Its new status as a national language in South Africa follows a long struggle against forces that put profit over people.
On May 4, 2023, South Africa’s parliament voted for an amendment to the constitution that added sign language as an official language. It was a historic moment, three decades of struggle in the making.
It was a struggle against the capitalistic approach to society that dominates South Africa, three decades after the end of apartheid.
Ever since the country’s embrace of democracy, numerous social movements and activists have protested against the systematic exclusion of people with hearing disabilities from society, and have lobbied, litigated and raised awareness to bring change.
This campaign picked up even more steam after a high school student took the government to court in 2009 demanding that sign language be recognised and provided for the subjects he was pursuing for his matriculation. The court ruled in the student’s favour, adding momentum to the activism for sign language to be made an official language, constitutionally.
To be sure, the South African Schools Act had recognised sign language since 1996. But the absence of a constitutional requirement gave education officials options to either provide the service or disregard it depending on their budgets and priorities. There was no absolute legal obligation to ensure access to sign language services.
As a result, the South African government continued to treat sign language as a secondary matter that was placed in its welfare programmes — which in turn have faced repeated cuts in favour of initiatives that are market-orientated.
Welfare services such as pension benefits to military veterans, early childhood development facilities, disability-friendly infrastructure development and psychiatric healthcare services for mentally ill patients have all been defunded in recent years. In 2016, Guateng Province, for instance, outsourced public healthcare for psychiatric patients to privately-owned NGOs that had no capacity to care for the patients. The Life Esidimeni tragedy, as it is widely known, led to the death of 144 mental health patients.
The apathy towards those with hearing disabilities has also embarrassed the nation before the world. At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013, the then United States President Barack Obama delivered a televised tribute to Madiba. Standing next to him was a fake sign language interpreter — a brutal and a frightening example of how the South African government’s lack of interest in investing in sign language as a human right.
Still, neither the death of innocent citizens nor global shame made the government move with any urgency on sign language. The main reason: the capitalist social relations embedded in South African society. Capitalism recognises people as human beings only when they can help in the generation of profits — through productive labour and through the consumption of commodities.
That is why the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, children, those living with disabilities and the mentally ill are dehumanised by the economic model that South Africa — like much of the world — follows.