Article by: Bongekile Macupe , Mail & Guardian

It was nine years ago that a deaf teenager from Durban took the national and provincial health departments to court, asking for an order that would allow him to take South African Sign Language (SASL) as a matric subject.

Kyle Springate, a pupil at Westville Boys’ High School, had to abandon part of his case: it would have been legally impossible for the department to comply as he was due to write his final exams in two months’ time.

But the second part of Springate’s application, which he persisted with, was for the court to force the department to declare SASL an official school subject.

Even though Springate did not write SASL as a matric subject all those years ago, this year, for the first time, deaf matric pupils will be able to write SASL as a subject. This was announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his maiden State of the Nation address last Friday.

SASL was introduced as a subject for deaf pupils in 2015, also as a result of the court case, the national director of DeafSA, Bruno Druchen, said this week.

The organisation supported Springate in the court case, brought by the Legal Resources Centre on his behalf in the Pietermaritzburg high court.

Druchen said Ramaphosa’s announcement was a huge triumph for deaf schoolchildren and showed that the government was taking SASL seriously.

You, and every other hearing person, have Afrikaans, English or any other language as their first language and now deaf children will have SASL, their mother tongue, as their first language,” he said.

So this will mean that, for the first time, by understanding the linguistic features in their language, they will understand the rules of the language and use it fluently. It does not [necessarily] mean that if you use sign language you understand the structure of the language,” said Druchen.

A huge triumph for deaf schoolchildren

Druchen, who is deaf, spoke to the Mail & Guardian through an SASL interpreter.

Druchen said that deaf pupils have often found it difficult to obtain matric passes that would enable them to study towards a bachelor’s degree.

He said the biggest challenge, especially in matric, had been that deaf students only wrote one language. The ability to write SASL as a first language and chose another language as a second language would give them a better chance to obtain a pass that would enable them to register for a bachelor’s degree.

To obtain such a pass, matric pupils must pass their home language with at least 40%, pass four high-credit subjects (such as a language, accounting, dramatic arts or maths) with at least 50% and pass two other subjects with at least 30%.

Because Springate was unable to write SASL as a subject in his matric year, he ended up taking dramatic arts to obtain a bachelor’s pass.

Nyeleti Nokwazi Nkwinika knows all too well the struggles of being a deaf pupil.

The University of the Witwatersrand student, who was the first deaf student to graduate with a master’s degree in SASL in 2016, said she was pleased that sign language had been given the “right status” as a mother tongue.

When Nkwinika matriculated…

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