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Remarks by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the signing ceremony of the South African Sign Language Bill, Union Buildings, Tshwane

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Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture Mr. Zizi Kodwa, 
Deputy Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Ms. Sisisi Tolashe,
Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Mr John Jefferys 
CEO of the South African National Deaf Association, Mr Jabulani Blose
Representatives of the PAN South African Language Board,
Representative of DEAFSA and SANDA,  
Representatives of the Presidential Working Group on Disabilities
Members of the Deaf Community
South African Sign Language Experts and Interpreters,
Distinguished Guests, 
Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are gathered here this afternoon to witness a milestone in our democracy, the signing of a Constitutional Amendment to recognise Sign Language as the 12th official language of South Africa. 

On the 2nd of May 2023 Parliament voted for the Constitution Eighteenth Amendment Bill that amends Section 6 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

Today we are giving effect to that Amendment by signing the Bill into law.

Our Constitution enjoins on the state to take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of the indigenous languages of the South African people. 

It further notes that that all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably.

We are also giving effect to the provision of the Bill of Rights that prohibits unfair discrimination on grounds such as disability, culture, race and gender.

South African Sign Language has served as an essential communication tool for our citizens living with disabilities, and this step will further empower the community.

By making sign language official, we aim to advance their rights to substantive equality, dignity and also their social inclusion.

To empower people to use their language is to affirm their humanity. 

This official recognition of Sign Language follows an intensive and extensive public consultation process.

A substantial number of submissions were made and considered very carefully to ensure that all issues were appropriately ventilated.

It has been a long road to get here. 

Having sign language recognised as an official language will address access to education, economic and other social opportunities as well as public participation.

People with hearing impairments will be able to also access more services, public information and a host other opportunities.  

Official recognition is just the beginning, much more work still needs to be done to support this language. 

It has to be standardised to collapse various geographical dialects into one standard official version which is the remit of the Pan South African Language Board. 

The fact that the first comprehensive electronic sign language dictionary has already been developed demonstrates the enthusiasm to develop this language. 

PanSALB has already convened its first workshop on lexical and grammatical standardisation and the recommendations of the report produced are currently being enacted.

The next standardisation workshop will convene in the last quarter of this financial year and will again include all relevant stakeholders.

It is reassuring therefore that even prior to this signing ceremony, processes to institutionalise sign language had already begun.  

The Department of Basic Education for example already provides teaching and learning for deaf learners.

Educators in schools are regularly undergoing training on sign language and we have learners who have completed matric using sign language.

Specialised schools for the deaf have to be increased in the country, factoring in geographic spread and need. They also have to be provided with qualified personnel.

It is also crucial that there are sign language interpreters to enable access to services for people who cannot hear or hear properly.  
For many years, lack of sign language interpreters at the courts, police stations, hospitals, clinics and many service centres or points has been compromising access to justice for victims of violence, including victims of gender-based violence and many other crimes.

Policies with fully resourced implementation plans are required to realize the Constitutional ideal of multilingualism.

Allow me to congratulate all stakeholders especially the DEAFSA and SANDA in line with the Disabled People of South Africa motto: “Nothing about us without us” - for all the efforts that they made to make this official recognition possible.

This includes the relevant Parliament Portfolio Committees involved, government departments, as well as every role-player on this great milestone in the history of South Africa. 

Yesterday we commemorated Nelson Mandela’s birthday. One of his most famous quotes was:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

The signing into law of this Bill today, brings us all the closer to that ideal.

I thank you.