March 5, 2024


National Language Policy

Sign language is now an official language in South Africa.

A SIGN that your voice has been heard!

On 19 July 2023, South African Sign Language (“SASL”) was formally recognised as an official language. This brought the total number of official languages in South Africa to 12. The official recognition of SASL is an active step towards upholding the human rights enshrined in the Constitution, particularly those of equality, human dignity, language and freedom of expression.

In a media press release statement, the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Zizi Kodwa, stated the following:

“As the custodian of the Republic of South Africa's National Language Policy, this day brings us closer to the vision of President Nelson Mandela, of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

With the National Elections around the corner, politicians, members of the parliament and all parties involved in the electoral processes, should strive to make use of SASL in their campaigns in order to provide the deaf and hearing-impaired communities with information in a format that they will understand. By doing this, it will allow the deaf and hearing-impaired community to make the most informative voting decision.

This article will unpack what the human rights of equality, human dignity, language and freedom of expression entail and how the official recognition of SASL relates to human rights and its impact on the deaf and hearing-impaired communities.

Constitutional rights and sign language

The Constitution states that South Africa is founded on the core values of “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”. The recognition of SASL aligns with these core values. The deaf and hearing-impaired community has long been advocating for the inclusion of sign language as an official South African language and they can finally say that their voices have been heard.

Right to equality in relation to sign language

Section 9 of the Constitution relates to the right to equality and provides that all people are equal and should be treated equally before the law. This right is achieved through the promotion of legislative and other measures designed to protect and advance categories of people who have been unfairly discriminated against.

The right to equality also provides that no person may be unfairly discriminated against based on various grounds, including language and disability. This means that if any person is excluded simply because they are deaf or make use of sign language to communicate, this may be categorised as unfair discrimination and an infringement of their right to equality. If any person's human rights have been infringed upon, legal action can be taken against the discriminator or wrongdoer. 

The recognition of SASL will enhance the accessibility of the deaf and hearing-impaired community to various public services, healthcare, legal proceedings and will promote equal participation in democratic activities, such as voting. This decision to officiate sign language is an indication that South Africa is committed to ensuring that all its citizens have equal opportunities and access to essential services and justice, irrespective of their preferred language.

Human dignity, language and freedom of expression

Section 10 of the Constitution provides that everyone has the inherent right to human dignity, which must be respected and protected. Language is an extension of a person's identity and the official acknowledgment of sign language affords the deaf and hearing-impaired community with the respect and dignity they deserve. Furthermore, being able to communicate and be provided with platforms, services and information in SASL, empowers this community to fully participate in society and reinforces that their concerns are being acknowledged.

In terms of section 16 of the Constitution, freedom of expression means everyone has the right to speak, present and express their ideas, thoughts and opinions on any permissible topic. However, it is against the law to promote hate speech and incite any kind of violence. Everyone should be allowed to express themselves in any mode of communication, including sign language.

In President Cyril Ramaphosa's speech at the signing into law of SASL as the 12th official language, he acknowledged that the “official recognition is just the beginning, much more work still needs to be done to support this language.” This means that in the near future, the South African government will be implementing initiatives and support systems to integrate SASL into all aspects of society.

In the upcoming National Elections, the deaf and hearing-impaired communities must be given platforms to freely and accurately address politicians and put forth their concerns. The dialogue between the hearing-impaired communities and politicians must be in SASL through the use of suitably qualified interpreters to equip the deaf and hearing-impaired community with relevant information that they can use to exercise their political rights and right to vote under the Constitution.


The recognition of SASL aims to promote inclusive and substantive equality by preventing unfair discrimination on the grounds of language and disability. We, as South Africans, need to embrace our diverse languages as strengths and not as a barrier to be overcome. In doing so, we equally protect, promote and uphold our Human Rights afforded to us by the Constitution.

Did you know… South Africa now has 12 official languages with the recent addition of South African Sign Language.