Blog 1 September 2016 Solidarity in Sign Language SASL 12th official Language, VIVA!
There are times when theorising and discussing are not taking the issue forward and advocacy is needed. This is where the protest march arranged by DeafSA on 1 September by all the DeafSA branches to all the respective government offices to hand over a memorandum on SASL has its place.
Initially, when I heard about this protest action on Facebook, mentally I supported it, and scrolled down, but I did not plan on being there. In my mind, there are too many protests in South Africa, to the extent that we have a ‘protest culture’ and seeing the coverage of the #FEES MUST FALL campaign last year made me both wary and not interested in this rough and tumble way of politics. Even though there was a genuine grievance, it was the way that protests rapidly become chaotic and violence and missed their original point, leaving everyone disgruntled. No, I had decided that this is not for me.
However, being both organised by DeafSA, and knowing the people there, this would not be a public disgrace of Deaf, rather, a peaceful and legitimate protest. And I wanted to be there under such conditions. And as a deaf person, this campaign is close to my heart: SASL needs to be recognised as a 12 th official language. Under the present government that has not happened, and probably still won’t happen. But I believe that the government needs to see us, so when we are visible as a diverse community in support of SASL then they will see. So my mind changed to going on the march.
It seems, to me, inconceivable that South Africa has the SASL CAPS but SASL is not an official language. Keeping SASL a LOLT is a stop-gap measure to keep the rabble of hands quiet. So unless we as SASL community raise our voices about the value and necessity of SASL for Deaf people as a linguistic-cultural minority in South Africa, nothing more will come of it. At the same time, by protesting for SASL we are, I believe, making the cause for SASL CAPS curriculum stronger by making the language more visible, not only in deaf circles, but among hearing communities. This is not only the call to give recognition to a language for the Deaf, but there are many more users and potential users of SASL than currently. SASL, like other signed languages across the world, is a growing language, a trend. So we need to seize this moment and ride the wave. It is worrying for decision-makers to think that sign language may be a vastly bigger movement than they anticipated since they are most likely still operating from a deficit thinking mindset: SASL is for deaf only, with the attendant “Ag shame”, mentality. So as SASL supporters, we have a responsibility to break through the ignorance of this thinking and replace it with not only the human-rights discourse of protest politics, but also go beyond that into the multilingual space in which deaf bilingualism now has the opportunity of moving into and occupying. There are many ways of being deaf, and SASL brings use together.
I joined the protesters at the parking lot outside the Pretoria Art Museum, the designated starting point. When I arrived, there were only a few cars and taxis and a handful of deaf people in black t-shirts. The black t-shirts (with DeafSA logo and hands) were the give- away. But this was a far smaller turnout than I expected. Right up to the time to start, the protest gathered momentum but increased to a small crowd of about 200. I wondered if this was going to be worth it. But I was also mindful of the quote:
“Never to doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people/citizens [school leaders and teachers] can change the world.” Margaret Mead.
And we began our march into history, behind the police escort, of course. It was an almost silent march, only the people at the front with the banner and the leaders were making protest noises. But for Deaf protesters, there was much signing and jovial dancing to the beat of protest. I felt a real amateur, it was definitely out of my comfort zone to be marching. I do not see myself as a protester, or a Deaf rights advocate. On the other hand, there was a sense of satisfaction from participating, making up the numbers as ‘all deaf hands matter’, to paraphrase the American protest movement of’ Black Lives Matter’. Inside, I felt quite rebellious, in taking on an action of protest in a different form to usual. At the same time, there was a sense of unease in the crowd that things could turn ugly for some reason, which dictated the tight security of the police and DeafSA protest officials to keep us on track and within bounds of a civil protest. For this reason, the march could not proceed any closer to the Union building than the top gate. This is where we could dance, and sign and sign, and make a visible noise. The memorandum was handed over after short political speeches in SASL. A word of ‘thank you’ to the interpreters for being there as our language bridge. I was pleased to see that this all went smoothly and nothing ugly happened. The crowd behaved with dignity and with cooperation. This was not a march of an angry mob of barely controlled protesters. To me, this is the way it should be done, but there is the other view that government only takes notice when people are protesting so violently that something has to be done. That is not our intention. At the same time, we are not protesting for the basic services, but we are protesting for government to raise the quality of education of deaf learners through SASL: our children, our, learners, our teachers, our children’s children and the next generation of deaf learners need SASL to build a better future. Deaf lives matter, too.
Coming back to Sign Language, it was fascinating to watch the signing, meet old friends, acquaintances, and students, and make new friends, and acquaintances. What really stood out for me was the diversity of deaf people, a lot of people I have never seen or meet before. So this rally of Sign Language strength showed me, and hopefully others, that Sign Language does create solidarity. I felt proud of SASL, it is my language, it is our language. And Sign Language is open to everyone.