Wits makes learning sign language accessible to all  

Eager students attend a masterclass to begin learning and using South African sign language.  

The South African Medical Student Association (SAMSA) has rolled up its sleeves to ensure that the Wits community is able to use the 12th official language of the country.

Samsa hosted its first sign language masterclass for 2024 in collaboration with the Wits Disability Rights Unit on Thursday, April 11, at the Wits Medical School.  The classes were initially introduced last September during Deaf Awareness month. 

Students participating in the sign language class. Photo: Salim Nkosi

The classes are conducted by Khetha Mbatha, a professional sign language practitioner, who interprets classes for deaf registered students at Wits from different faculties.  

During the class, Mbatha unpacked how the deaf community forms their language and the basics of sign language, like signing introductions and emotional expressions.  

She also went over some cultural norms of the deaf community, and highlighted the rules one should adhere to when communicating with a deaf person. For example, one should always maintain eye contact and avoid being distracted.   

Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela Mbatha expressed her desire to see more people signing up for the classes. She said this will create an inclusive and accessible environment for the deaf community; so that they do not feel marginalized amongst the larger hearing community.

“If we can have teachers in deaf schools signing fluently, then that means the education of our deaf children will be improved” said Mbatha.  

Marianne Ham, Samsa’s event coordinator said, “as a society, we are trying to bring people together who are interested in different things and create awareness”.  

Samsa intends to host three more sign language introductory classes during the year at Wits Medical School in order to continue creating opportunities to expand one’s knowledge and embrace diversity. 

Sign Language is here to stay at Wits

SOUTH AFRICAN SIGN LANGUAGE ALPHABET: Wits is proposing sign language as an official language on campus. Photo: Provided

SOUTH AFRICAN SIGN LANGUAGE ALPHABET: Wits is proposing sign language as an official language on campus. Photo: Provided


 South African Sign Language (SASL) is being tabled as a mainstream language in the much debated about Wits language policy. Postgraduate courses in SASL at the university are now available for Deaf students.

 In 2014, Wits became the first South African university to introduce the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) mechanism for Deaf students. The RPL mechanism allows Deaf students who have a matric to register as occasional students for SASL third year courses.

Deaf students who register through RPL start their undergraduate studies at third year level; majoring in linguistics, poetry and literature and socio linguistics in SASL. If a student’s average is 65% or more they have the option of doing postgraduate studies in their own language.

“If more hearing people are able to sign, Deaf people would not be so marginalised”

Simphiwe Mkhize and Atiyah Asmal are two such students who registered with the SASL Department in the School of Literature, Language and Media (SLLM). They are now doing their Honours degrees respectively while working full time jobs.

Very few Deaf students register at Wits annually, “We would love to have a larger number of Deaf students here, but society often creates the barrier that marginalises Deaf people,” says South African Sign Language lecturer Naomi Janse Van Vuuren. “If more hearing people are able to sign, Deaf people would not be so marginalised” Van Vuuren said.

Wits and the University of the Free State were the first to introduce SASL in academia. In 2013, the SASL Department at Wits introduced an Honours programme with five students. Then in 2014 Masters by dissertation was introduced with four students, one of which is Deaf.

Rhodes University currently has a SASL division within their linguistics department, while North West University recently entered into a licence agreement with Wits to use the curricula and materials developed by the SASL Department. This is for purposes of phasing in SASL as part of their undergraduate curriculum.

Since 2003, SASL has been a mandatory subject for Speech and Pathology students, but this has not been ratified into the larger Wits community.

Currently nine graduates from the SASL Department at are staff members at St. Vincent School for Deaf learners in Rosebank, Eight are teachers and one is a psychologist. The national interpreter at the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) is also a Wits graduate who majored in SASL.  Furthermore, three Wits graduates are currently doing a (Post Graduate Certificate in Education)  PGCE which would enable them to teach SASL as a school subject.  This year South African Sign Language is being implemented as a school subject, meaning that Deaf children are able to have their own language as a school subject, instead of English and / or Afrikaans.

The first language of Deaf South Africans is South African Sign Language, which may have different varieties (‘dialects’) depending on where they went to school.  These varieties in SASL are mutually intelligible, which means that Deaf people can understand each other’s varieties of SASL.

Exclusion, inadequate schools and untrained educators are some of the issues plaguing Deaf students in South Africa.

According to a DeafSA memorandum handed over to provincial and national education departments in 2003, “Deaf learners can only have equal access, equal opportunities and equal rights within an inclusive educational system if their SASL needs are addressed.  This means (a) being taught through medium of SASL by (b) teachers who are fluent or at least competent in SASL, (c) being able to take SASL as one of their languages of choice and (d) have more Deaf teachers who are natural Sign Language users”.

Pura Mgolombane of the Wits transformation and employment equity office says, “iIn the spirit of multilingualism, we are encouraging both hearing and Deaf students and staff to engage in all forms of communication.” Mgolobane says code switching in class will make the learning process smoother for all.

Hearing loss usually results in difficulties learning a spoken language, following verbal instructions, making friends in the neighborhood, behavioral problems due to frustration, accidents because warning signs were not heard according to the UN Pocket Guide to Disability Equity for Leaders of Persons with Disabilities.

In 1994 the Central Statistics Service estimated that a number of 1 609 386 South Africans use SASL.  However, the national Census 2011 reported that approximately only 234 000 South Africans use SASL.  It would be interesting to find out how so many signing Deaf people ‘disappeared’ between 1994 and 2011.   “The majority of Deaf children have hearing parents.” said Van Vuuren. Only a small number of Deaf kids have Deaf parents.

Mgolobane says, “the reference group that has been involved in the drafting of the Wits language policy, have sent a proposal to management to reserve funds out of the R90 million donation to produce opportunities that will create the space and resources for more progress with regards to implementation of the newly proposed, vibrant Wits language policy”.

The talksign campaign is one nationwide movement that promotes the use of SASL and supports it becoming the 12th official language of our country.

South African Deputy Minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson said in 1974:  “I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to. An African might find that ‘the big boss’ only spoke Afrikaans or only spoke English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.”  In the context of this particular quotation, the question remains whether Wits will follow mainstream practices (i.e. ‘Deaf people must accommodate hearing people by trying to speak) or whether our university will support linguistic diversity by enabling hearing students and staff to communicate with Deaf students and staff in SASL.

Hearing the deaf

MEANT TO BE: Witsie, Chelsea van der Merwe fell in love with sign language after she attending the first class three years ago. Photo: Provided

MEANT TO BE: Witsie, Chelsea van der Merwe fell in love with South African sign language after attending her first class three years ago. Photo: Provided

Witsie, Chelsea van der Merwe, is the go-to-girl when it comes to making sure the deaf get heard.

Van der Merwe, a third year drama and South African sign language student (SASL), said Wits is one of the only institutions to offers a degree in sign language in the country. This year Wits also introduced an honours course in SASL, which is a first for the country.

Van der Merwe said she fell in love with sign language from the first class she attended.

“I went home after class that day and told my mom: ‘I want to sign, this is what I am meant to do.”

Van der Merwe managed to find a way to combine her passion for drama with her love for sign language by interpreting for and acting in many deaf films in Johannesburg.

“When they do a deaf production, they don’t even do auditions anymore. They call me straight away.”

Telling their stories

Van der Merwe administers theatre workshops for deaf people who use the platform to tell their stories and share the hardships of what life is like being deaf.

She said there was a deaf girl who told the story of being raped by acting it out on stage. Because the girl is deaf she couldn’t communicate to the police or to her family what had happened. She had also never been told about rape and did not know that she was not meant to bath before being tested for rape.[pullquote align=”right”]“Most people don’t know that sign language is actually not universal.” [/pullquote]

Another deaf man got tested for HIV and found out he was positive. He was not given a pre-test or post-test counselling or informed about the virus and how it can be managed with anti-retrovirals, because the counsellor could not communicate with him.

These educational productions create awareness about the deaf community in South Africa and expose the lack of support for them.

“Most people don’t know that sign language is actually not universal,” she said.

Creating awareness 

Van der Merwe was born in South Africa but has lived all over the world and was educated in Dubai.

Having dyslexia, she was sent to a special needs school for pupils with learning disabilities. In Dubai, special needs teachers are highly qualified and know how to teach these children, said Van Der Merwe.[pullquote]There are over 800 000 people in South Africa who are hearing impaired.[/pullquote]

“Moving back to Johannesburg was really hard for me because there is no place for dyslexic people in South Africa.”

Van der Merwe said in South Africa dyslexia is not seen as a disability and there are no “special concessions” for people with learning issues. Because of this she felt a connection with deaf people as another minority group which is compromised in society and marginalised.

“I just wanted to help people overcome the barrier.”

Empowering the deaf

There are over 800 000 people in South Africa who are hearing impaired. For them, getting an education is very difficult as they cannot meet the requirements to get accepted into university.

South African universities require applicants to have been educated in two official languages, but do not recognise sign language in this regard.

Van der Merwe has plans to start a company that will introduce sign language and deaf awareness to the corporate world. This would mean that banks, courts, offices hospitals and other institution will all eventually have a communication policy that includes the deaf.

Van der Merwe also teaches deaf children at St Vincent School for The Deaf in Melrose every Friday.


Deafinitely worth watching

SUBTITLES and sign language are normal parts of life, from going to lectures and watching movies, if you are deaf.


This week the Centre for Deaf Studies ran a series of films highlighting deaf education and deaf awareness. The screenings, which form part of a course for students who are studying deaf education, were open to the public.


“The centre [at Wits] was started 12 years ago by those with a heart for the deaf,” said Guy Mcilroy, deaf education lecturer.


“It is the only centre for deaf education in South Africa. We are showing [the films to the students] before they begin their teaching practicals which will motivate them as teachers.”


The centre, directed by Dr. Claudine Storbeck, is completely self-funded and has two branches: Education and High Hopes. The second part is a programme created to assist and support families with deaf children up to three years old. Centre staff visit families to teach them about communicating with a deaf child.


Wits sign language interpreter Augustine Letlale, who was at the screening, says it is important to tell the public about the lives of the deaf.


“[We need to] create awareness on issues of the deaf, the experiences of deaf children and how most of them grow up in hearing families. People need to see their experiences in mainstream communities as well.”


Letlale says the deaf in South Africa “are still marginalised, although there is progress”.


“Our government does seem to be doing something in terms of bringing issues of deafness into mainstream [society] such as bringing interpreters to government events and public broadcasting like the news.”


On Tuesday the film screened was Mr Holland’s Opus – a story about a music teacher who has a deaf son. Mcilroy says this film was used to teach the students and the public about reversed perspectives, looking at what the deaf son wanted in comparison to what the dad, who could hear, wanted.


Other movies shown during the week on Education Campus included Beyond Silence, Hear and Now, Sweet Nothing in my Ear and Children of a Lesser God.