Language Rights in Zimbabwe

Dr Innocent Maja

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Senior Lecturer, Department of Private Law, University of Zimbabwe

This paper examines and defends the use of a human rights framework for the protection of minority languages and linguistic minorities in section 6 of the Zimbabwean Constitution as an effective means to eliminate discrimination of linguistic minorities, protect minority languages, preserve linguistic minority identity and foster substantive equality between linguistic majorities and linguistic minorities. It analyses the meaning of three crucial concepts that help protect language rights in section 6 of the Zimbabwean Constitution namely a) official language status, b) use of official languages and c) promotion of use and development of all languages in Zimbabwe. The argument that runs throughout the paper is that in order to effectively integrate linguistic minorities while allowing them to preserve their linguistic identity, the human rights framework should have two pillars with two clusters of rights. The first pillar consists of individual human rights of special relevance to linguistic minorities that ensure that linguistic minorities are placed on a substantially equal footing with other nationals of the state. Key rights are the rights to equality and non-discrimination on the basis of language. Other individual rights include freedom of expression, right to culture, right to participation, right to a name, right to family, right to fair trial and right to education. The second pillar consists of minority-specific standards (rights and measures) designed to protect and promote the separate identity of minority language groups. These include prevention of assimilation, the right to identity and the right to use a minority language in the public and private spheres. Because Zimbabwe has not yet developed language rights jurisprudence, the paper uses international and South African jurisprudence in its analysis. The analysis also takes into account constitutional values in order to preserve the Constitution’s normative unity or value coherence. The constitutional values include the principles of accommodation of diversity, multilingualism, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality of all human beings, peace, justice, tolerance, fairness and the rule of law. It further suggests practical ways in which Zimbabwe could practically implement the language rights norms in section 6 of the Constitution.

Short Bio


Dr Innocent Maja holds a Bachelor of Laws Honors Degree from the University of Zimbabwe, a Master of Laws in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa and a Doctor of Laws Degree specialising in International Human Rights from the University of Pretoria. He has published ‘The Law of Contract in Zimbabwe,’ a leading text being used as authority by judges in judgments, lawyers, academics and students. He has also published texts on the right to freedom of expression as well as numerous articles on minority rights, minority language rights, death penalty, international terrorism, freedom of expression, etc. Innocent is a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

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