Envisaging a Languages' Act for Zim

HARARE - The Constitution of Zimbabwe 2013 has provided a new framework within which legislative and policy reform must take when it comes to local languages as it has moved away from English being the sole official language to the detriment of indigenous languages.

While a constitutional framework means that legislative and policy agendas are prescribed, there is need to analyse the constitutional provisions in order to determine their normative content and the key principles that should inform a possible act of parliament on the use of official languages.

Bulawayo based Nhimbe Trust as the cultural expert member of a grouping of Civic Society Organisations is lobbying on the proposed languages bill in which the Zimbabwe Institute and Centre for Applied Legal Research are conveners.

An academic, Kucaca Ivumile Phulu in a recent key note address on ‘Envisaging A Languages’ Act for Zimbabwe’ said over the years scholars and civic society have noted that there has been an inadequate or incomprehensive approach in regulating the use of indigenous languages in Zimbabwe from the colonial period right through to the adoption of the 2013 constitution.

Phulu said the main provision that provides for languages is section 6 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe 2013.

“This section provides for recognition of Zimbabwe’s official languages, prescription of languages of record, the equitable treatment of recognised languages and for the taking into account of the language preferences of people affected by governmental measures and communications.

“Further the state must promote and advance the use of all languages used in Zimbabwe, including sign language and must create conditions for the development of those languages.”

All the principles applicable in interpreting the declaration of rights are applicable in interpreting section 6 of the Constitution.

The first element of section 6 is that the state must recognise official languages. This is a straight forward provision that is detailed as to what the state must do. Section 6 (1) officially recognises 16 languages making them the official languages of Zimbabwe. It lists them alphabetically and states that;

“(1)The following languages namely Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda, and Xhosa are the officially recognised languages of Zimbabwe.”

“The values that are reflected in the founding principles mirror the concerns of those that have advocated for change in the language policies of Zimbabwe. All these values must be read into section 6 in order to unpack its content.

“Section 56(3) states that every person has the right not to be treated in an unfairly discriminatory manner on listed ground which includes language.

“This means that none of the official languages must be directly or indirectly subjected to a condition, restriction or disability to which other languages are not subjected, neither must it be accorded directly or indirectly a privilege or advantage which other people/languages are not accorded.”

The first important aspect of section 6 is that it lists all the officially recognised languages in Zimbabwe and clearly establishes a multilingual language framework as had been recommended by scholars over time.

“Section 6 is a progressive provision in that regard. The section is couched in positive terms; it imposes a duty on the state to recognise, prescribe, ensure equitable treatment, and take into account the language preferences as prescribed in the section. Further the state must also promote and advance the use of all languages used in Zimbabwe.

“The reference to all languages extends to include languages that are not recognised as official languages. As long as one can show that the language is a language used in Zimbabwe, such language must be promoted to ensure that advancement of its use and conditions must be created for its development.”

Phulu said the list of officially recognised languages is not exhaustive as an Act of Parliament may prescribe other languages as officially recognised. “Subsection (2) also adds that an Act of Parliament may prescribe languages of record. Every individual and linguistic community have the right to the use of a language of their choice in private communication and in public fora without hindrance.”

He added that official language measures have been defined in the South African context as measures to regulate the use of language in an individual’s interaction with the government.

“The term official gives the impression of communication by government in its ‘business’ mode whether in parliament, judiciary and executive.

“The act of parliament that is envisaged must have objective criteria for prescribing these other languages as officially recognized in a process that is consultative, transparent and accountable which are themes of the values of the national values.

“It must also set out the uses of the official languages and the languages of record in detail so that the uncertain situation that obtains is clarified.”

Section 6.2 covers the treatment of official languages by the State, all institutions and agencies of government at all levels.

The Constitution goes further to impose an obligation on the state, all institutions and agencies of government at every level to take into account the language preferences of people affected by government measures or communications.

“In a way, this will entail a recognition that persons affected by government measures or communications may be persons speaking one or the other of the sixteen (16) official languages listed in the Constitution or any other language recognised through an act of parliament.

“As a way of communicating government measures or communication, the state, institutions and agencies of government at every level have to take into account the language preferences of the people.”

People speaking different languages may be found within different settings like geographical spaces or even within geographic space but still having different language preferences.

“A situation that comes to mind easily is a court room in a metropolitan area where people with different language preferences co-exist. Such people when they are part of the court process will need to be able to have the proceedings done or explained to them in a language which they understand.

“There are various other instances in which people come into contact with governmental measures or communications.

“Such instances will include (but are not limited to) seeking educational or health services, interaction with revenue authorities, acquisition of identity documents or interaction with law enforcement agents or system.”

Phulu said the South African act provides for the regulation and monitoring of the use of official languages by national government for government purposes in South Africa.

“It requires the adoption of a language policy by a national department, national public entity and national public enterprise.

“The Act provides for the establishment and functions of a National Language Unit and provides for the establishment and functions of language units by a national department, national public entity and national public enterprise.

“The act also makes provision for monitoring of and reporting on use of official languages by national government as well as the facilitation of intergovernmental coordination of language units.”

Phulu said the language policy must is required to comply with the following points which comply with the provisions of section 6(3)(a) of the Constitution; identify at least three official languages that the national department, national public entity or national public enterprise will use for government purposes; stipulate how official languages will be used, amongst other things, in effectively communicating with the public, official notices, government publications and inter- and intra-government communications; describe how the national department, national public entity or national public enterprise will effectively communicate with members of the public whose language of choice is- not an official language contemplated in paragraph (b); or sign language.

“The contents of the policy take into account the substantive and procedural aspects of the constitutional provision. It requires compliance with the constitution and places the onus on the departments to show how it will use not only official languages but also other languages. It takes into account the fact that there is a right for people to transact in a language of their choice as well as the section 6 requirements.”

Phulu added that the act must set up language management units within the government institutions or agencies. Their roles will be to market the language policy and provide capacity building.

“These must facilitate and coordinate the implementation of the language policy by providing the translation, editing, interpreting, transcription, terminology development and language training services.

“The language unit will have a further mandate to establish language liaison officers in all provinces who will advise provinces on language policy matters and capacity building.

“The language units will monitor and evaluate the language policy to ensure that the policy adapts to changing circumstances and allow for corrective measures to be taken in order to prevent any prejudice to beneficiaries of the language policy.”

He said people with language disabilities and barriers should be attended to these could be either clients of the institution or its employees.

“Sign language and Braille should be used to serve such persons. Particular emphasis should be paid to compliance with section 6(4) and a portion of resources must be allocated to previously marginalised or dying languages on one hand and to braille and sign language on the other so as to ensure their rapid development.”

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