During December 2016, South Africa will be celebrating 20 years since the Constitution was signed by former President Nelson Mandela at Sharpeville, Vereeniging. This document – the supreme law of our country – underpins the democratic values of our society. The Constitution was regarded at the time of its promulgation as the most progressive constitution in the world, and is the result of a detailed and inclusive negotiation process which was conducted with sensitivity to the country’s history, and due consideration for the future of the (then) new democracy.

Against the backdrop of the current political environment, and the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the new Constitution of South Africa, the SARB Project identified this period as an opportune time to gauge the South African public’s opinion of the Constitution, the institutions charged with the mandate to uphold, protect and defend it, and some of the rights detailed in the document. The findings hereon will be released as part of the upcoming SARB briefing paper – 20 years of the Constitution: People, Institutions and Rights – Sometimes Hope gets quite tired.

An important aspect that was not fully explored as part of this briefing paper, is how South Africans feel about respect for their mother tongue, cultural practices and religion. The South African Constitution states that everyone has the right to use the language, and to participate in the cultural life, of his or her choice. However, “no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.”1 The document furthermore provides for eleven official languages. These are: Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. The official languages are named in the Constitution, and the right to use them and the right to promotion are specified. Furthermore, provisions are made for a Pan South African Language Board to be established by national legislation to “promote, and create conditions for, the development and use of” Khoi, Nama and San languages, as well as sign language. In addition, to promote and ensure respect for “all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa” – including languages used for religious purposes in South Africa.

It is valuable for us, while we celebrate two decades since the signing of the Constitution, to have a sense of whether people feel that their mother tongue and cultural practices are respected. This can help us understand whether South Africans have a sense of cultural security amidst often divided conversations – finding expression in particular on media platforms and during various “fallist” protests during the course of 2015/2016 – in South Africa pertaining to cultural appropriation, the use of indigenous languages (in particular Afrikaans) as medium of instruction at public universities, “Whiteness” and “Blackness”, and decolonisation.

The 2015 South African Barometer (SARB) survey asked respondents whether they feel that respect for their mother tongue, cultural practices and religion will improve or get worse in the next two years – after having clarified that the Constitution requires that government protects the rights of all citizens so that they may practice their cultures and religions, and use their mother tongue languages. The findings pertaining to respect for respondents’ mother tongue language and cultural practices are presented here.

Figure 1: Over the next 2 years, do you think people’s respect for your mother tongue language / cultural practices will get worse, stay the same or get better?

Figure 1 shows that one in four respondents feel that their respect for their mother tongue language will get worse in the next two years, while three in ten respondents feel that respect for the mother tongue will get better. Almost three in ten respondents feel that respect for their cultural practices (32,6%) will improve over the next two years, while 24% of respondents feel that respect for their cultural practices will get worse.

Figure 2: Over the next 2 years, do you think people’s respect for your mother tongue will get worse, stay the same or get better, by race

Responses disaggregated according to race groups show that “White” and “Coloured” respondents are the least optimistic about the prospects of respect for their mother tongue languages improving over the next two years, with 22,9% of White respondents and 18,3% Coloured respondents feeling that respect will improve, but 33,7% White respondents and 32,9% Coloured respondents feeling that respect for their mother tongue will get worse over the next two years.

Figure 3: Over the next 2 years, do you think people’s respect for your cultural practices will get worse, stay the same or get better, by race

Responses disaggregated according to race groups show that “White” and “Coloured” respondents are the least optimistic about the prospects of respect for their cultural practices improving over the next two years, with 26,8% of White respondents and 19,1% of Coloured respondents feeling that respect for their cultural practices will improve, and 31,3% of Coloured respondents feeling that respect for their cultural practices will get worse over the course of the two years following the survey.

Summary

As we celebrate 20 years since the signing of the South African Constitution, it is also an opportune time to reflect on public opinion and experiences of the rights contained therein. The Constitution states that everyone has the right to use the language, and to participate in the cultural life, of his or her choice – as long as it is not in a manner discrepant with the provisions made in the Bill of Rights. It furthermore makes provision to promote and ensure respect for “all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa”. Only three in ten respondents feel that respect for their mother tongue language and cultural practices will get better over the next two years. In particular White and Coloured respondents were less optimistic about prospects of respect towards their mother tongue and cultural practices improving.

Elnari Potgieter is the Project Leader for the SARB at IJR

Tiaan Meiring is the Intern for the Policy and Analysis Programme at IJR

 

[1] The Constitution of South Africa. 2016.  Online: http://www.southafrica.info/about/democracy/constitution.htm#.WDVg69V97cs