In Issue 1/2024

Addressing Inclusivity in Parliamentary Hansard Reporting

In a groundbreaking decision during a hybrid plenary sitting on 23 May 2023, the National Assembly of South Africa approved the inclusion of South African Sign Language as the 12th official language. This pivotal amendment to Section 6 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, reflects a commitment to promoting the rights of individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Among other things, this change has a considerable impact on official parliamentary Hansard reporting. This article delves into the transition and implications of incorporating South African Sign Language into parliamentary Hansard reporting in South Africa, with a focus on the perspective of the Hansard office.

Background of the Decision

The inclusion of South African Sign Language as the 12th official language in the South African constitution is a culmination of extensive efforts led by Deaf MP Dr Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen and the Deaf Federation of South Africa. This achievement underscores the significance of South African Sign Language as a fundamental aspect of Deaf culture and communication. The Deaf Federation of South Africa has long advocated for the recognition and promotion of South African Sign Language, considering it as the cornerstone upon which various services and rights for Deaf individuals are built. Over the past 12 years, the federation has actively engaged in activities aimed at developing and promoting South African Sign Language, including lobbying for legislative recognition, educational reforms, and employment opportunities for Deaf individuals. These efforts have been instrumental in advancing the visibility and acceptance of South African Sign Language within South African society.

Until 2023, the South African constitution provided for 11 official languages, which include Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, and isiZulu. The addition of South African Sign Language as an official language represents a significant step towards acknowledging and respecting the linguistic rights of Deaf individuals in South Africa.

Prospective Impact on Hansard Operations

The approval of South African Sign Language as an official language marks a significant milestone in fostering inclusivity within parliamentary proceedings. However, it initiates a series of complex discussions and adjustments within the Hansard office. Unlike spoken languages, South African Sign Language relies heavily on visual cues, gestures, and facial expressions, presenting unique challenges for transcription and interpretation. While South African Sign Language interpretation predominantly impacts the Interpreting Unit, Hansard’s involvement extends to ensuring accurate representation of sign language interactions in parliamentary records. This would necessitate a nuanced understanding of South African Sign Language grammar, syntax, and vocabulary among Hansard reporters, posing challenges in recruitment and training.

Logistical and Linguistic Challenges

South Africa’s multilingual Parliament poses intricate logistical and linguistic challenges for Hansard operations. With English being the lingua franca, sourcing language practitioners proficient in both English and another official language is paramount. However, the scarcity of individuals fluent in South African Sign Language would further complicate recruitment efforts. Moreover, while some language practitioners may possess a basic understanding of South African Sign Language, achieving proficiency in this complex visual language requires specialised training and expertise. This limited number of qualified South African Sign Language practitioners might hinder the seamless integration of sign language into Hansard production, and create additional responsibilities for and consequent reliance on the South African Sign Language interpreter.

Collaboration of Sign Language Interpreting Services and Hansard

The approval of South African Sign Language as an official language facilitates communication for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community during parliamentary proceedings. However, Hansard’s reliance on audio recordings might limit its ability to capture sign language interpretation accurately. Unlike spoken languages, South African Sign Language interpretation is inherently visual and dynamic, making it challenging to convey nuances and subtleties in written transcripts. Collaborative efforts between sign language interpreters and Hansard reporters would be essential to ensure the accurate representation of South African Sign Language interactions in Hansard records.

Navigating Inclusivity in Parliamentary Reporting

The incorporation of South African Sign Language into South Africa’s parliamentary proceedings signifies a landmark achievement in promoting inclusivity and accessibility. However, it introduces a myriad of complexities and challenges for the Hansard office, ranging from recruitment and training to transcription and quality assurance. Moving forward, concerted efforts would be needed to address these challenges and ensure effective communication and representation for all participants in parliamentary discourse. By embracing innovation, collaboration, and inclusivity, Hansard can fulfill its mandate to provide accurate and comprehensive records of parliamentary proceedings, reflecting the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of South Africa.

Euphraat Mngadi is the manager of the Hansard Reporting Unit at the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa.

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