By: Lwazilubanzi Mthembu
Remember in the apartheid regime when our mothers and fathers were taught in Afrikaans, a language they didn’t understand, thus they struggled with basic reading and understanding? Remember how they were forced to do woodwork and homemaking classes because they were told they couldn’t be C.E.O’s or even work in offices? Remember how the government gave the schools our parents went to such little money in comparison to the white schools? Remember how the government just didn’t care and when they did say something about the schools of Bantu education that it was just to appease the international market? Well guess what? That picture remained in schools that even we turned our backs on, lesimumu osihlekaya yiso lesi esifunda kanjeyana.
Walk into a very popular school for the Deaf in Lenasia called M.C Kharbhai and you are met with many children of a range of disabilities, including the Deaf (Just so I make this clear, Deaf children are not challenge intellectually in any way, they just cannot hear). These teachers barely know basic South African Sign Language so they opt to teach their students in (oral) English, a language they do not understand. These children study woodwork, home making and Indian hair massaging, they look up at me as a university student and say “do you think I’ll ever make it to university like you?” and I couldn’t break her heart and say “well darling the education system has failed you and therefore before you get to varsity you need to take two more years to perfect your English, you’ll be 25 by then because its likely that you will only matriculate when your 23” so I said to her as I said a prayer in my heart… “There is absolutely nothing you can’t do.” So who will fight for the Deaf when no-one will or can listen to them? Our mothers and fathers could fight for themselves and swore that their children (us) would never be taught like that, but we are sitting back ignorant to the fact that right under our noses, our brothers and sisters are being handed a raw deal.
It only makes sense that South African Sign Language (SASL) can only be introduced as a LOLT (Language of Learning and Teaching) only after it has been made an official language however, after years of fighting by DEAFSA (DEAF Federation of South Africa) and other Deaf activists this “war” seems like it is all in vain. It pains me to have to call a woman in a position as weighty and powerful as Angie Motshekga’s a total ignoramus, as harsh as the word may be I use it with all due respect. Minister Motshekga delivered a speech in which she expressed that before SASL could be acknowledged as an official language that two things needed to take place. The first was that SASL include all 11 official languages in order to cater for all the Deaf communities in South Africa, this however is impossible and absolutely insulting to the Deaf community at large. SASL is a stand alone language just like all the other 11 official languages; it is not derived from English or French. SASL has its own structure, morphology, syntax, lexical variations that are specific to it like any other language, it is not an appendage to any other language or a visual code to English as popular belief has led us to believe. Secondly, our honourable minister ordered that SASL be drawn from all the “other” regional Sign Language, consequently suggesting that SASL is in fact a regional language and not a national one. Not once in her declaration did she allude towards understanding that like any other language, SASL has different dialects. She believes that mama, ma, mother and mom would mean 4 different languages in SASL and not different regional dialects. Deaf people have no problem whatsoever with understanding all these different dialects therefore expressing that these are NOT different languages.
I am not one for speaking so bluntly about my elders however if they are given a position of great influence I expect them to take it and run with it. It’s mentioned in the bible that teachers will be judged harshly and I believe our ministers will too. She, alongside her team must have been placed in that position out of credit and not nepotism therefore I do not understand why I, as a varsity student should be enlightening her on issues she needs to take a stance on and make life altering decisions about.
I’m afraid that indeed we will “die from a lack of knowledge” drowning under a leadership which does not fully invest in the interest of its people. The Deaf condition is dire and no amount of writing and anger can solve it, it needs for revolutionaries to take a stance that they will not back down from, modern-day Biko’s and Mandela’s. Perhaps an uprising of sorts, but I couldn’t bare to think that one day Jesus and I will be sitting sharing a cup off hot chocolate and he will ask me calmly “so I gave you so much knowledge on the Deaf community, what did you do about it?” and my answer would be “learnt how to sign, wrote angry articles and became an interpreter.” I want to be able to put my mug down and say to him proudly: “I used all you gave me to change their worlds.”