Language rights in local governance, South Africa

This teaching case illustrates the importance of communities to engage the municipality in their own language and the tension and potential exclusion that arises when community members are forced to engage in a mainstream language.

On the one hand, the municipal administration, working with limited resources, wants to limit the number of languages used, and focus on efficient communication. On the other hand, those communities that do not find the mainstream language accessible are unlikely to be heard in the process, muting their voices and concerns.

The right to language and culture is recognised in many societies, as is the right to open and transparent communication on matters that affect communities. Yet, language and cultural differences can become a communication and political barrier within municipalities and between communities. In a growing number of municipalities, it has become a cause for conflict and unrest.

This case study exposes practitioners to the notion that language barriers may be subtle, but they can have immense consequences for the social, economic and political rights of communities to engage in democratic processes. It will also encourage local practitioners and politicians to explore creative ways in which to ensure fruitful and productive engagement with more inclusive language policies, strategies to listen and hear communities and potentially neutralise tensions between communities and municipalities.