Joburg courts face foreign languages problems

PRESSURE: Top interpreter Mangope Motaung
PRESSURE: Top interpreter Mangope Motaung

EACH day the the Johannesburg district courts deal with at least 235 cases that need foreign interpreters.

The country does not have enough foreign language interpreters to deal with all the cases, leading to delays.

The Johannesburg courts handle about 819 foreign language cases a day.

A pilot project was initiated in July last year to deal with the shortage of foreign interpreters. For the project, the court has appointed Mangope Motaung, the principal court interpreter at the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court, to manage all the foreign interpreters and their schedules.

Motaung says: "When the department implemented this system, it was for an element of control. Before, interpreters would arrange their own court dates, but not pitch on the day of the hearings."

It has been discovered that courts struggle with languages such as Italian, Bangali, Chinese, Cantonese and Tai . With African languages, the challenge arises mostly in the minority dialects exclusive to certain villages.

"In cases where a village language is used, we use pidgin English, which is equivalent to the mine talk, fanakalo," says Motaung.

"My duty is to supply all courts with efficient interpreters, but we struggle to meet the demand."

He says interpreters are required to attend more than three cases a day, depending on the number of languages they know.

A junior interpreter is required to have at least a high school qualification from his or her home country, while a senior interpreter needs experience and a driver's licence. Before they are employed, they undergo a language test conducted by the University of the Witwatersrand. If they pass the test, they attend a crash course in which they are taught the Constitution and the law.

The average salary for a senior interpreter is more than R100000 a year.

Peter Phiri, 44, from Zimbabwe, has been an interpreter since 1991 and is fluent in Shona, Ndebele, Nyenja, Chichewa, Bemba, isiZulu and English. He began his career in his home country and moved to South Africa in 2009 to work at the magistrate's court last year.

Phiri earns just over R10000 a month under a one-year contract. He says: "The money is adequate for all my necessities and to send back home.

"I wish the department would give us longer contracts, if not permanent positions."

Due to the pressure, Phiri takes very little leave a year.