The constitutional problems to protect the principle of linguistic equality in Cameroon

Author: Frank Maxime Yankam Lemdjo
Researcher, Peace and Security Department, African Union.

Cameroon will soon elect its next President. Whilst preparation of this important event is underway, the country is facing one of its greatest social crisis known as the Anglophone crisis. This reflection aims to point out the fact that the Constitution adopted on 18 January 1996[1] and revised by law 2008/001 of 14 April  2008[2]cemented a constitutional system that has failed to achieve one of the principles that the same Constitution guarantees: the principle of equality between Francophone and Anglophone. Article 1(3) of the Constitution states that ‘the official languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French, both languages having the same status’. The Constitution sets out the principle of linguistic equality in Cameroon, without further explanation on how this principle would be guaranteed. The same article further states that ‘the State shall guarantee bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to promote and protect national languages’. In the meantime, the preamble of the Constitution states that: ‘the State shall ensure the rights of minorities […] in accordance with the law’. But the Constitution does not provide a definition for the term ‘minorities’.

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Misinterpreting justice in Venda

Abiy Alemu AshenafiAuthor: Abiy Alemu Ashenafi
Student (LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa), Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

As the High Court in Johannesburg grapples with the question of whether some schools in Gauteng must teach in two languages, in Venda it is the courts themselves which have a language problem.

Too often, individuals who appear before the courts in Venda are denied full access to justice because of the language they speak – or don’t speak. Cities like Thohoyandou and others across Venda attract people from across this diverse country, and not all are fluent in Tsivenda or Xitsonga. While the police in Venda are most often able to articulate the rights of the arrested person in that person’s vernacular, the next step of the judicial process – the courts – might as well be in Greek.

In actuality, the courts in Venda and throughout South Africa use English (and sometimes Afrikaans). All other languages must be translated, and the interpreters employed by the courts must not only translate the words, but also the ideas and concepts behind them, serving as something of a ‘culture broker’.

Needless to say, the meanings of words and phrases are fluid between languages – sometimes within languages. What if the true meaning of words or legal concepts is lost in translation?

It can happen. In Venda, qualified interpreters are often unavailable, meaning the court sometimes utilises interpreters who are not professionals, and who are not made to take an oath. Researchers have recently identified several cases where inadequate translations between English and other South African languages have proved to be an impediment to – if not a miscarriage of – justice. Would you want your loved one’s life or liberty to be at the mercy of a bad translation?

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