense should be taken into account, these should not be used as a scapegoat to deny the masses the opportunity to be informed in their own languages.
Without romanticising and sensationalising the national language question, we need to take heed of what Judge Albie Sachs said: "There are three basic rights: the right to use your language, the right to develop your language and the right to understand and be understood by others.
"These are the three fundamental language rights that ... should belong to all South Africans whatever their language might be." To the extent that our linguistic diversity, rights and heritage are harnessed, we need to be vocal enough to challenge the old-age sentiment that perceives language as a problem.
Language is both a right and a national resource that enables a multilingual country such as ours to articulate its aspirations, longings, fears and needs.
The national language question is interwoven with other matters of national importance that affect the entire nation.
South Africa, like any other country, has had its fair share of historical and political injustices and continues to contend with problems dictated by current historical and material conditions. The legacy of the past is still there. The continued dominance of Afrikaans and English is a case in point.
It is therefore our moral and historical duty to turn the situation around.
The African renaissance will remain an absurd dream as long as we remain oblivious of the fact that "language is at the centre of a people's culture".
"The acceleration of their economic and social development will not be possible without harnessing in a practical manner indigenous African languages in that advancement and development." (The writer is the senior communications officer of the Pan South African Language Board in Pretoria.)