PanSALB’s publication Linguistic Human Rights Business Day newspaper 20 March 2024

Linguistic Rights are Human Rights


South Africa observes the month of March as Human Rights Month, and this year’s commemoration is being held under the theme ‘Three Decades of Respect for and Promotion of Human Rights’. The country’s Constitution guarantees its citizens several rights, including the right to use their preferred language. Unfortunately, this right is often ignored, despite its importance in shaping political and socio-economic power. Language has historically been used as a tool of oppression, particularly during the colonial and apartheid era. Even now, debates about language rights cannot be held without considering its political and socio-economic significance. These rights must be promoted and fiercely guarded to ensure that all languages are given equal respect and recognition.


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1993 (Act No. 200 of 1993) provides for the recognition of the principle of multilingualism. An improvement in the quality of life of all citizens and free potential of each person is prescribed in its Preamble. Recognising the previous marginalisation of indigenous languages and their speakers, it stipulates that the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate not just the status of these languages but advance their use for government purposes. Thus, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) was established in 1995 as a constitutional body of the Republic of South Africa to create conditions for the development and promotion of all official languages. The institution was established to ensure adequate protection, respect, and furtherance of those official languages which in the past did not enjoy full recognition and to promote the full and equal enjoyment of all official South African languages.


South Africa is unique in having 12 official languages recognised by its Constitution. Despite this recognition, both public and private sectors often conform to non-progressive language policies that perpetuate English hegemony. Until recently, indigenous languages were often relegated to cultural preservation and not utilised in higher register domains. However, the Department of Basic Education’s implementation of Mother Tongue-Based Based Bilingual Education (MTBBE) is a significant step in promoting indigenous languages. This initiative not only improves education but also contributes to safeguarding linguistic human rights by ensuring that every citizen has equal access to education in their preferred language. The next step must be the effective implementation of the Language Policy Framework for Institutions of Higher Learning by universities to create a multilingual environment and support the growth of indigenous languages as languages of teaching, learning, and assessment in academia. In so doing, universities will be leading the decolonisation project where other epistemes are mainstreamed as sources of alternative ways of thinking.


While significant progress has been made in the country, such as the officialisation of South African Sign Language, there is still much to do to ensure the protection of every South African’s linguistic rights. The PanSALB Act enables the institution to investigate, mediate, and make recommendations on any language-related matter in the country. PanSALB can resolve alleged violations of linguistic human rights through mediation, conciliation, or by referring disputes to appropriate forums, including the court. The legal framework provides for any person acting on his or her own behalf, or any person, institution, language group, or organ of state to lodge with the Board a complaint concerning any alleged violation or threatened violation of a language right, language policy, or language practice.


The institution is responsible for addressing linguistic human rights violations and has successfully resolved several linguistic human rights violation cases. One of the most recent cases involved individuals who were compelled to participate in assessment interviews in a language that was not their preferred language, which was resolved amicably. The organisation is currently investigating a case brought by Deaf students who were being taught by teachers unfamiliar with South African Sign Language. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common issue in Deaf schools, and it detrimentally impacts the academic progress of Deaf students. After an integrated approach and intervention from PanSALB, one Deaf school showed significant improvement, increasing their matric pass rate from 0% in 2022 to 66% in 2023. Therefore, the significance of safeguarding language rights and promoting inclusive language policies and practices that are in line with the multilingual provisions enshrined in the Constitution cannot be understated. The far-reaching implications of violating language rights underscore the need to protect the language rights of all South African citizens.


To further promote and protect linguistic human rights, PanSALB has planned various activities to be undertaken throughout Human Rights Month. These activities are aimed at raising awareness about the importance of linguistic diversity and the need to protect linguistic rights.




  • Any person acting on his or her own behalf or any person acting on behalf of another.
  • Juristic persons or any institution acting on behalf of its
  • Members of a language
  • Any organ of



  • By sending a completed complaint form by email to
  • By completing a complaint form on the PanSALB website (
  • By walking in at any of PanSALB’s offices and requesting assistance with completing a complaint form.



  • At any of the PanSALB provincial offices throughout the
  • At PanSALB Head Office in






Related Posts