Last week at Rhodes University celebrated disability, in all its manifestations. On Thursday the 14th of May, Mfundo Lebaka stood at the front of the Arts Major lecture theater just as any guest speaker would. Instead of a thunderous round of applause following Ron Msimango’s introduction, rows and rows of students lifted both of their hands and shook them in the air. I learned that this is how you applaud for the deaf, where respect, just like any message, is shown through body language.
In the corner stood a woman introduced as Asanda, who interpreted Lebaka’s sign language for the audience. “Unfortunately my voice is female,” he begins with a joke, and launches straight into his story which begins in the Eastern Cape and takes him across South Africa. Mfundo has spent a long time in search of what many people with hearing have access to everywhere: an educationThe first school that Lebaka went to in King Williamstown only offered education up to standard 5 (grade 7), after which his journey in search of a matric certificate took him to Johannesburg and then finally Durban. Due to a difficulty in translation, Lebaka was only able to matriculate when he was 21 years old. He then applied to study education at the University of Witwatersrand, but never received a response. It was then that Lebaka applied for a tutoring job which allowed him to tutor deaf students for three years in 2000.
In 2008, he moved back to the Eastern Cape and got involved in a teaching programme for deaf people, which he remains involved with to this day. In 2014 he received a national award for his work and was finally given the validation he had been in search for. He now teaches numeracy and life skills to deaf adults, and visits schools to train tutors how to teach in sign language.
Lebaka still does not have a teaching degree, but is studying via Unisa. He says that not having access to a full-time interpreter means that he has to work twice as hard to stay ahead of his work because of the struggle he faces accessing explanations of work he does not grasp.
The struggles deaf people face on a daily basis are as simple as being unable to walk into a bank or Pick n Pay and make yourself understood to the teller, he explains. The common theme of all the questions asked at the end of the lecture revolve around the problematizing of deafness in society. Lebaka makes the importance of being in the deaf community well-known, describing a kind of “deaf society” which has its own distinct culture, but when education comes into play, this community simply is not enough.
“A deaf university is just a dream for deaf South Africans,” Asanda explains, where education is not truly accessible in the way that it is for those who can hear. Msimango wrapped up the lecture by emphasising that the main point ends with a question of language.
Should sign language be taught to everyone? Would that create access? Are universities doing enough for deaf South Africans?