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Saluting South African Sign Language

5 November 2023

Some of the attendees at the event

Story by Simon Manda

Photos by Nenio Mbazima

To celebrate the accomplishment of the inclusion of the South African Sign Language (SASL) as the 12th official language of South Africa, the Gauteng Premier’s Department partnered with several organizations that represent the deaf community, namely the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA), Employ and Empower Deaf (eDeaf), Neema Foundation, SociGO, and the Wits Centre for Deaf Studies.

The event held on October 31, 2023, at Melrose Arch in Johannesburg kicked off with the signing of the national anthem by the Ekurhuleni and proceedings directed by Aviwe Jemane and SociGo’s Ayesha Ramjugernath.

In a keynote read on her behalf, the Gauteng Premier’s representative, Ms. Ntombi Shangase-Zulu, noted that SASL was integral to South Africa’s heritage with its distinct grammar and lexicon.

“By enacting it constitutionally, we advance dignity, equality, and inclusion. We celebrate milestones by having tireless deaf advocacy groups establish critical institutions and resources. But more work remains to implement sign language fully through policies, training, and awareness. We need collaboration, listening to the voices of the diverse deaf community. Their resilience and courage brought us here. I congratulate them and hope this marks a new era of justice. Together, we can build a South Africa where the vibrancy of sign language is valued as the heartbeat of our democracy,” read her statement.

“I hope that the departments (Gauteng Premier’s office, Department of Education, and the Department of Social Development) will see through the implementation of the SASL Bill that was signed into law by the President on July 19, 2023,” said Dr. Lucas Magongwa, respected Deaf educator and leader who holds a PhD in Deaf Studies and is also a lecturer in the Wits Centre for Deaf Studies.

“Resources must be available for successful implementation; access to information and public services must be available in SASL; no excuses; not only when the President is speaking should there be an interpreter next to him on TV; SASL must be included as a language option in public schools,” he remarked.

Besides the messages from the various partners, the event also showcased talents from Deaf youth in poem and song form, plus presentations that paid homage to activists who did not see the light of the adoption of the SASL Bill.

“Since 1987, I have tirelessly advocated for South African Sign Language (SASL) recognition and Deaf education through diverse organizations. My proudest moment was marching to the Department of Basic Education in Johannesburg in 1995, fervently signing SASL slogans demanding our right to equal education,” said Nazereen Captieux-Bhana, the CEO of eDeaf.

“With extensive community experience, in 1997 I started working in Deaf TV programming, going on to hold leadership roles with groups like DeafSA. This equipped me with the skills to later establish eDeaf with Jesse Kotze with the aim of empowering Deaf youth.

Thanks to selfless mentors like Kobus Kellerman and Nico Beaurain, I learned effective advocacy for SASL as a school subject and Deaf rights. Now that SASL is an official language, we must ensure full accessibility,” added Captieux-Bhana.

Captieux-Bhana noted that, through collaborating with partners, everyone could achieve inclusion in schools, workplaces, and public services. She added her favorite quote, “Look through Deaf eyes,” and concluded that there was a need to work together through understanding and open communication to realize the full humanity and participation of the Deaf community in South Africa.

Also representing eDeaf, Marketing Manager Nicky Bezuidenhout said,” Sign language, to many people, is a small, unnoticed part of our culture, much like a hidden gem on your finger.  But to the bearer of the language, it has immense significance and worth.”

“We are now committed to one another and there is a long road ahead!  We have amazing service providers, Deaf mentor’s, artists, educational centres of expertise, corporates who see the value of what we do, all coming together to support and underpin the common cause of Deaf persons being fully integrated into society and empowering the hearing community to learn and benefit from what the Deaf community has to offer,” she added.

“Social inclusion in the SASL community should be a reality now. This event reminded us that everything has a beginning and an end. At the end, we got what we wanted,” capped Dr. Magongwa


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