AfriForum and DA see red over Western Cape cops’ decision to record complainants’ statements in English only

13 March 2023 - 20:37
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AfriForum and the DA have vowed to challenge Western Cape police commissioner Lt-Gen Thembisile Patekile's order the police in the province should record complainants' statements in English only.
AfriForum and the DA have vowed to challenge Western Cape police commissioner Lt-Gen Thembisile Patekile's order the police in the province should record complainants' statements in English only.
Image: Esa Alexander

AfriForum and the DA have condemned the decision by the Western Cape police to record complainants’ statements in English only.

In a statement on Monday, Alana Bailey, the head of cultural affairs at AfriForum, said provincial commissioner Lt-Gen Thembisile Patekile, had issued an instruction that all “future A-1 statements and official documentation of the SAPS in this province have to be in English only”.

An A-1 statement is a statement made by a complainant when opening a case.

Bailey said the order had “become known in the media over the weekend” and described the decision as a move towards “monolingualism” in the police service.

“In the past, a similar instruction had been given in Limpopo and AfriForum lodged complaints against it with, among others, the South African Human Rights Commission. The order was subsequently reversed,” Bailey said.

“Apparently there had also been legal action in the Northern Cape against an instruction of this nature. Sadly, the events repeat themselves and by the time a decision has been overturned, a great deal of injustice may already have taken place as a result of victims’ and police officials’ inability to use English fluently.”

Bailey said the majority of Western Cape residents and police members “are not mother-language speakers of English”.

“Language mistakes made in a statement can result in victims losing a court case because their version in court differs from that in the original statement,” Bailey said.

“Precisely because South Africa is a multilingual country, the Use of Official Languages Act (Act 12 of 2012) provides for the use of at least three languages at the national level and respectively the three most used languages per province. This legislation is ignored by the commissioner with his instruction that the police’s ‘official language’ (singular) must be used.”

Bailey added: “This reversal to English monolingualism makes it clear that the South African Police Service is not interested in serving the community it is supposed to attend to. The most defenceless people are affected by this decision, such as minors and less literate victims. It also contravenes the provisions of the official Service Charter for Victims of Crime.”

Baily said AfriForum would oppose the policy.  

DA MP Okkie Terblanche, the party’s deputy spokesperson on policing, also weighed in on the matter.

“The DA strongly condemns the disturbing news from the South African Police Service advising that they will only be taking A1 statements in English in various stations in the Western Cape,” said Terblanche.

“Given that South Africa has 12 official languages, this ludicrous decision makes it clear that the SAPS is not interested in serving the community it is supposed to serve.

“The constitution requires that the national or any provincial government must use at least two official languages, taking into account the usage, practicality, expense, preference of the population and balance of needs.”

Terblanche said, “SAPS, being a complement of the national government, is flagrantly disregarding the provisions of the constitution by refusing to recognise other official languages”.

“In a province where Afrikaans, English, Xhosa and many other languages are prominently used, it is a complete violation of victims’ rights when reporting crimes,” said Terblanche.

“Failure to allow victims to report crimes in their mother tongue will not only impair their dignity but will lead to victims not coming forward to report crimes. The DA has written to both the national police commissioner and the Western Cape provincial commissioner to confirm in writing that this practice will not be allowed to happen and that victims who come in to report crimes will be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

In a detailed response, provincial police spokesperson Col Andrè Traut said the use of official languages in SAPS is regulated by policy and directives of the courts.

“Kindly note that though police officials are not trained as interpreters or allotted interpreters, it is a requirement that all members who are appointed in the South African Police Service are conversant in English, which is the working language of the South African Police Service,” said Traut.  

“All documents submitted in both civil and criminal cases and which will form part of the eventual records of the courts must be in English. The only limited exception permitted by the courts will be the submission of witness statements in a language other than English and only if the witness is not sufficiently conversant in English.”

Traut said to address the policing needs of the diverse Western Cape communities, police had “issued an instruction to assist police officials at ground level as to how to practically deal with the requirements of the public who are conversant in, for example, only one language being Xhosa, Afrikaans, French and so on”.   

“All members of the South African Police Service are therefore required to complete case dockets and their statements in English for purposes of presenting it to court,” he said.

“A member who takes down a statement or conducts an interview with a victim of a crime must do so in the language that the victim chooses or understands. A victim must not be turned away based on the member’s inability to understand the victim; hence a duty is placed as per the directives of the SAP for a member to request assistance from an appropriate person who is able to interpret the language. In practice, this may be a parent, friend, another member of the public or another police official who may be able to assist to ensure the victim is assisted without delay.”

Traut said SAPS had directed that a statement made in one of the official languages must be taken down in that language, without distorting the meaning of the words. 

“The instruction to which your enquiry relates does not amend the aforementioned working procedure. It makes provision should a member who is taking down a statement not be conversant with the language of the person who is making the statement. Such police officials are required to secure the services of an individual who is able to assist as an interpreter or to translate the information provided,” he said.

“It regularly occurs that a foreign national, who is not conversant with any of the official languages of South Africa, wishes to lay a criminal complaint or may be a witness to a crime. In these instances, police officials are advised to liaise with the consulate or embassy of the foreign national to assist with interpreting or translating the information provided.”

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