High court victory for SA languages

A Brits attorney has won the first round of his battle to force the government to honour its constitutional duty towards South Africa’s official languages.

Judge Ben du Plessis on Tuesday ruled in the High Court in Pretoria that the government had not, in terms of the constitution, regulated and monitored the use of official languages.

He instructed Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana, in her capacity as the responsible Cabinet member, to comply with the stated obligation within two years or to ensure that there was the necessary compliance.

The court also ordered the minister to pay the legal costs of the applicant, Brits attorney Cerneels Lourens.

Du Plessis said the government started out honouring its obligation regarding language in terms of the constitution, but that the process came to a standstill in 2007.

“The process must be resumed, but it is not for this court to be prescriptive about how it should be done before the national government had not honoured its obligation,” he said.

This meant the court could not order the government to adopt a language policy, launch a language audit of all state departments or publish national legislation in all 11 official languages.

Delivering his judgment in Afrikaans, Du Plessis said an English judgment would be insensitive towards Lourens in light of the rights he was trying to protect.

Du Plessis said the country had 11 official languages, which meant that officials in the government could be addressed in any of those languages.

“Afrikaans is one of the official languages. My decision to give the judgment in Afrikaans is also motivated by evidence before court that the respondents, in so far as they indeed don’t understand Afrikaans, have sufficient translation services,” he said.

Lourens said he felt good and relieved at the ruling, which he believed was so widely put that it covered everything he had asked for.

The trade union Solidarity said it regarded the ruling as “the biggest victory for South Africa’s languages since 1994”.

Solidarity earlier this month agreed to throw its weight behind the case by agreeing to cover the legal costs of senior advocates.

Alana Bailey of the human rights organisation AfriForum, which also supported the application, said it would keep on putting pressure on the government to comply with its constitutional obligation and would keep on fighting “small battles” to keep the issue of languages on the agenda.

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